Skills in dialogue: Cultivating Listening and Empathy: Part 2

In the previous column we looked at the skills, or qualities, that enable quality dialogue to happen. Our panellists suggested that such dialogue requires self-awareness, resilience, imagination, a sense of our common humanity, motivation, curiosity and a quality of real presence and attention.

This column will explore how these qualities may be instilled in the general population. First, though, we should consider what skills and qualities the facilitators of dialogue need to play their key role.

Part of their role is to model the attitudes that will enable real dialogue to develop. For example, by themselves developing an attitude of curiosity about the identities and experience of participants they can encourage participants to take a similar positive interest in each other (Justine Huxley).

Facilitators also need the skills to manage the process through a series of balancing acts. Facilitators need to balance safety and free expression. Lisa Cummings recalled an example of genuine dialogue occurring when people were shouting at each other; the discussion was very heated but participants were genuinely listening to each other. Facilitators must police the fine line between heated communication and uncontrolled emotional outbursts.

Another key balance to strike is between attention to the technical aspects of dialogue and surrender to the mystery of it (Lisa Cumming). A range of tools and strategies can help promote honest talk but a facilitator should not become enslaved to them. Lisa cited Peter Kellet’s description of dialogue as a place where ‘deep things get expressed, new possibilities emerge and often the boundaries of self and other melt away.’ Dialogue cannot be fully planned and controlled; it is a journey of discovery (Jill Adam).

The tools and techniques of dialogue are diverse. Justine Huxley discussed the use of story and personal narrative, which she has found a precious tool for generating empathy. For example, in an early dialogue at St Ethelburga’s between people with strongly held opposite views on abortion, personal stories played a very important role in humanising a tense discussion. “What in your life has brought you to this position?” was a crucial question for the facilitator to ask. A recent St Ethelburga’s’ resource explores the range of ways in which story can be used in dialogue.

A well-equipped dialogue facilitator may be able to lead dialogue participants into quality dialogue. But who can nurture the qualities for dialogue in potential dialogue participants, that is, in the general population? Given our panellist’s insight that dialogue requires not so much skills as more deeply engrained qualities, it is perhaps not surprising that the role of parents was discussed. Empathy, for example, can only be developed when it is experienced, and parents generally provide the crucial early experiences of empathy. Lisa Cumming noted that as a parent she felt entirely responsible for the humanisation of her child. Where parents are, for whatever reason, ill-equipped for this role, other relatives and friends, charity initiatives or professional agencies may be able to compensate to some degree for this severe disadvantage.

Professional educators also have a role to play in instilling the qualities we have identified as important for dialogue. Lisa Cumming cited Bhikhu Parekh’s vision of education as humanisation, not just socialisation. Education, he holds, should ‘develop the power of independent thought, analysis and criticism,’ and ‘cultivate a sympathetic imagination.’ The role of schools should not be confined to the teaching of skills. Apart from specific activities designed to introduce children to intercultural dialogue, the ethos of schools and the example and encouragement of teachers can help foster the qualities that dialogue requires. In diverse contexts teachers take up the great challenges of humanising and of teaching sensitively about diverse cultures and religions. The nature of the challenge varies; the issues faced by a teacher in a rural, uniformly white and middleclass school will differ from those faced by a teacher in a diverse inner-city school (Jill Adam). Some teachers face the additional challenge of catering for children living with poverty or even abuse.

Universities may also contribute to the development of qualities for dialogue at a crucial point in the development of young adults. There are some interesting examples of creative initiatives. For instance, a university in New Zealand adopted the idea of Mauri meeting houses in which groups come together and work things out.

One of the concrete measures towards greater dialogue literacy that was identified was the practice of recognising and resourcing good practice in all kinds of dialogue initiatives (Lisa Cumming). The regrettable truth is that the current economic climate limits resources for such projects. What is perceived to be ‘best’ for a community can be, as Jill Adam noted, very expensive. However, ‘expensive’ does not necessarily equate to ‘richness’. Much can be achieved through the richness afforded by volunteering, gifts of time and resources, and by people simply taking time to be human, to communicate and share ideas. Fittingly, another concrete measure proposed by Lisa Cumming was for a few people really passionate about dialogue to get together and reflect further on possible actions. People who believe in the creative power of dialogue should naturally look to that very process to find ways of promoting the skills and qualities upon which quality dialogue depends.

*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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