Friday, March 25, 2005

The Communication Dilemma

With all of the seemingly controversial topics in the universe, it's a wonder we ever come to any kind of agreement or understanding. I even struggled with what to call this post as any term I might use for "communication" has a distinct meaning, put there either by etymology or by our past experiences.

In this post I'm going to share a bit about the distinctions between dialogue, conversation, discussion and debate - and attempt to determine whether one is more effective than another.

My interest in this topic came to me earlier this week while I was participating in a book "discussion" group (note the later definition of "discussion"). That's exactly what it ended up being, as I found myself in the throes of a situation that made me quite uncomfortable.

I'm finding, for myself, that it's much more interesting and enlightening to engage in "dialogue" (note later definition of "dialogue") where I can bring an idea or thought to the table with the express intent of learning something from someone else. The challenge to this notion is that I've recently found myself in one of two types of situations: 1) one where most everyone agrees (or appears to agree to avoid "conflict"), or 2) one where there are definite "sides" and there doesn't appear to be much learning intent present.

If the outcome of our communication comes down to intention, it's probably no wonder that we tend to avoid those "crucial conversations." We struggle with what we really want in so many areas of our lives - why should it be surprising that we would struggle with accepting ideas that are different from our own when in many cases we haven't really examined our own beliefs at a more than superficial level?

Many people appear to have adopted their beliefs, values, worldviews, political and religious affiliations through their upbringing - and often have seen very little need to go beyond what they "know" to be true through their original conditioning or programming or, what Miguel Ruiz calls "domestication."

What is the catalyst that causes humans to re-examine previously upheld beliefs? Does there come a point sometime, somewhere that old beliefs and worldviews just don't work anymore? Does every human being come to that point sometime in his/her life or are there some people who just go along without ever questioning?

I'm very interested in those turning points - those moments of truth - those trigger events - that cause people to rethink and reassess.

Is it these kinds of events that cause people to become more open-minded? Are people with rigid belief systems closed-minded? Is it ever possible to instigate a dialogue or conversation without bringing in our own personal biases? Is it possible to ever be truly open-minded?

I'm also very interested in the words we choose to use when we're talking about talking. Often we probably don't even know the real definitions of the words we use, and may be stuck in our own understanding of those words, which, if we're not open to learning, will retain in our own minds the meaning we've known through our understanding.

It seems to me that if people were truly open-minded, they would relish the opportunity to add to and learn from the pool of shared meaning created by a true dialogue (using Senge's, Bohm's, and Quinn's definition of dialogue - see for a good overview).

Senge quotes Bohm in identifying the three basic conditions necessary for dialogue:
1. All participants must "suspend" their assumptions, literally to hold them "as if suspended before us";
2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues;
3. There must be a 'facilitator' who 'holds the context' of dialogue. (Senge, p. 243)

So unless we are open to dialogue, using this definition, can we really ever achieve more than a cursory understanding of another point of view? Are we merely going through the motions when discussing situations of people like Terri Schiavo or Scott Peterson, or topics like politics or religion? Instead of polarizing our relationships, might there be an opportunity to add to the pool of shared meaning by suspending our own assumptions?

What is our intention as we come to a situation where information can be exchanged with another? Is what we are intending to engage in more like

discussion (Discussion has the same Greek root as percussion and concussion, discus, meaning to throw, fragment, shatter. David Bohm likened discussion to an activity where we throw our opinions back and forth in an attempt to convince each other of the rightness of a particular point of view. In this process, the whole view is often fragmented and shattered into many pieces.),

conversation (The Oxford English Dictionary (1993) gives the first recorded usage in 1346 as "to be united in heaven in conversation." Nearly all of the 12 definitions of the word emphasize the emotional, apprehensional, and communal aspect of conversation.),

dialogue (David Bohm traces the roots of Dialogue to the Greek "dia" and "logos" which means "through meaning." One might think of Dialogue as a stream of meaning flowing among and through a group of people, out of which may emerge some new understanding, something creative. Dialogue moves beyond any one individual's understanding, to make explicit the implicit and build collective meaning and community.),

debate (etymological meaning from the French debattre, originally meaning. "to fight," from de- "down, completely" + batre "to beat."),

or something completely different? Does it even matter?

There are many great articles online regarding dialogue, but one of my favorites is from The Dialogue Group.

What do you think? Is there hope in coming to some sort of shared experience through our communication? Can we suspend our own beliefs long enough to learn something from someone with whom we disagree?

Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but I sure hope so. If we mindfully engage in a dialogue, we might come right back to our original belief, but at least we can be more certain that that belief is true for us if we've tested it against something different.

Going back to my book discussion situation last week, it becomes apparent to me that perhaps we set ourselves up for an uncomfortable situation if we called our group a "discussion" group when some people were there to engage in "dialogue."

How important is intention? I see that the most effective way to add to the pool of shared meaning in communication is to make our intention one of total suspension of preconceived ideas. Otherwise everyone brings expectations which can cloud the opportunity for learning.
“This is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” -Doris Lessing


At 4:03 PM, Blogger Christopher Bailey said...

Jodee, I would recommend the book, The Magic of Dialogue by Daniel Yankelovich. He asks and explores many of the same questions you have.

One essential feature of dialogue that he mentions is "listening with empathy." It would go beyond examining our own assumptions and trying on the life experiences of the other person.

When it comes to talking about things that are close to us and contribute to our own identity (like religion and politics), it's so difficult to let go. By letting go, we'd have to closely examine who *we* are and that might just be terrifying. We homo sapiens tend to hate change when it happens to us, but absolutely get petrified when WE have to change.

All the while, I'm riding in the Optimists boat with you. We get the opportunity to model a better way.

At 7:53 AM, Blogger Jodee Bock said...


Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. There's no one I'd rather be in the Optimists boat with! Thanks for the recommendation, too. I'll check it out!

Love and light to you!


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