from forum to dialogue

We have a ten year old car that we love and our mechanic hates. We love it because it has been reliable, it drives well and is comfortable. Steve, our mechanic of over 15 years is an old school workshop man. The mass of cables, hoses and the electronics make things hard to get to and sometimes hard to diagnose. If someone asked Steve what he thought about early model Holden Vectras, he’d say, ‘don’t touch them with a barge pole.’ If someone asked me, I’d say, ‘best small car we’ve ever owned’. Same car; different experiences.

The point is that the opinions and beliefs we hold are rarely arrived at through objective thinking. We ‘experience’ our way to a belief, rather than thinking our way there. I was pondering this while preparing for a forum I facilitated over the weekend that brought together more than a hundred people by video link in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. The forum addressed a controversial (but medically conventional) treatment for a chronic disease that has medical professionals with differing perspectives and patients with emotionally charged views on what needs to be done to make the treatment available.

It was always going to be engaging because of how close people are to the issue. My concern was that we move beyond a “Q and A’ style of forum to a genuine dialogue. One of the reasons Q and A is such great television is Tony Jones’ mastery at fishing for controversy while maintaining decorum, at least on camera. But a forum, as valuable as the medium is, is essentially a competition of ideas. The key skill of a Q and A participant is being able to articulate their views with succinct and compelling clarity.

The key skill in a ‘dialogue’ is listening. The primary commitment to listen presupposes that we don’t get it, rather than assuming our perspective is more correct, even if not absolutely so.

If we accept my proposition that we ‘experience’ our way to a position, then the adage that we can’t argue someone out of a position they never ‘thought’ themselves into in the first place is a corollary. If we want a coming together of different perspectives to lead to collective progress in our understanding of an issue, then our primary concern will be to ask question that help us understand ‘why’ people hold particular views, not from a rational apologetic perspective but from an experiential one. Seeing the world through the eyes of someone with whom we disagree, is the first step to a fuller understanding of the issue.

So, let’s not be content with forums, lets promote more genuine dialogue. If you are really keen on this, I’ve found William Isaac’s book from the late 90s on the topic to be as good as they come.