Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Dying Art of Dialogue

The other day I was casually chatting with a friend about something and as we went along, the casual chit-chat changed in tone into a not-so-casual discussion, which soon became bi-polar, with both of us adopting opposite positions, thus evolving into a debate. The debate continued in our next conversation and raged on, starting to sound like an argument. Being mature adults (though, arguably, also 'Argumentative Indians'), we were able to keep it from crossing the boundaries of 'dispute' into the no-holds-barred territory of 'quarrel'. So, instead of saying "Pistols at dawn?", we agreed to disagree and changed the topic, with the tacit understanding on both sides that we would not bring this up again - at least not in the near future.

That set me thinking ... I am not usually like that - I do confront, but without being confrontational. I don't like dispute. I like dialogue, and I want to stick to dialogue in the Platonic tradition. Dialogue is about achieving clarity, and if we're lucky, obtaining resolution. It is not about winning or losing. It requires humility on part of all participants (of which there could be more than 2, contrary to popular belief), and ruthless honesty with oneself. My natural tendency is to enter into dialogue, but am invariably drawn into debates, if not disputes, arguments or worse still, quarrels. My style is to question a proposition. All right, I could be persuaded to say 'challenge' a proposition. Unfortunately though, my questioning or challenging approach is perceived to be confrontational thanks to our zeitgeist - that of apprehending conflict even where there isn't any. And as a lot of people these days say (unwisely) "Perception is Reality" (the currency and popularity of this belief is another characteristic of our zeitgeist - that of believing that if somebody thinks it, it must be true).

Let me quote a paragraph from the Wikipedia page on dialogue, before I elaborate upon my style of questioning:

"The typical way is for Socrates to probe his partner for further beliefs until a contradiction is reached with the disputed belief or hypothesis by implication. In this way the interlocutor is made to see the impossibility of his hypothesis, and then tries some other hypothesis, which is again subject to the same scrutiny."

And now let me paraphrase that - my questioning aims to probe the participant's line of thought, hoping to lead them to a point where either a contradiction emerges with the original position they adopted, OR they present me with irrefutable facts that I cannot deny or with propositions that are consistent with my own, thereby making me accept their thesis. The key fact is that I am open to it going either way, and will not take that as either a victory or a defeat. It will just enrich and refine my own on-going process of pondering and reflecting on life.

Sadly, my type of questioning is almost always misunderstood. Most discussions these days that I have participated in or have observed closely, do not embody the spirit of dialogue - they evolve very quickly from casual conversations to verbal battles which somebody has got to win, and their 'opponent' lose. Again, yet another characteristic of our zeitgeist - that of every interaction or exchange being a zero-sum game which a 'successful' person simply must win. The whole context of such questioning has become one where the person raising the questions (usually, me) is doing so either because they don't know (the 'teaching' paradigm) or because they are "cross-examining the witness" (the 'inquisition' paradigm).

What to me starts as dialogue, becomes therefore, either a teaching/learning experience, where the other person/s take it upon themselves to educate this impertinent fool (me) who is asking all these silly questions, or an inquisition, where Mr. Know-It-All (me again) is putting us on a stand and hammering away at our defenses to expose our lack of substance. Sorry folks! I question to probe, to clarify, to fully understand what is being said. And in that process, hopefully, get the other participants (including the proponent) to fully understand the proposition on the table. So that then I could offer my perspective, which may be similar or different or similar-yet-different. There is no 'high' or 'low' position when I enter into dialogue. We're all on the same plane - all equals. There is no teacher and there is no inquisitor - though I am always inquisitive and wanting to learn more!

If you, dear reader, and I, ever have the good fortune to enter into dialogue on any subject under the sun (including this one - 'The Dying Art of Dialogue'), we would do well to keep this simple approach in mind. Even if our ambitious, aggressive, competitive, confrontational zeitgeist enters my spirit somewhere along the way and compels me to stray (as I did in the anecdote I narrated at the beginning of this post), I hope you, being the humbler and more mature of the two of us, would lead me back, kindly!