You have conversations everyday, but how many of them are true dialogues?

I have been extremely blessed to have relationships and conversations with people from various walks of life who have very different worldviews than mine. Over the last couple of years I have had to think through a general philosophy or approach to the topic of dialogue. The more I think about it, the more I realize that most conversations stalemate long before they enter a stage of an authentic exchange of ideas.

Most conversations die due to a lack of intentionality, vulnerability and commitment.

So here’s a working outline of my experience of conversation killers and a guide to true dialogue.

Stage #1: Exploratory Enunciations

A conversation revolving around fundamental differences in worldview often begins with some exploratory comments. This might come in the form of an email, FaceBook, or a passing comment; “What do you think about _____?” or “Have you read ________’s book?” or something to this effect.  The next stage is initiated once a person makes any form of definitive statement.  I would call the event initiating the second stage the “laying down of the gauntlet.”

Stage #2: Inevitable Impasses

Rarely do conversations move to this stage without some sort of relational context. As such, the initiating event could also be described as simply pointing out the elephant in the room. What initiates this stage is typically a stating of the obvious differences, which both parties are aware of but have yet to voice.

This stage can quickly move to an impasse if it is only concerned with an exchange of diatribes. In my experience, many conversations die at this stage because participants become content to merely hurl monologues at each other. In short, if the concern is primarily speaking and not listening, then this will not only be the second stage of the conversation, but also the final stage.  The catalyst for moving to Stage #3 is a commitment to “listen” and to be honest about one’s own limitations, biases, and presuppositions.  If this fails to happen, the conversation reaches an inevitable impasse.

Stage #3: Commencing Clarity

This stage centers around listening and seeking for a clear understanding of the others person’s position. If this commitment is not reciprocal, the conversation is quarantined to Stage  #2. Only a mutual respect, and a mutual commitment can sustain a conversation at this stage. I believe Stage #3 to be the entry point for dialogue. When comments move beyond trying to prove one’s point to seeking to fully understand and accurately represent the other position, then an authentic dialogue is under way.

Stage #4: Doubting Doubts & Deepening Dialogue

There is no greater hubris than the person who refuses to acknowledge their own bias. Some of the most educated people I have met, believer and unbeliever alike, readily acknowledge prior commitments that shape their interpretation of data.  Nothing is more revealing than the statement, “I have no bias.” One cannot publish a dissertation or thesis without recognizing their bias prior to research.

The best way to keep from being blinded by bias is to recognize it at the offset.

A dialogue can only be deepened as participants feel like they are placing everything on the table for evaluation. This stage requires a deep level of trust, and is often not the sort of thing that takes place on a public platform. Perhaps, Stage #4 is the purest form of dialogue because participants are not only able to exchange ideas, to submit data, but also to consider the broader system by which they are interpreting data. This stage is not for the faint of heart. Stage #4 dialogue requires thick skin and a commitment to one another if it is to continue.

Not every conversation has the potential to become a dialogue. Many conversations fail because they are nothing more than a “brain measuring” contest based around loaded statements filled with bravado, but lacking in clarity or content. As the Bible instructs, it is not good to have zeal without knowledge.

The Internet is full of blogs given to sound bytes, rhetoric, straw man arguments, and Ad Hominem attacks. Such activities fall far short of authentic dialogue, which is why I keep comments closed on Theolatte. This is why Theolatte would really not be considered a true “blog,” but rather a personal website. My articles feed into FaceBook, and if friends want to discuss them, there is a relational context to accomodate.

Blogs often fall into the trap of allowing anonymous and arrogant commentors to drop ideological bombs and leave before the dust settles.

I hope you’re not like that in your conversations.

Perhaps, the confidence we have in our beliefs can be measured by the number of dialogues we are willing to enter. In other words, the more confident you are of Truth, the more willing you should be to contrast it, dissect it, analyze it, and open it up for discussion.