“What ever happened to people just talking?” One hears this exhortation frequently: in casual conversation, in colleges and universities, and ironically, on Facebook. A casual stroll down the street or through a shopping mall will let you know how isolated from personal contact so many have become, as people are walking and texting, enjoying lunch with another while texting, and even driving while texting.
The art of dialogue has always been the most difficult thing for screenwriters to create, as it takes a keen ear to detect subtle differences in dialect and meaning from the spoken word to sound convincing. Closer to the point of this discussion, in the 1950s-60s, television situation comedies gave us the stereotypically inattentive husband, who is intently reading his newspaper while his wife futilely tries to communicate with him.
| Pope Francis greets Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, during a meeting with him and four imams from Britain at the Vatican April 5. CNS photo via L’Osservatore Romano, handout
Perhaps more specifically we should ask, whatever happened to people communicating in a civil fashion? Even one who is only casually aware of the difficulties people have understands that our country and our world have become extremely polarized. Due to advances in communication, many of us find ourselves in an information bubble, only willing to risk a challenge to our beliefs when we feel we are in our comfort zones, even as those channels of communication are often more strident and opinionated than we are ourselves.
It is clear that many citizens are not just unwilling to communicate civilly; many have entirely forgotten or never learned how it’s done. Again, the channels of communication to which we are exposed often preach an entirely different way of engaging in dialogue: Those who disagree with us are uninformed or stupid at best, and an enemy at worst, who must be fought and fought hard, even if in extreme cases it means resorting to violence. This has certainly been happening recently within political discourse, but the violence aspect goes back at least to the 1980s, egged on by the television shows of Morton Downey Jr. and Jerry Springer.
Priority of popes
Dialogue is something that the Catholic Church has come to appreciate relatively recently — in the last 50 years. But it has also received renewed prominence from Pope Francis.
“Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the 11th hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16),” Pope Francis told the U.S. bishops in his address to them at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in September 2015. “The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.”
The roots of the pope’s concern can be found in the teaching of one of his predecessors, Paul VI, whom Francis beatified in October 2014. Pope Paul, who reigned from 1963-78, wrote his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam (“On the Church”), in 1964, as the Second Vatican Council was unfolding.
“The Church must enter into dialogue with the world in which it lives. It has something to say, a message to give, a communication to make,” Paul VI wrote.
The bishops gathered at the council took Pope Paul’s words to heart, and the value of dialogue is a rich vein running through the council’s subsequent documents on ecumenism, non-Christian religions and religious freedom.
Dialogue of faith
There is a widely held perception that of all the areas of conflict and disagreement that exist in the human condition, none separates us more than our faith, or lack of faith. Whether or not this is actually true is subject to some debate, but it is undeniable that our views and beliefs of faith cause us to dig in our heels in conversation.Fortunately, for more than a century now, people of various faiths have been coming together around the world to create dialogues and — among Christians — work toward eventual unity. In a Christian-to-Christian context this is known as “ecumenical dialogue.” When dealing with members of disparate religious traditions,
such as dialogue between Christians and those of other faiths such as Judaism and Islam, the term “interreligious dialogue” applies. It’s worth noting that the purpose of these groups is to promote an understanding of the differences that separate them, with an appreciation for that which unites these otherwise disparate groups. We can only engage in dialogue if we wish to do so. Then we need to respect those with whom we speak, listen to what they have to say, empathize with how and why they may disagree with us, approach them with charity and love in our hearts, and not be too quick to judge them or their opinions.
Author James Keck described his view of modern discussions of disagreement as everyone agrees on 80 percent of everything; the secret is to find what that 80 percent is by getting to know people and listening to them, and then work out your differences on how best to reach a synthesis of views or common ground. Whether or not one accepts the premise of his argument, and whether or not 80 percent is accurate, it seems like a beneficial starting point toward having effective dialogue.
Peter Seely is chair of the Communication Arts department of Benedictine University in Illinois.
|For Fruitful Dialogue
Here are some key principles for engaging in dialogue with those with whom we disagree, and which are consistent with and derive from many Catholic teachings:
Desire to engage in dialogue
As with any agent of change, we have to want to engage in dialogue for its own sake. In order to be effective in dialogue, we have to desire a positive exchange of ideas. There are many positive approaches from this desire which are described below, but they all spring from a willingness for them.
