Reviving the Lost Art of Dialogue
One of the high points of my life was living in Italy for half a year. Simply being there was enough to create indelible memories, but what I remember the most about those glorious six months is the way the Italian people approached the ubiquitous act of talking with each other. They placed a high value on robust discussion, and every long dinner (meals start around 8 or 9 p.m. and seep into the wee hours) spanned multiple courses of delicious food and provocative topics. These were not conversations (typically defined as “an exchange of ideas”). They were dialogue, where topics were deeply mined to extract greater understanding and knowledge. It was also a way for all of us to connect on a level we’d never achieve through chit-chat.
Philosophers bemoan the dying art of conversation in our culture, and real dialogue is facing extinction too. But dialogue—where topics are explored and intelligently discussed—has the potential to break stereotypes, illuminate possibilities and bring truth to the table. Dialogue has another benefit: it can be incredibly fun, if everyone plays nice. Why not try it next time your group gets together? Warning: if you haven’t done it before, dialogue can spin off into conversation pretty quickly. To keep the talk train from rattling off the tracks, put on your moderator hat and follow these six steps to creating meaningful and enjoyable dialogue.
Set the ground rules. Will it be a free for all (not recommended) or must everyone hold their tongue until the person who is talking has finished making their point (suggested). Are politics and religion out of bounds? Is there a time limit? You don’t want too many rules, but you need some. You can even make them fun, like whoever has the floor has to stand on one leg or wave their arms while they’re talking.
Build trust and a sense of security. If the topic is controversial, then what happens in Vegas must stay in Vegas. Make sure everyone makes a verbal pledge to put the night’s discussion in the vault.
There are no prizes. A discussion is not a debate. The purpose here isn’t to win an argument, but to hear many different points of view and explore them openly.
Make sure everyone participates. Personality differences will surface; some people will hog the floor while others sit in silence. Set a time limit for the filibusters and make sure to call on the quiet ones to toss their ideas into the mix.
Insist on respect. No side conversations. Sudden laughter, even if it may be unrelated to whatever the current speaker is saying, can make people feel as though they’re being mocked.
Encourage openness. Listen to other points of view. Really listen. See if you can find some common ground: “we both want what’s right for our children, even if we disagree on what that is.”
If you’re the moderator or the instigator, make a statement that forces people to think beyond their boundaries: “Suffering is central to growth.” “Jealousy is a positive motivator.” Or, you can be really silly: “Which is more plausible—a vampire or a zombie?” Initially, you might have to work to keep everyone focused on the topic, but if you have a group that is open to learning and likes a lively back and forth, they will eventually follow the protocol without any direction from you.