The idea of dialogue as a tool for illumination and connection is, by no means, a new one. Humans are meaning making machines, and language is one of the earliest tools we have at our disposal to create some shared understanding of our inherently phenomenological experiences. As the society, technology, and individuality become increasingly more complex and esoteric concepts, the value of being able to engage in good dialogue, and furthermore, the skill in engaging in difficult conversations becomes indispensable to those who would wish to call themselves leaders, or good ethical citizens of the world.
The key question becomes, then, how do we do it? How do we create the conditions for ourselves and others that allows for difficult dialogue, and leaves us emotionally intact and potentially better for it?
The truth is that there is no one iron clad framework, at least not one that is easily found via Google. That being said, there are a set of consistent practices that can seed the ground for healthy discussion to emerge. I present them here in no particular order. I believe using one or perhaps all in combination is a good first step, but even before that, the willingness to listen, engage and remain curious must be present.
Tips for Engaging in Difficult Dialogue
1. Cultivate Intellectual and Cultural Humility
Simply put, it is actually possible for you to be wrong about something, and it is actually possible for the values, experiences, and viewpoints of others to be valid given their cultural contexts. But you’ll never know if you don’t cultivate a sense of cultural and intellectual humility. Cultural humility is an ongoing process of self-exploration and self-critique combined with a willingness to learn from others (Cultural Humility vs Cultural Competence 2021. Soundscaping) Accept and expect that you might be wrong, and proceed accordingly.
2. Listen, Listen, Listen.
Listening is active, listening requires focus and presence, it requires a thirst to understand and deeply empathize, and it is an absolute building block of successfully navigating a difficult conversation. This article from Harvard Business Review does a great job of breaking down the mechanics of listening. Good listeners ask good constructive questions. Good listeners strive to make a conversation a positive experience. Good listeners listen to understand, not to debate or poke holes. Good Listeners listen with their eyes. Good listeners check in to make sure they are understanding correctly.
Journalist and Author Monica Guzman offers eight strategies for staying open when dialoguing across difference, one of the simplest and most rare strategies is to admit when you do not know. It circles back to that idea of intellectual humility. Guzman calls it allowing your convictions to breathe without panicking. It is also important to remember that humans are transient beings. Your opinions, convictions, and beliefs represent a point in time. You have changed, and you will change again. Create room for these difficult conversations to be the catalyst not only for connection but potentially change.