“In a dialogue nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins.” – author Maria Popova
To have true dialogue, that is “an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement,” we need, as Maria Popova defines it, cooperative dialogue: “a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered response”.
For great conversations to happen, both sides need to listen rather than sit there mentally preparing what they’re going to say next. We need to cultivate open minds and critical thinking. We need to consider people’s worldviews and how they came to be, how they receive their information and from whom, and how their brains work when processing and later retrieving this information.
I came across a great term recently: conversational competence. For a number of reasons – isolation through social media, political polarization, a greater need to consider ourselves as individuals first and above all else – our conversational competence is in severe decline. Like cursive handwriting, it’s become somewhat of a lost art. A return to the conversational style and skill of Downton Abbey is unlikely, but without balanced and critically assessed conversations, we won’t have the type of dialogue necessary to keep agriculture relevant and meaningful to consumers.
Try these tips to increase your conversational competence:
1. Engage people in deeper conversation by using exploratory questions to find out what’s behind their way of thinking and what information has led to their current worldviews.
2. Learn different ways that you can present your thoughts or ideas to different people.
3. I love Chris Brogan’s suggestion: “Allow ‘white space’ around ideas. Don’t overwhelm your listener with content.” Stick to information that’s important to fill an immediate knowledge gap.
4. Pay attention to verbal, non-verbal, and para-verbal cues:
- Verbal: the words coming out of your mouth. They should add value, not white noise. Words are a vehicle for information so choose wisely. Don’t talk just to hear your own voice.
- Non-verbal: body language, the energy when you speak, eye contact. Try to consciously notice what you do and when and whether these ‘tics’ help or hinder your message delivery.
- Para-verbal: the sounds you use to convey meaning behind your words e.g. tone, pitch and cadence. Again, note what intrigues your listener and do more of that.
5. Mental shifts you can cultivate to help make a difficult conversation easier:
- Dealing with a difficult person? Make it less personal, more objective, by reframing it as a difficult situation.
- Experiencing resistance when advocating for your position? Try reframing it as advocating for your interests.
- Trying too hard to be proven right? Try instead to make the information you share effective.
- Trying to change someone’s personality with no success? Try to change their behaviour instead.
And debate growing out of dialogue isn’t a bad thing either.
You can argue to learn by debating with an open mind to help you focus on what you have in common with your ‘opponent’. The opposite of arguing to learn is arguing to win where no one is really listening but is instead preoccupied with keeping score on some “irrelevant mental scoreboard”.
To encourage healthy constructive debate: begin the discussion by having each person present their argument, then listens to the other’s argument, and subsequently move build up and on toward an agreement. Recent research shows that “The mode of argument we engage in actually changes our understanding of the question itself. The more we argue to win, the more we will feel that there is a single objectively correct answer and all other answers are mistaken. Conversely, the more we argue to learn, the more we will feel that there is no single objective truth and different answers can be equally right.”
 “The Tribalism of Truth”, Scientific American, February 2018.