I suppose it has always been true, but it seems to be unusually the case at the moment, that we are plagued by conversations in which the participants are unable to hear one another. Words are thrown across the wall as weapons to defeat the opponent. No one is listening; dialogue is not happening.
Conversation should not be confused with argument or debate. Each has its place; but argument and debate are not conversation. The purpose of conversation is not to convince, but to connect. The goal of conversation is not to win. Conversation is a tool of community. It aims to reach across the divide that separates one person from another and to allow each to hear the other, so that human community may be deepened.
In order to be able to engage in conversation I must be willing to make certain commitments. I must be willing to:
1. Listen. This may seem ridiculously obvious. But a tremendous amount of what passes for conversation involves very little listening. I am not having a conversation when I spend the entire time you are talking scrounging around inside my own little brain searching for just the right weapon with which to demolish what you are saying. I am not having a conversation when I do all the talking. Conversation only begins when my ears are open at least as much as my mouth.
2. Be open. I need to be open with you, respecting you as a person no matter how different our opinions may be. Conversation only begins when I honour your right to your opinion and am willing to risk being honest about what I genuinely believe. Being open does not mean having no convictions, even deeply held convictions. But it does mean that I am willing to acknowledge that, even in my most passionately held convictions, I need to be open to new information and fresh insights.
3. Change. The word “conversation” comes from the Latin convertere meaning “to turn around” or “to transform.” Argument and debate may be possible when I meet you with all my presuppositions firmly entrenched. Conversation will not happen unless I approach you with the awareness that I may need to change. As long as I am unwilling to accept the possibility of going in a different direction than that which is familiar and comfortable, conversation will be impossible. I do not enter a conversation in order to change you. But it is not a conversation unless I am willing to accept that I may need to change.
4. Let go. Even just as a trial, I must consider that you may be right, or at least that your perspective may have something to contribute to my understanding. Rigidity always inhibits conversation. There is nothing I can know with such ironclad security that there is no possibility I might be wrong. While I can hold my beliefs with conviction, conviction must not need to be set in concrete. Absolute certainty is a dangerous creature. I must be open to the possibility my convictions may need correction. This requires a degree of maturity that is secure enough to try out new possibilities.
5. Enter your world. Conversation never happens when I stand apart from your life demanding that your experience conform to my experience. I will never meet you as you truly are, unless I put aside my predetermined notions and fixed views of the world. I need to be willing to acknowledge your life-experience. If we are going to have a conversation I must do all I can to empathize with the circumstances of your life that have brought you to the view of the world you hold. Until I attempt to see the world through your eyes, conversation will never happen.
6. Ask questions. If conversation is to take place, I must be cautious about assuming I have understood exactly what you are trying to say. Human communication is a tricky business. Half the time I probably don’t really understand myself what I am trying to say. The rest of the time I express myself poorly. If I want to enter into conversation with you, I must take responsibility to make sure that I have heard you accurately and that you have had the chance to express yourself clearly. We share responsibility to insure that the environment we create between us is fully conducive to free, open and responsive communication.
In order to be able to participate in creating the necessary environment for conversation I must possess one foundational quality. To be able to enter into true conversation, I must have a clear, stable sense of my own identity. The enemy of conversation is insecurity. When I am unsure of myself, I will always close down in the face of threatening or strange ideas. Insecurity lies at the root of my need to convince you that I am right and you are wrong. My need to win comes from my uncertainty about my identity.
Shouting is almost always a sign of insecurity. Belligerence and arrogance may masquerade as security, but are in fact a thin veil behind which lies uncertainty and fear. When I lack a stable sense of core within myself I will always resist change as a danger and feel the need to prove you wrong where we differ. Without a rooted sense of my true self, I will feel compelled to fight for the tiny shreds of security I have been able to establish by clinging to my rigid worldview and holding tenaciously to my opinions as the only possible realities. Insecurity lies at the root of most miscommunication.
When I rest in a strong sense of my true identity I will be able to risk truly entering your world and seeing life through your eyes. I will be able to open to the deep lessons conversation with you has the power to teach.