In his treatise “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” Renaissance humanist scholar Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola focused on a relationship between humans and the divine, describing the essential dignity that lies within all of us as being the purpose of God’s creation. God gave us the power to “degrade” ourselves to the level of the lower forms of life, but he also gave us the power of free will to seek that which is good. Having this power bestowed upon us is a gift from God to rise to the heavens and be next to him. Given a more universal spin, as communicators we have the power within us to appeal to the better angels of those with whom we disagree.
Knowing that man has this dignity within him, we should respect the opinions, views and feelings of others. It is, after all, a wise man who knows that what remains in his quest for truth is what he does not know. If you fancy yourself an educated person, one who has all of the knowledge you need, think again: There is so much more that you don’t know, even about those things on which you consider yourself expert. Every human being is deserving of respect because of the aforementioned dignity, but also because of what each individual’s experiences teaches them.
“So there abide faith, hope, and charity,
these three; but the greatest of these is charity (love)” (1 Cor 13:13).
When considering the emotional aspects by which humans are motivated,
one of the greatest gifts or virtues is that of charity. We are moved to
do good things because of the love we possess for our fellow man and
the kindness we show to him. This should not be determined by race,
class or any other qualifier, for as the Lord says at the Last Judgment,
“Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least
of my brethren, you did it for me” (Mt 26:40).
In modern politics, a plainer division may
exist as to what constitutes helping one’s fellow man, but these
divisions occur largely because of their desire to retain their offices.
The average voter may have a loyalty to the Democratic, Republican,
Libertarian or some other political party or one may consider himself
liberal or conservative or moderate. In the end, however, we should seek
helping mankind as a broader goal that we can have some fundamental
agreement upon, and from that we can debate how best to get there.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
We are often misled by a person’s appearance
or demeanor, causing us to grant greater credence to one who is
cleaner, wealthier, or to be blunt, more like us than others, and less
to those we consider not like us, or to whom we may consider inferior in
some way. Some of the most talented, intelligent and loving people may
be unkempt in appearance or look funny to us; by contrast, the most
well-groomed person may have morals and values quite different from our
own or from most people in a civil society.
One very modern impediment to dialogue is
our tendency to live in bubbles. Without assigning blame here, our
modern mass media tend to offer natural bubbles which impede our ability
to understand and listen to one another. We are tribalized as liberal
or conservative, Jews or Gentiles, Chicago Cubs fans or Chicago White
Sox fans, and our lack of empathy often springs from the fact that we
expose ourselves only to outlets which we know will support our own
points of view. Try getting out of your self-imposed bubble. Listen to
and read points of view which differ from your own for a change.
Another impediment to dialogue is the
modern-day phenomenon of social media. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
often go a long way toward preventing us from engaging in dialogue
because we are often too self-absorbed and overly selective of who we
allow into our community. Social media allow us to seclude ourselves in
the bubble of people who support our own views. While it is true that
these media can sometimes actually aid in dialogue, too often this form
of communication allows us to be very selective of whom we wish to
communicate with, and more darkly, allow us to cowardly hide behind a
post or tweet, as often occurs in cyber bullying and other anonymous or
There is an ancient proverb about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Its origin is unknown, and it has been refashioned and restated countless times, even ending up as a movie and a popular song. We are all products of our own experiences and emotions, and humans acquire these from our highest highs and our deepest depths. Our abilities to empathize come not so much from our mental acuity or cognitive powers but rather from emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence does spring from our own backgrounds, and the more we experience and the more we feel, the greater our capacity to understand what other people are going through.
Empathy is only made possible by listening to others. Listening is one of the basic tenets of interpersonal communication. In order to listen, we must first be prepared to listen. Primarily this means being objective about what we are hearing. Try to figure out what are your biases and prejudices, and work to eliminate them. The Speech Communication Association, a national organization for speech communication educators and professionals, used to employ a speech proficiency test, one of the primary purposes being to test a person’s objectivity. One of the exercises was to think of an issue about which you feel strongly one way or another, and then to think about someone who would disagree with you, and without any reference to your own opinions, describe that other person’s point of view. Of the 19 dimensions of the exam, this was often the most difficult for people to do: We often simply cannot see another person’s point of view isolated from our own.
Roots in history
The concept of dialogue predates internet discourse by millennia
Socrates and Plato played a major role in dialogue development. Shutterstock
In western civilization, the origin of dialogue is generally credited to Socrates and Plato, though there is some evidence of the commonly recognized techniques we have come to associate with dialogue in various Asian and non-Western civilizations. Socrates used what has become known as Socratic dialogue, using conversational techniques to stimulate critical thinking and to allow his students to question their own hastily formed opinions, allowing them to eliminate those lacking logic.
