Dialogue online?

August 9, 2010

Is it possible for meaningful dialogue to occur over the internet? I ask myself this question over and over when I see the comment threads on prominent feminist blogs such as Feministe and Feministing. There are often huge flare-ups in the comments around topics of race, privilege, and other such incendiary issues, with people going at each other’s virtual throats. It pains me to see the extent to which many people race to share their own story without making an attempt to understand the perspective expressed in the other comments. It equally pains me to see the ways in which many people express themselves, using hurtful, accusatory, and divisive language – “you” statements dominate by far over “I” statements. On both ends, the comment discussion lacks crucial elements of dialogue, where individuals make an effort both to listen and to express themselves in ways that are respectful of others. I find myself wondering how productive the online, forum-style form of communication really is. An often-lauded benefit of the internet is the way in which it brings diverse people in contact who would otherwise never meet. However, if the way they are meeting is through divisive comment threads on blog posts, is that benefit lost?

I do believe that the most effective dialogue must occur in person. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are all important parts of communication between individuals that help us empathize and achieve understanding. On the internet, we have only words. Skilled writers can achieve great things with only words, but the majority of content on the internet is not from skilled writers. Putting intense emotions and deeply-held assumptions into words is difficult enough as it is, but without the aid of non-verbal cues, it becomes that much harder. Dialogue also requires making oneself vulnerable. In some cases, the anonymity of the internet may allow someone to share something they would not otherwise. But in other cases, the knowledge that anyone in the whole world may read what you write can feel even more threatening.

However, I do not think that productive dialogue is completely impossible on the internet. Sharing stories is an important part of dialogue that does not require immediate response from others. The asynchronous aspect of the internet allows individuals more time to reflect on what they have read before responding – although many people do not seem to do enough thinking before responding, at least the potential is there. In general, I think that for dialogue to be truly effective on the internet someone needs to set the intention for it and explicitly invite the participants to interact in a dialogue format. This act of creating space for dialogue to happen is no different from what is needed for productive in-person dialogues. Most people have little experience with communicating in the ways required by dialogue, and therefore most conversations, either in-person or over the internet, do not take the form of dialogue.

In the end, we all make a choice about how we respond to the words we hear from others, either verbal or written. No matter what the context online, whether or not dialogue is a specific intention of the website, blog, or forum, we can each set an intention with ourselves, to read each others’ words with an openness of mind and heart, holding the intent of gaining a better understanding of each other and ourselves as human beings.

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We must dialogue

August 6, 2010

In most conversations, we talk at each other, often without even really hearing what the other party has to say. As others speak, we are already preparing in our head how we are going to respond. This sort of conversation is often sufficient to get us through the day – we pick up on the content that is relevant to ourselves, the parts with which we already agree, and let the rest slide by.

However, when we get into conflict or encounter individuals different from ourselves, our usual approach to conversing will lead us to dehumanize each other. Typically, if we are having a disagreement, we work hard to convince the other party of our position, without making an effort to understand their perspective or attempting to discover common ground. We take our beliefs as a given and do not let ourselves question the assumptions on which our views are based. We will quickly become stuck in intractable conflicts with this approach, as each party refuses to recognize the validity of the other party’s perspective.

In order to move beyond the “us vs. them” mentality, beyond dehumanizing people different from ourselves, beyond the concept of “the other,” we must make intentional efforts to engage with each other differently. We must dialogue.

In dialogue, we enter into conversation with the intent of understanding each other better, understanding ourselves better, and being understood. Together, we uncover and explore the assumptions and experiences that lead to our different perspectives. We listen attentively to each other’s words, and speak openly and honestly. We do not use rhetoric to try to convince others of our position, but instead share personal experiences that influence our current beliefs.

To dialogue, we must be willing to change. It requires us to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability. We may question previously held beliefs. We must be interested in valuing relationship above closely guarded views of “right” and “wrong.”

In order to create a world in which we can each reach our full human potential, where we live with our differences without feeling threatened, and where we resolve conflicts through non-violent means, we must be willing to enter into dialogue with each other.

I am particularly inspired by the work of Libby and Len Traubman, who founded the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogues in San Mateo, CA, 17 years ago, and continue to do inspiring work with dialogue.

For a more in-depth exploration of the dialogue process, I recommend an excellent essay at BeyondIntractability.org. Here is an excerpt:

In dialogue, participants explore the presuppositions, beliefs, and feelings that shape their interactions; they discover how hidden values and intentions control people’s behavior and contribute to communication successes and failures. For example, it begins to become clear why a group avoids certain issues, or why it insists, against all reason, on defending certain positions. Participants can collectively observe how unnoticed cultural differences often clash, without their realizing what is happening.[18] These observations help participants to determine what is blocking effective communication.[19]

However, this can happen only if people are able to listen to each other without prejudice and without trying to influence one another. Because its broad goal is to increase understanding about parties’ concerns, fears, and needs, dialogue centers on inquiry and reflection. Participants refrain from assuming that they already know the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of the other.[20] Instead, they assume that the other is speaking honestly from experience, and listen closely. This process of deep listening and reflection typically slows down the speed at which parties converse. The slower interchange enables individuals to observe the conversation while it is actually occurring, so that they become more aware of both the content of the communication process and the structures that govern it. They gain insight into the “assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided.”[21] Each participant can examine the preconceptions and prejudices that lie behind his or her opinions and feelings, and then share these insights with one another. Participants not only expose ideas to one another’s scrutiny, but also open themselves up to the possibility that their ideas will be changed. This means that they try to appreciate what the other side is saying and keep their ears open, even when they do not like what they hear.[22] To be fully open to new ideas, participants must be ready to abandon their old ideas in the face of new and better ones. They must be willing to change their minds and emerge from the dialogue as altered people. If they instead strive to convey their own points of view and defend their positions, genuine dialogue will not be possible.[23]