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Group Practices: Vulnerability
Dialogue as Conversational Vulnerability
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The topics chosen for the Trinity Wall Street Dialogues were ones where the participants admitted to not knowing the answers. [insert link to story] Dialogue, as we practiced it in the WSD group, was a form of conversation which deliberately included elements Renee’s study cites under “vulnerability” as a shifting factor. We stayed in a place of "not knowing" and we discussed sensitive topics from personal experience rather than from objective facts. It took time to unlearn our usual habits of conversation, but once we did, the sense of vulnerability transformed into one of intimacy and resonance.

These were the guidelines for our practice of Dialogue:

(1) We assume that many people have parts of the answer to any complex question. It’s not that we’re going to go out and do some more analysis or gather some more data to find an answer. We must have lots of people engaged collaboratively. We’re searching for our understanding in the relationship between our ideas.

(2) We seek and value difference. In our culture we place high value on agreement, on consensus. But in dialogue our underlying assumption is that we don’t know very much about something unless we have a variety of perspectives on it. People with very similar backgrounds tend to share similar perspectives.

(3) It’s not a debate. It’s not about my ideas being better or winning over your ideas. Instead of agreeing or disagreeing when I'm listening to another person, I try to understand what their assumptions are and what their stories and the world they live in is, and how that’s different from my assumptions and my stories about the world. That helps me accept their perspective as a different but also legitimate one.

(3) Dialogue is an open-ended conversation. It’s meant to generate more options, more ideas, more insight, and not necessarily to lead quickly or at all to some kind of closure. In the Wall Street Dialogues, we said “We’re coming here to find the answers”. But our attitude became “We’re coming here to make sure that we’re asking the right questions, that we really have enough perspectives to understand the topics of our concern.”

(4) The people in the group feel a sense of equality, empathy, and openness. "Equality" means is that everyone around the table is equal for the purposes of the dialogue. As one person put it, “We leave our resumes and our positions at the door.”

"Empathy" means we put ourselves in a place of listening to another human being who in some way we’ve come to care about. If I see you only as the person arguing for a particular idea or a particular position, I'm not engaging with you as a person, I'm engaging with an “it” of that idea or that position.

"Openness" means we’re open to each other as human beings. We're even open to how our interaction with another person and our listening to another's ideas might change our own beliefs and sense of self.

When your group is practicing this kind of conversation, it would be wise at first to separate dialogue and decision-making. Experiment with using dialogue for generating options and then call a close to that section and say, “Now we need to go into decision mode and make some decisions.” But just be aware that when you move from dialogue to decision, if you ignore what’s come up in the dialogue or dismiss it as unpractical or irrelevant, it’s because you switched back into analytical mode. Then you’re just using dialogue as the latest faddish technique. You’re not understanding dialogue as truly a different way of knowing about the world that might just be more valuable for addressing some of the most important questions you face.

SOURCE: Beth Thoma Robinson, Ph.D. [add link to her profile]

RESOURCES: More on the initial “rules” we adopted for dialogue can be found in our collaborator Dan Yankelovich’s book The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation, Touchstone, 1999.

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