Skills in dialogue: Cultivating Listening and Empathy: Part 1

Effective, or ‘quality’ dialogue, as discussed in various Making Dialogue Effective discussions, is an intrinsically valuable expression of our humanity which may also increase mutual understanding, promote friendship or even help us to address conflict. As one of our panellists for this session noted, it provides an important way of thinking through who we are, and who we are in relation to others, providing space to explore the complexity of our identities (Justine Huxley). But what skills do participants and facilitators need to ensure quality dialogue? Dialogue facilitator Lisa Cumming, Justine Huxley of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, and Dr Jill Adam of Level Partnerships joined us to consider the question. This first of two columns on this discussion looks at what is needed for dialogue at the level of individual participants.

Lisa Cumming adjusted the terms of the question, suggesting that what we are looking for in dialogue are not so much ‘skills’ as qualities. Quality dialogue, perhaps, requires something more integral to the participants’ outlook than ‘skills’.

What, then, are the most important qualities for dialogue participants to possess? Our panellists highlighted the following qualities: self-awareness, resilience, imagination, a sense of our common humanity, motivation, curiosity and a quality of real presence and attention.

Lisa Cumming referred back to the prerequisites for dialogue suggested by Daniel Yankelovich and discussed by Ute Kelly, identifying the qualities required to secure each of these three conditions. One of the conditions is, in Lisa’s terms, that people are ok and open about challenging assumptions. This, she suggested, requires not only a level of self-awareness but also a certain self-confidence or resilience, because it is incredibly hard to challenge and to be challenged.

Yankelovich’s second condition, listening with empathy, requires, challengingly, the ability to imagine how something might feel to others. Jill Adam highlighted the same sort of quality and associated skills; to be equipped for dialogue we need the inclination and the thinking skills to imagine what a particular event or initiative might mean to different groups. We have to make the effort to step outside the bubble of our own concerns and consider a different perspective.

Yankelovich’s final prerequisite is equality. Lisa suggested that the quality that can secure this is a deep sense of our common humanity. This sense is powerfully expressed in the quality of ubuntu, involving the attitude that ‘I am human because you are human.’ How this crucial sense of connection and fellowship can be cultivated is a big, challenging question.

A big question, and a highly important one, especially since this quality can help secure not only an environment of equality for dialogue but also another crucial quality: motivation. Justine Huxley underlined the importance of motivation for dialogue. Listening can be difficult. As Lisa noted, at times we hear things which challenge us so much that we shut down. We also have to contend with our general inclination to protect our own perspectives. However, Justine argued, when we genuinely want to understand, these barriers to understanding are not insuperable.

In a crisis, Justine noted, we instantly have the motivation to reach across the boundaries of different identities. She referred to the account of a victim of the 7/7 bombings, who reported that the first instinct of those trapped in the darkness of the shattered underground carriage was to reach out for the nearest hand. In a crisis we automatically feel and act upon our need for other human beings. The ubuntu understanding that our very being depends on others provides the same sense of interdependence and the same motivation to reach out. Another, related source of motivation is the recognition that, though we might ignore the fact, our world is in crisis. A sustainable future can only be achieved by coming together in new ways and making decisions based upon collective intelligence, drawing on as many diverse perspectives as possible. If we are awake to the scale of current global challenges we will recognise the urgent need for dialogue and find the motivation to overcome the challenges involved.

A further quality for which there is a strong need in dialogue is curiosity. Curiosity draws people into engagement with others. It is also an indicator that participants have managed to overcome fear, defensiveness and animosity. When participants are curious about the perspectives of others and can begin to see conversation as an adventure, genuine dialogue can really get off the ground.

A final quality identified as important for dialogue is a quality of presence and attention (Justine Huxley). In our pressurised modern culture it is radically countercultural and difficult to achieve. It requires great patience, the screening out of both outer and inner distractions, suspension of judgement and self-awareness. However, genuine presence can be transformative and is a tremendous gesture of respect towards other participants.

The qualities discussed in this column might be consciously cultivated at the individual level by people motivated to engage more meaningfully with others. The second column on this panel discussion takes a look at who might help cultivate these qualities more widely, and how.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Frances Sleap

Frances Sleap

Author, Former Research Fellow at Dialogue Society

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