Open Dialogue: A First Step


Communication is one of the distinguishing characteristics of human society.  With the advent of digital communications, we find ourselves in constant communication with those in our personal network – family and friends, colleagues, and interest groups.  With all this experience in communication, it would seem that we might be expert communicators, but often people communicate in ways that don’t accomplish their intention.  From living rooms to board rooms to the halls of congress, I have observed that effective communication that is aimed at the resolution of issues is rare.  Most of the voices I hear are more interested in expounding upon their own position with little or no interest expressed in the views of others.  While this tendency may be as old as the human race itself, I find this polarizing effect to be highly counterproductive.  If we here in the US hope to successfully live in our pluralistic society, we need to start spending more time listening and less time expostulating.

at George Washington's Mount Vernon

at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

So let me ask you this: When was the last time you sat down with someone and talked about things you don’t agree on with the intention of understanding the other person’s perspective?

The Bible has a lot to say about how we communicate, especially in the book of Proverbs but also throughout the New Testament.  It follows a theme that the business world understands well: if you want to have influence, you have to communicate in a way that the other side can hear and receive.  This is a lesson that I believe has been lost in everyday communication in general and in online and digital communications in particular.

In the well-known negotiation book Getting to Yes, the authors Roger Fisher, William L. Ury, and Bruce Patton talk about the difference between positions and interests.  Your position is what you state you want, for example universal health care.  Your interests are your underlying motivations, which for our example could be a concern for the health of the underprivileged.  When we begin to discuss our interests rather than our positions, real progress becomes possible.  You may find that both sides have similar interests and simply disagree on the method of satisfying those interests.  This is when it gets exciting, because at this point creative problem solving can kick in and “out of the box” solutions can be discussed.

Elizabeth Lesser is, in her own words, both a mystic and a warrior, one who has spent her life fighting for causes from women’s issues to the environment.  In her TED Talk “Take ‘the Other’ to Lunch,” she brings up some very relevant points.  First, she accepts that she doesn’t know everything, and she implies that dialogue between two sides becomes possible when both take that position.  Second, she observes that both ends of the political spectrum engage in demonizing the “other,” or those who disagree with them, which she indicates is the first step towards violent conflict and even genocide.  Third, she recommends that, in order to avoid such demonizing, people from opposite sides of an issue should sit down together for lunch in order to try to understand each other better.  Moreover, she has walked this out in her own life, and she tells about the experience in her TED talk.

In order to make such a meeting productive rather than destructive, she gives the ground rules she used at her lunch.

  1. Don’t persuade, defend, or interrupt
  2. Be curious, conversational, and real.
  3. Listen.

She also shares the conversation starting questions used:

  1. Share some of your life experiences.
  2. What issues deeply concern you?
  3. What have you always wanted to ask someone from the “other side”?

While a conversation over lunch will not bring two people of opposing views into agreement, it can help prevent the damaging tendency to paint those who disagree with you in a negative light, making further dialogue possible.  It can open the door to talking about interests rather than positions.  It can start a conversation that could lead to creative solutions.  My vision for this blog is to create a community that is interested in engaging in conversations of this sort.  As the Chinese proverb says, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step – let this be our first step.



One thought on “Open Dialogue: A First Step

  1. Great first post! Seems like we often care more about being right, getting our point across, or just winning the argument, than about understanding and having real communication.


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