Dialogue. We hear this word all the time in the world of community engagement. Nowadays, dialogue can prevail both in person and online. But at the core, the intent is the same: to have dialogue is to take people from all walks of life and bring them together to consider and deliberate on a topic until an understanding can be reached. Dialogue has the potential to bring connection, cohesion, and in turn, community.
Ideally, this is what dialogue is to us. Realistically, though, can it exist? Can true, honest dialogue really ensue between human beings? The reality is every person has their own set of judgments, assumptions and defenses. This was a much discussed point at a panel discussion on Civic Engagement in the Canadian and German Federations held by the Forum of Federations here in Ottawa. The ongoing question lingers: Is it possible for conflicting personalities to put aside their differences, dispel all judgments, and truly see eye to eye?
I recently stumbled across a book called Community Conversations by Paul Born, co-founder of Tamarack, an institute for community engagement. In his book, Born speaks to the concept of “community conversations”, events which take place when people from all backgrounds sit down, dispel their assumptions about one another, and truly “listen” to each other by entering a space of “unknowing.” Only with creating this special space, Born claims, can we push for real groundbreaking social change at a grassroots level. An example would be taking an issue like homelessness, gathering all the key policy makers, like politicians and social aid workers, and sitting them next to homeless individuals to talk about it. It’s fundamentally similar to the work we do here at Ascentum. It’s about putting an issue on the table, confronting it head on, finding a way to relate to it and solving it. It’s about actually listening to people different from you, not just waiting for your chance to talk.
What fascinates me so much about this idea is that it empowers a person’s ability to let themself be vulnerable. I think so many of us have this fear of inadequacy, that when faced with something we don’t know, we become assertive, defensive and aggressive with what we do know. Our opinions become searing daggers, attacking everything in their path. Dialogue becomes a battle; we are afraid of the unknown, so we defend ourselves against it.
But just like Paul Born, this is what public engagement agencies like us aim to change. At our dialogue sessions, we often post “dialogue vs. debate” posters which highlight the difference between the two . Before entering a discussion, we remind participants that “when I debate, I listen to find flaws,” but “when I dialogue, I listen to understand.”
What’s the lesson here? Well, I think we should remember it takes immense courage for an individual to truly listen, put aside their assumptions and embrace the need to learn. It comes down to this: Don’t take yourself too seriously and if you don’t understand something, be open to learning. Let it all shine through; show your weaknesses, be open to changing your views because every experience gives you knowledge, and knowledge is strength.