One of the strengths of our community of practice is our diversity of thought, background, and belief systems – it is also is what poses the greatest challenge when we come together to create positive change. The potential outcome in deepening our abilities and our commitment to dialogue is that while alone we don’t have the ‘answers’, together we can create them. I believe we’ve taken some first steps toward a true dialogic exchange, and we still have some challenges to overcome in understanding what dialogue is, how we must create the space to really have honest exchanges of perspectives, and talk to each other instead of talking past each other.
The Goal of Understanding
Dialogue is both the act of expressing ones thoughts and, equally importantly, the act of listening with the goal of understanding what’s at the heart of the discussion. The hazard of not placing an emphasis on understanding is that we get closer to debate than dialogue. Debate is zero sum—one right answer/one winner, either/or, pro/con—this isn’t to say there isn’t a place for debate but is it our ‘default’? If the goal is to transcend diverse perspectives and include a myriad of ‘voices’, we need a way to expand our conversations not to restrict them.
What can complicate our ability to understand is the creation of the ‘other.’ It prevents us from suspending judgment and ‘hearing’ perspectives or values that we perceive as negative. It is easy to fall into creating ‘stories’ that allow us to alienate and separate – they are certified/they aren’t certified; they have a degree/they don’t have a degree; they have deaf parents/they don’t have deaf parents—the ‘vilified other’ makes it easier to marginalize and discount those views that clash with our own. Perhaps we’ve had a bad experience with a member of ‘the other’, how is it we can stop reacting to our ‘ghosts’ and spring back as individuals and as a community of practice and move upstream?
People Not Villains
In the weeks after 9/11, I was involved in a series of resiliency dialogues to bring together members of our very diverse community in a safe space to share feelings, values, and perspectives. In a time of national pain and violence, I was struck by the power of listening to, what was at that time, ‘the other’. During one of these dialogues, several Muslim women shared their experiences–their dread in hearing that Muslims were involved, their experience of being verbally insulted, and their fear for their personal safety, because they wore a ḥijāb. Those exchanges didn’t erase the differences between us–it did, however, serve as a powerful antidote to the ‘poison’ of the time—a reminder that there were people behind those differences, not villains.
5 Steps to Beyond Otherness
One: Ask Real Questions
How do we get past this ‘otherness’? One of the most powerful tools in dialogue are questions–real, curious, inquiring questions—the kind that lead to deeper understanding of the ‘heart’ of an issue, why it is important to that person, and gets to the values underpinning their dialogue. Questions that come from a place of curiosity and discovery allow for movement in what might have been considered an irreconcilable difference. What do they believe to be true to have that view of the issue? Being curious also frees us from our debate ‘default’ where we have the tendency to listen for points of disagreement, where the person’s logic is faulty, or have an ad hominem type of thinking where we disagree with ‘who’ the person is and then are unable to process what they are saying. The result is we end up talking past each other and not to each other.
Two: Re-make the Map
Kuhn in this book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggested that ‘revolutions’ and leaps forward in progress are created when new questions are asked of previously-held beliefs and the result is a totally different ‘map’ for future directions—a true paradigm shift (he actually coined the phrase). The potential for ‘remapping’ exists for our professional organization in the motion that was recently passed to establish an ad hoc committee to ‘review the RID philosophy, Mission, Goals, Diversity Statement, and Strategic Priorities.’ This group will make recommendations to the membership and Board. How can we ensure that we engage the largest number stakeholders in these reviews and recommendations? How can we create an organizational culture of dialogue around this effort? The larger the number of voices that contribute to re-making the map, the more powerful the buy-in, and the more indelible the progress.
Three: Contribute More Than Criticize
The challenge then becomes how to include large numbers of individuals in the dialogue and how do we create a space that is engaging and safe for this multitude of ‘voices’? While most of us would agree that it is an RID members’ personal responsibility to be engaged, there is also the reality that without a safe space within which to offer those views, it won’t happen.
Volunteering your opinion is an act of courageous engagement.
Brené Brown who presented a Ted talk on vulnerability and listening to shame said this, ‘I don’t think engagement can happen without vulnerability, and I definitely don’t think it can happen in the midst of shame.’ How is it that we, as a collective,’ can take responsibility for the creation of safe dialogue spaces?’ Brené may also have the answer when she said her goal, ‘at the end of every day, and at the end of every week, and at the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized.’
Four: Allow for Difference
As Laura Wickless mentioned in her article, Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer, ‘so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we avoid taking worthwhile risks.’ If we want positive change and to make engagement less risky, we must find ways to value experience and personal narrative and the expression of those experiences in ways that are not critical or attacking. It will be a space that allows for difference and actively seeks perspectives from those that may feel disenfranchised—interpreters with deaf parents, faith-based interpreters, interpreters of color, educational interpreters, and others.
Five: Create a Space
It will be important that the space that’s created, whether virtual or physical, be one that can absorb multiple views and ways of engagement. Not all of us are comfortable with external processing and formulating thoughts ‘on the fly’. There are personality types who process internally and need a moment before they are ready to share their views. Can we purposefully create some silence in our dialogue space that allows for everyone to feel confident in participating? Not all of us feel confident in our public speaking or writing abilities, which may chill our level of participation. Can we create spaces that are inviting and patient that allow for everyone regardless of linguistic aptitude to share their ideas?
Ultimately, we can each make small, every day contributions to larger, system-wide transformations. The nuggets that I receive from colleagues and friends—some from an in-person conversation, some through an IM, or a Facebook post—all create bits of mini-mindfulness that ultimately help make me resilient, open to dialogue with others, and growth. True, often we work in physical isolation, how is it we can ask new questions of old paradigms and overcome that isolation? Many of us work in settings where there are numerous colleagues; do we make the most of those interactions or miss opportunities to participate in dialogue that can move us all forward?
Revolutions of Thought and Practice
It is safe to say that most of us have no desire, either individually or as a professional organization, to mirror the current political environment of debate and polarization. It is destructive, the opposite of engaging, and disheartening. Dialogue that creates conversations that respect and appreciate a multitude of contributions, that are inquisitive and curious, and that allow for revolutions of thought and practice is the path forward.
Perhaps we can’t change the world, but we can certainly change our footprint.
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Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Asking new questions of old data on pages 139, 159. Moving beyond “puzzle-solving” on pages 37, 144. Change in rule sets on pages 40, 41, 52, 175. Change in the direction or “map” of research on pages 109, 111.