I just posted a rather detailed (and perhaps overly complex?) blog on dialog in Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s writings. For practical purposes, I thought it might be helpful to post an extremely simple guide on how to begin engaging in conversation in a more dialogic manner.
Here’s what I’ve found to be an incredibly powerful, yet very simple first step. It’s quite astonishingly effective – IF both people in a conflict are willing to try it; and that’s often, unfortunately, a BIG “if” – when there is particularly strong disagreement on a topic.
Since I’m writing this in particular for the online Integral Yoga group, “Auroconference,” I’ll take two examples that have been the source of a great deal of conflict, Peter Heeh’s book on Sri Aurobindo, and climate change.
Let’s say someone – “Laura” (just making up names here) – writes something about Peter’s book. Let’s say that Laura writes about what a wonderful book it is.
Now, someone else – “Barbara” – is horrified and writes in to say how terrible it is that anyone could even THINK of writing something nice about Peter’s book.
Somehow, Laura manages to convince Barbara to try a dialogic approach. It’s very simple.
Barbara rephrases, in her own language, what Laura said. Most likely, her first attempt will have critical elements, either hidden or more or less obvious. “”Laura thinks Peter’s mean-spirited and biased book is good because….” Well, obviously, that’s not what Laura thinks, that’s what Barbara thinks. So Barbara tries again, now stating it in the first person: “I think Peter’s book is good because….” The second attempt may be better, but it very likely won’t quite capture Laura’s view. After each attempt, Laura tries to explain further what she meant, and they keep going back and forth until Laura is satisfied that Barbara has successfully both (a) captured Laura’s view; and (much more important) (b) done it without even a hint of irritation, anger or emotional reactivity.
Or say they have a disagreement about climate change. Exact same process:
Laura: Anyone who objectively looks at the facts can see the earth has not warmed significantly since 1998.
Barbara: (here’s an example of not being dialogic): “Laura thinks the earth has not warmed since 1998 because she doesn’t understand science and is politically biased.
So the same process – Barbara tries, with Laura’s help, to restate, again and again, as many times as necessary, Laura’s view until it is (a) clearly stated; and (more important) (b) free of all judgment, bias, and reactivity.
This can be applied to virtually any disagreement. It’s not at all easy, and takes a lot of work not to let one’s biases, prejudices, irritation, etc get in the way.
A lot of times, people think their view is so obvious, so scientifically accurate (this comes up a lot in discussions of climate change, on both sides) that there is simply no use in talking to the other side since it’s not a matter of “opinion” but “FACT”!
The thing is, even if, despite what I’ve written here about dialog, you still are convinced that your view is so accurate that there’s simply no need to engage the “other” side, the exercise is still a wonderful yogic exercise in vital equanimity. If you can’t restate an opinion you disagree with calmly, and with deep quiet and inner equanimity, it suggests that perhaps there may be something worth learning by engaging with the other person’s view, even if at the end, you both end up convinced that you were right after all and the other person was wrong.
Many years ago, public television in the US had an 8 part series in which a different controversial topic was addressed using this very exercise. I still remember what to me was a very humorous episode in which a pro-Castro liberal and anti-Castro conservative were on the show. The anti-Castro conservative went first, stating his position. It was then the job of the pro-Castro liberal to restate – with absolutely no bias or emotional reactivity, but in his own words – the position of the anti-Castro conservative.
He couldn’t do it. He was literally stuttering, barely able to get the words out, so incapable was he of empathizing with someone he disagreed with.
This is why I think this is such a wonderful yogic exercise. As the Mother stated in Her essay on education, it is a good exercise for the mind but even better as a character building tool – it takes tremendous “Sincerity” as She put it, and a great deal of inner calm and equanimity to carry out this exercise in the correct spirit.
It’s also profoundly therapeutic and is really the basis of the best practices in psychotherapy, but that’s a whole other blog post!