In 2004, I started a list serve here in Asheville for the neighborhood in which I live. There wasn't one, and since Al Gore went to the trouble of inventing the Internet, I thought it only polite to actually use it.
As I sit some evenings here in the bucolic village called Asheville with my mint julep or sweet iced tea and read the vitriolic messages among neighbors about trash cans, tree limbs, barking dogs, and other life-altering issues, I think two things: 1) My lord, we are privileged people when these are the issues that occupy our minds; and 2) I have little hope for peace in the Middle East when trash cans in Asheville, North Carolina, can provide ammunition for such utter incivility.
I feel the same way on Facebook or Twitter sometimes when rather than have a dialogue or conversation, people start having monologues in the direct proximity of other people. Two monologues do not a dialogue make. Trying to show how stupid the other person is does not a dialogue make. Repeating your position repeatedly in ever-increasing tones as if they simply cannot hear you does not a dialogue make. Being sarcastic and snide and part of the in-group and hip does not a dialogue make.
How you have dialogue is more important than the subject matter of the dialogue. That's important to remember. The subject matter seems primary. It is not. The way you conduct yourself in relationship to other human beings, and particularly those with whom you disagree, is the most important part. Forget the subject matter. Forget the vehemence with which you believe in something. The point is this: have you improved upon silence? Have you allowed yourself to hear another human being's point of view and not just sat waiting for them to get to the period and shut up so you can dazzle them with your Truth (and brilliance, obviously)? Have you allowed for the possibility that they are as fully human as you are, even if they hold an opposing point of view? Or are you mainly playing to an audience?
If you approach dialogue with the thought, "hey, I could win this thing!," or "I'll show them!" or "I'll get retweeted!", then it's not a dialogue, it's a debate. If your primary intention is to look smart, convince the other person of your perspective, show how stupid they are, ramrod your position down their throat, then, my friend, that's no dialogue. Just call it what it is: A fight. And yes, some things are worth fighting for–very few, and be particular about it, but some. Just call it what it is rather than pretend you're having a dialogue.
Here are my thoughts about having a successful dialogue:
1. Give up your need to be right. We are attached to our rightness like a dog to a bone, like white on rice, you get the point. Give it up. You don't need to be right. You need to be civil, humane, generative, creative, happy, kind, but right just ain't in that list. What's that? You are right? I know you are, sugar, and I'm happy for you. But making other people see just how right you are won't make you one smidgen righter or more fully human. Let go of being right. Being right is an attachment that is causing you to suffer.
2. Don't pick up your end of the rope. The most powerful person in a tug of war is the person who doesn't pick up his end of the rope. Believe it or not, you don't have to respond. You may feel as if you do, particularly if your way of life, position, person is being assaulted, but you don't. YOU CAN WALK RIGHT AWAY INTO A MORE GENERATIVE POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP. Feeling as if you need to defend your point of view, way of life, position, is the first sign that dialogue has flown by the wayside. No, you're in a death struggle at that point–and you don't need to be. No need at all. None! Don't respond! Don't defend! Don't argue! Walking away is the most healthy thing you can do sometimes. Or as I often do, simply say "I don't see the truth in that" and then walk away.
3. Argue the other person's position. Think you're so bloody smart? Challenge yourself to convincingly and fully articulate the other person's point of view.
4. Listen more than you talk.I'll bet you a hundred bajillion dollars and my Johnny Depp action doll collection that you don't often even hear someone's point of view before jumping in to tell them how stupid they are. Listen ten times more than you talk. Feel compelled to interrupt? Don't. People reveal themselves the more you let them talk. Shut the hell up and listen, people.
5. Ask more questions than you make statements. Frame dialogue as an infinite, not a finite game. An infinite game is one you play to learn; a finite game is one you play to win. Questions are hallmarks of an infinite game–your job is to find out. Statements are hallmarks of a finite game–your job is to win the argument. See numbers 1-4 above. And while you're at it, explore what you have invested in winning. Why is winning so important to you? Can you give it up? Know your intention clearly–is it to win or to learn?
6. Recognize the other person's truth is just as valid as your own. It might not be yours. It might not be remotely related to yours. You may feel like they will go straight to hell believing what they believe. But it is their truth. Just as much as your truth is yours. I know this is hard to believe. But just imagine that this person you're arguing with has hopes and dreams and joys and losses just as potent as your own even if they look vastly different from your own. And don't be confused by form–the way I show love and respect might not involve the same behaviors as someone across the big ocean, but don't be fooled by behavior–look below the surface.
7. Be curious, not judgmental. This means that "YOU'RE A FREAKIN' IDIOT TO BELIEVE THAT" becomes "Really? Help me understand your perspective on dog barking in the neighborhood…" or "Help me understand your objection to gay marriage…"
8. Cultivate spaciousness. Leave space for others to talk. Leave space for you both to sit in silence. See numbers 4 and 5 above.
9. Be kinder than necessary. Before posting/saying, ask yourself one question: "Does what I am about to say belittle the other person in order to make my point?" If the answer is "yes," (and you will know when it is), find another way to make your point, a way that bestows the same level of humanity on the other person as you expect for yourself. Is the way you win by diminishing others? Try another tactic, really. Your karma begs of you.
10. Imagine you are deeply in love with the other person. You still get your point across, but you do it in a much more loving way. Seriously, try this.
11. Question to reveal alternate realities: Every time you make a pronouncement, always ask yourself "what else might be true?" This is a very important question. Ask yourself this question often, at least 10 times a day: "What else might be true?" THAT JERK CUT ME OFF IN TRAFFIC FOR NO GOOD REASON. Well, honey, what else might be true? He might not have seen you. He might have gotten his new Walgreen's flip flop caught in the gas pedal and panicked a wee bit when his life started flashing before his eyes. His pregnant wife might be in labor in the back seat. There is no good reason not to assume positive intent. Whether it's true or not is completely irrelevant, ultimately.
12. Reframe the outcome: Imagine that the point of dialogue is not changing their mind or convincing them of anything, but of creating a deeper, richer relationship between the two of you by sharing disparate viewpoints.
13. Pick up the phone. We rely too heavily on the written word–Twitter, Facebook, and even the ancient form of communication known as email–when nuance only steps lightly into speech. Rather than show your cleverness and linguistic prowess in writing (for an audience, which is most of the fun for some), pick up the phone.
14. Ask "what would love do?"
15. When in doubt (and always be in a tiny bit of doubt, please), love. When in doubt, love.
I wonder what would happen if we engaged in dialogue with people who hold opposing viewpoints by believing that the point of dialogue is not to change their mind or convince them of anything, but to create a deeper, richer relationship by sharing and respecting disparate viewpoints, by imagining that we are creating a better world not by converting people to our positions, but by loving into theirs.
You believe a Mosque anywhere near the World Trade Center site is the work of the devil? I don't. I think good Christian white people in cars, some of them drunk, kill many more people every year than died on 9/11 and yet there are streets all around that sacred ground filled with cars full of good Christian white people in cars, some of them drunk. So we disagree. Perhaps (CALL ME CRAZY) we even review the facts together, your set of facts and mine.
I believe we can coexist in this human space without shouting obscenities at one another. Call me crazy, but I believe two seemingly opposing viewpoints can–and must–coexist. Sometimes–often–our egos get in the way. Our need to be clever gets in the way. Our desire for an admiring audience gets in the way.
Can two truths exist simultaneously? They do and they must.
"Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, does it improve upon the silence?" – Shirdi Sai Baba