Sitting down to unaffected dialogue

It’s a hothouse flower, an end in itself

January 12, 2020 12:11 pm | Updated 12:11 pm IST

Representative Image.

Representative Image.

Current events have polarised social circles and even families like never before. Spaces for small talk and everyday updates, from dining tables to WhatsApp groups, feel like a minefield as we struggle to speak our minds but also preserve relationships.

To move forward, dialogue is essential among political groups and us. If anything, the dialogue in our homes, canteens and colleges matters more because it shapes the bedrock of values that will inform how we vote and act in the future.

Dialogue is an end in itself. The point is not conversion of the other to our point of view but creating a common ground and a relationship between interlocutors. In this space, we find shared understandings of problems and mutually acceptable solutions. But our true endgame is reconciliation manifested in continuing dialogue and constant renegotiation of relationships. In short, neither conquest nor compromise but consistent, enduring communication and growing mutual acceptance should be the fruits of dialogue.

Dialogue is a hothouse flower. Difficult conversations are rarely possible in public spaces. Interlocutors are locked into positions for reasons of personal prestige. Social platforms and public occasions force us to perform our opening positions for an audience, with no space to say, “I do not know” or “I have not thought of this before”. Omniscience is expected of us, and intransigence reads as conviction. Make it safe for your interlocutor to speak tentatively, raise questions or begin to change their mind; all those conditions apply to you as well, after all.

Initiate dialogue in relatively private settings where both sides can listen and respond without keeping up appearances. As both of you learn another perspective, you are safe to acknowledge your learning or a shift in your thinking.

Don’t alienate

As passions rise, so does the use of angry, intemperate language. We challenge and judge without compassion. Verbal taunts — “Have you no heart?” or “You are narrow-minded and anti-national” — are violence that makes dialogue impossible.

Far better to set aside one’s strong feelings and say, “We seem to differ. I would really like to understand your point of view.” Open your dialogue with an expression of interest in the other perspective. Could you resist an invitation to teach? Give more importance to the experiences and values that bring them to this opinion than facts they marshal because facts are filtered through experiences and values.


Many of us feel so frustrated in this present political moment that no one is listening to us. We have facts at our finger-tips, but no one will take us seriously. Inconvenient but important question: how carefully are we listening to others?

When passion and tensions run high, it is hard to hear equally fervent but opposing views. The result is a cacophony of angry soliloquies and gradually, exhausted by our anger, we tune out, claiming futility.

Just deciding that I am going to listen—genuinely listen—changes that. However hard, however painful, I will listen. Having decided to listen, I bring an open mind and an open heart into the dialogue and optimistically expect to find common ground. I pay attention to the spoken and implicit. I notice body language. I signal listening with responses like “I see” or “Is that so?” I ask real questions, like “I want to understand why you draw that conclusion.” From time to time, I offer a summary of what I have heard to demonstrate listening and give the other person a chance to clarify what they meant.

Small stuff

Perfect composition or politically correct language do not matter. People will use words from the languages and discourses they know and no two people draw on the same universe for these. Cut your interlocutor slack and focus on the meaning. If that is not clear, ask, “Did you mean to say this? Have I understood it correctly?” Take responsibility for understanding correctly; it will make the other person more comfortable as she tries to express herself. In the course of a true conversation, we will all make mistakes, have faulty arguments and use the wrong words. We must remain focused on the substance of what to say.

Information and facts are not a cudgel to demolish other points of view (or people), any more than the government’s coercive mechanisms are. To initiate and nurture dialogue, one has to be willing to admit ignorance and learn. One must wait to share.

Indeed, what do I, as initiator, bring into the dialogue apart from information? Prejudice disguised as passion? Ego expressed through judgment? These impede empathy and without empathy, dialogue is a ritual. Satyagrahis must work on themselves first, after all.

Dialogues succeed because we genuinely want to understand each other and to communicate with each other. Patience and perseverance follow from this desire and so will that elusive common ground.

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