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Build Bridges and Not Walls - The Magic of Authentic Dialogue

Legendary physicist David Bohm noted, “It is clear that if we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise defends his own ideas."

Bohm, who contributed unorthodox ideas to quantum theory, neuropsychology, and the philosophy of the mind, was describing "authentic dialogue."  Authentic dialogue is distinct from communication. Communication is usually an excellent way to resolve differences of opinion or perspectives. However, many discussions often end up being a ping-pong of views or a battle of ideas in which the person with the most stamina, the loudest voice, or the most forceful presence wins. We need only witness what occurs in many of our political interchanges to realize communications like that don’t bring us successful resolutions.

Authentic dialogue is distinct in that it reclaims the true meaning of communication - to make something common. In genuine dialogue, the participants are not seeking to re-enforce ideas already known to them. Instead, authentic dialogue creates something new and reveals ideas previously unknown to either party. Authentic dialogue is like putting wheels and a suitcase together to create a suitcase on wheels. It is the combination of disparate ideas put together in a way that leads to a result previously unimagined. 

In an authentic dialogue, no one tries to gain points or seeks to impose their opinion on other people who have a different perspective. The parties are not playing a game against each other, but rather with each other. Authentic dialogue aims to reach a point where everyone wins and arrives at a bigger, better, higher idea or truth.

With so much polarization in society and the world today, authentic dialogue is urgently needed to resolve differences and conflicts. Having an authentic dialogue requires 1. Generous listening, 2. A bigger vision of what’s possible, and 3. A willingness, even an eagerness, to change one’s mind. 

Imagine the following scenario as an illustration of authentic dialogue (the debate was real, but the outcome is one I made up):

The school board meeting was tense. It was on the topic of whether to ban "Maus," a book about the Holocaust, from the school curriculum. Two distinct groups had formed, each vehemently advocating for their stance. On one side of the room were parents and community members who believed the book was inappropriate for the curriculum due to its graphic content and use of profanity. On the other side were teachers, students, and advocates for free speech who argued passionately for the book's inclusion, emphasizing its educational value and importance in understanding the Holocaust.

As the meeting began, both sides immediately launched into their arguments. The parents and community members cited passages they found objectionable, expressing concern about exposing young minds to such explicit content. Meanwhile, the teachers and students defended the book, highlighting its powerful narrative and the critical lessons it imparted about history and humanity.

Initially, the atmosphere remained tense as each side sought to convince the other of the righteousness of their position. However, as the discussion progressed, a shift began to occur.

  1. Generous Listening: Amidst the heated exchange of arguments, a few individuals on both sides consciously tried to truly listen to what the other side was saying. Rather than dismissing opposing viewpoints, they sought to understand the underlying concerns and motivations driving them. A parent, deeply concerned about their child's emotional well-being, listened as a student shared their emotional connection to the book and how it had broadened their understanding of the Holocaust.

  2. Expanding Vision: As the dialogue continued, individuals on both sides started questioning their assumptions and preconceptions. Some parents, initially adamant about the need to protect children from explicit content, began to consider the possibility that sheltering them too much could hinder their ability to engage with complex topics in the future. Likewise, some teachers and students, while passionate about defending free speech, acknowledged the importance of sensitivity to the concerns of parents and the community.

  3. Changing Minds: Amid this evolving dialogue, a remarkable moment occurred when individuals on both sides openly admitted to reevaluating their positions. A parent who had been staunchly opposed to the book's inclusion, acknowledging its profound impact on their child's understanding of history, expressed a newfound willingness to reconsider their stance. Similarly, a teacher who had been adamant about defending academic freedom, recognizing the need for collaboration and compromise, expressed a desire to explore alternative approaches to teaching sensitive material.

By the end of the meeting, the tone had shifted from adversarial to collaborative. Both sides, through the process of authentic dialogue, had not only gained a deeper understanding of each other's perspectives but had also discovered common ground. Rather than seeking to impose their views, they engaged in a shared journey of exploration and discovery, ultimately arriving at a decision that honored the principles of free speech and the community's concerns.

In other words, each party sought to be understood and to understand. They moved toward living in harmony by making that the objective of their interactions, as David Bohm discussed. This need not be a pipe dream; it can be the reality in which we live our lives as we create a better, more peaceful world. 

Peace and Blessings,


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