Dialogue and Questions . . . Thinking Together

2020 Questions “From the Heart” Series

Whenever a conversation involves anticipating outcomes, that is where you set the groundwork for furthering the dialogue toward assessing, hopefully together. Yet, the very word, dialogue, elicits much more than exchanging opinions on the what, why, when, where, who, how responses. In William Isaacs book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, he offers perspectives on when a conversation goes wrong and when it can go right.

Isaacs mentions about a friend who joked: “People do not listen, they reload.” Although Isaac’s book was published in 1999, he shared “When televised sessions of the United States Congress or the British Parliament show the leaders of our society advocating, catcalling, booing, and shouting over one another in the name of reasoned discourse, we sense that something is deeply wrong.” Sound familiar with what is currently going on in Congress this very hour?

Do you sense the same thing as we all watch it unfold, but seem powerless to doing anything about it? Maybe we should look a little closer at the word, dialogue. The root words for dialogue are Dia meaning “through” and Logos meaning “word.” Isaacs notes that “…the most ancient meaning of the word, logos, meant ‘to gather together.’” This suggests “… an intimate awareness of the relationships among things in the natural world. In that sense, logos may be best rendered in English as ‘relationship.’” Isaacs goes a step further to define dialogue as a conversation when people think together in relationship. “Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others—possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred.”

No, you don’t leave your values at the door of a conversation. Yet, you come to the dialogue with a genuine desire to listen deeply for building relationship for the good of both. That is the only place where you both begin to think together and create the best environment for assessing together what the conversation is all about. Here are a few questions that may come up in a dialogue:

• What do you make of it?
• What do you think is best?
• How does it look to you?
• How do you feel about it?
• What if it doesn’t work?

As you move through the conversation with these questions, you have choices to make. One is to defend your position. This choice leads you to two options. One is what Isaacs calls “Productive Defensiveness.” You may find yourself still open to “being wrong.” Yet, it does produce tension and opposites. Then there is “Unproductive Defensiveness.” This drives one to try “to ward off” or “protect from attack.” You also try to control the discussion by advocacy, competing, even abstract verbal brawling, ending with resolving a debate by beating down.

Then you have another choice of suspending by listening without resistance. You begin by reflecting and exploring underlying causes together, getting you both to deeper questions and deeper framing of the problem. You end up in what Isaacs calls “Generative Dialogue” where you discover “… unprecedented possibilities and new insights and collective flow of thought and ideas.” Wouldn’t that be nice to see in our nation’s halls of Congress!

Which road do you usually take? I find myself going down all three roads sometimes, depending on the topic and the person sharing the conversation. I am often challenged to “assess” my reaction with a particularly difficult conversation. When I have been honest with defending myself and trying to control the discussion, it is time to look at my motives that drive me to not take the higher road together. I just may be in need of some healing in an area of my life in which I was unaware.

The conversation, no matter, how difficult, will give me the opportunity to experience genuine healing when I genuinely listen, assess more deeply, and seek to clarify what is really going on inside me. That is when Clarification questions often arise and will be the focus for the next article.