Using Authentic Dialogue to Create a More Caring World
A way to find common ground.
Posted February 2, 2021
We are in challenging times in our country. There is a tremendous polarization. Many issues have bubbled up to the surface, revealing the deep divide that exists between us as to how we each frame the world. We strongly disagree about economics, religion, politics, racial, ethnic, and gender issues. We seem to have lost our ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. There is a prevailing sentiment of, “There is only my way and your way. My way is right. Your way is wrong.” Coming from this stance, it is very difficult to find common ground.
I believe the current crisis is a call to use authentic dialogue to resolve the issues facing us. As an existential-humanistic therapist, I believe there are values within the existential-humanistic (EH) perspective that can help us create this dialogue. Among other values, the EH perspective stands for creating relationships based upon honesty, openness, and mutuality. If we hold the intention of creating relationships based upon these values, and stick with the process, no matter how challenging it might be, a positive outcome is often the result. Fresh discoveries about each other can be made, which will deepen the relationship. An appreciation and valuing of the other person will emerge. This is true whether it is a relationship with a family member or friend, or within a national or international community.
Having hard feelings and strong disagreements is part of the human experience. It helps to remember that we are all navigating through the same ocean called being human. We are all in our own separate boats. Some boats we do like, others we don’t. However, the bottom line is we are in the same ocean together. If we don’t recognize this, we can drown.
Finding our way through this process of creating a relationship based upon honesty, openness, and mutuality is not for the faint of heart. It requires a commitment to stay with the difficult feelings that we experience within the dialogue.
How do we do this? How do we recognize that there is value in the other person, even when we have strong disagreements with how they frame the world? Carl Rogers, Ph.D., said one way is to approach the other person with unconditional positive regard. Rogers exemplified this state of valuing the other person inherently by stating that when he sees a client in therapy, he reminds himself, “This person is human and I am human. There is nothing that can be said between us that I can’t relate to from our shared humanness.” Martin Buber, Ph.D., named this approach to another person as an ‘I-Thou relationship’. Buber described the ‘I-Thou’ connection as a bold leap into the experience of the Other, while simultaneously being present, transparent, and accessible.
I propose that, even as we recognize that we may disagree strongly at times, we can cultivate a feeling of unconditional positive regard for the other person. We can create a sacred ‘I-Thou’ relationship. We don’t shame or blame ourselves for our harsh feelings. Nor do we shame or blame the other person. We have compassion towards ourselves and the other person for all the feelings we both have. We leave space for a dialogue and a mutual connection, while honoring our different world views.
This may seem unattainable. However, humans have achieved such connections before. We can do it again. In late December of 1914, a dark time of the First World War, the two opposing forces faced each other on the Western Front. One of the German soldiers sang a Christmas song that was so moving, the French troops stood up and applauded from their trenches. That started a dialogue, as everyone came out of their trenches to share the spirit of Christmas together. This allowed them to relate person to person. They were no longer ‘just enemies’ in the opposing trench. The next day, they refused to fight each other because they recognized their human bond that transcended their differences.
Another example is the result of the 1986 Rust Workshop in Austria led by Carl Rogers and the Center for the Studies of the Person. The workshop focused on the Central American Challenge. Rogers said of the workshop, “We wanted a gathering where international figures could meet to talk, argue, shout, and embrace in a situation where the staff made it safe to do so, until they came to know each other deeply, to trust one another more fully, and work together for more peaceful solutions.” Participants from the different countries expressed that they felt tensions were reduced, lines of communication were opened, and there was an experience of peace.
The organizations Braver Angels, World Work, and the Experiential Democracy project, are current examples of this type of coming together for authentic dialogue between opposing viewpoints on a local and global stage.
How do we create authentic dialogue between ourselves and those we disagree with? Here are four ways I use in my own work:
Inclusion, Not Amputation
As humans, we tend to avoid feelings and thoughts that are uncomfortable and challenging. If we deny these feelings, we amputate our full experience of being human. We amputate our ability to connect with someone in an authentic dialogue. Within the cauldron of human exchanges, we need to recognize and honor any challenging and uncomfortable feelings. For an authentic dialogue to occur, we need to sit in the paradox of conflicting feelings. One such paradox is having anger and feeling compassion simultaneously, whether these feelings are directed at ourselves or someone else.
In order to embrace inclusion, be aware of everything going on within yourself and between the two of you as you dialogue. Be aware of what you perceive is being avoided by either or both of you. Without judging your feelings, or the feelings of the other person, express your feelings and thoughts at an opportune time. Allow this for the other person, too. If you both can come from the intention to allow space for any feelings and not cut them off, we can grow in our acceptance of each other and of ourselves. By adhering to this process of inclusion, not amputation of our feelings, we both can make self-discoveries that will enhance our relationship and lead to discovering a common ground. This leads to the possibility that we can reach a mutually agreed-upon compromise where both sides can feel heard, respected, and valued.
Deep listening is the ability to listen with an attuned sensitivity to the other person’s experience of being human. You listen to the content of their words and the subtext hidden within how they are expressing themselves. Is there a congruence between their words and their body language? Are their deeper needs being revealed by what they are saying? Are there hidden feelings beneath how they are expressing themselves? By listening this way, the other person will feel powerfully heard, seen, and received. This sets the stage for a more authentic dialogue.
When dialoguing, have the intention to access a curiosity about who the other person is and how they frame their world. The direction of your curiosity can have a broad range. The aim is to have the other person describe their experience of the issues as fully as they can. Let your curiosity guide you in asking your questions to get to know them better. Allow them the space to be curious about you. The aim is for you both to connect person to person. This will inform how the diverging viewpoints are explored. This will create more of an openness between you.
When you dialogue with another person, you are interacting with them. The interaction is an ongoing process, with its ebbs and flows. For example, if you misconstrue what a person is saying and they challenge you on that, clarify what you thought they were saying. You don’t need to be entrenched in what you initially thought the other person meant. Thus, if your initial response missed the mark, as long you both stay engaged in this process, your connection will be deepened. This will also lay the groundwork to continue to communicate with each other in a mutually beneficial way.
As we learn the skills of authentic dialogue, we can grow in our appreciation of who the other person is as a fellow human being. We can explore the issues facing us in a less defensive and more open way. We can view the other person as a unique and complex human being. This leads to more caring between us. When authentic dialogue occurs between family members, local communities, and national and global forums, we can create a more caring and less polarized world. If we recognize that we are all doing our best to navigate our boat through these choppy waters called being human, we can begin to travel together so we all reach the shore.