The seminal work in literature that is still the best work to consult in this regard is Dialogues of Plato. In these dialogues, Plato has cast Socrates as the main character. Socrates portrays himself as a simple man with very little knowledge on a variety of larger moral and philosophical issues in Greece. When confronted with self-proclaimed experts in various fields, Socrates by and by comes to deconstruct the statements made by such people, pointing out the inconsistencies in their theories and arguments, thereby leading them to begin questioning hard and fast beliefs and opinions they have come to hold very dear. Through these deconstruction techniques, the student arrives at his or her own conclusions to eliminate illogical beliefs. Most of the Platonic dialogues were later confirmed by Aristotle as actually Socratic in origin.
Aristotle widely is viewed as the father of modern persuasion. While dialogue serves a multitude of purposes, its most difficult application is within the realm of persuasion. It was Aristotle who coined the terms logos, pathos and ethos. Logos describes a logical response: the notion that to win over the minds of people, one must offer logical reasoning through effective arguments, supported by facts and an abundance of other evidence. The use of reasoning comes from a sound cognitive idea and a firm grasp of logic. As it has developed since the days of Aristotle, reasoning can be inductive, or reasoning from particular instances to broader, generalized assumptions. For example, most practicing Catholics follow the teachings of the Church and the writings of the popes for spiritual guidance; therefore, this formulates the foundation of the thinking of most Catholics.
Deductive is reasoning from the general to the particular. For example, all who believe that Jesus Christ is the savior of man are Christians. St. Peter, who was the first pope of the Catholic Church, believed Jesus was the savior of man. Therefore, all Catholics are Christian. Of course, if the initial premise is incorrect, the argument falls apart.
Pathos as described by Aristotle is a human emotional response. In modern times since the development of the theories of Sigmund Freud, pathos has come to mean a psychological response by humans. We often communicate about questions of value; opinions are formed by more qualitative, human concerns, even dualities. Things are right or wrong, just or unjust, or one thing is better than another, for example.
Lastly there is ethos, or an ethical response. Humans are convinced of the worth of the argument based upon the credibility of the presenter. To determine whether the source of information is credible, one will ponder: is the person honest, intelligent, educated, charismatic, knowledgeable, compassionate, charitable, empathetic, reasonable, likeable, and a whole host of issues related to why a person is considered a reliable source. I believe this person because he/she has a track record of being correct on many issues, has proven to have compassion and understanding to people who are affected by this issue, will be reasonable in their ideas, or has the knowledge and intelligence to be able to solve the problem.
|Four Kinds of Dialogue
Pope Francis stands between Jewish and Muslim religious leaders during an interfaith prayer service at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York on Sept. 25, 2015. CNS photo by Paul Haring
The Catholic tradition holds that dialogue is about more than speaking and listening, particularly with dialogue between believers. In 1991, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued the document “Dialogue and Proclamation,” which outlined four forms of dialogue that had emerged in the Church’s understanding of dialogue in the years since Vatican II. They were:
1. Dialogue of life: This is simply where people live and act as neighbors, sharing their joys with each other, as well as their struggles and sorrows. This establishes right off the bat that dialogue is intended to be part of our daily lives, and that we are meant to encounter our neighbors, not be alienated from them.
2. Dialogue of action: This is where people come together in the service of other people, whether that’s serving the homeless at a soup kitchen, or protesting an unjust war or unsafe working conditions. This is perhaps the most visible expression of dialogue between religious communities, which often come together at the local level to promote community initiatives rooted in values that span their traditions.
3. Dialogue of theological exchange:
This is the most formal and institutionalized of the four. In the decades since Vatican II, official dialogues have met regularly at local, regional, national and international levels. Both the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops maintain these standing dialogues, addressing various questions of thought and belief with interlocutors of Lutheran, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and other religious backgrounds. These dialogues periodically produce statements and even official declarations of agreement, where the dialogue process has allowed understanding between groups to progress to the point where our differences on certain issues are understood in a new light or even no longer seen as dividing. A standout example of this would be the 1999 “Joint Declaration on Justification,” signed by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. That document, addressing development in thought around the Reformation-era debate of justification through works versus faith, said Catholics and Lutherans agree that underpinning all of salvation is God’s grace and that faith and works flow from that.
4. Dialogue of religious experience:
| Pope St. John Paul II is pictured during a 1986 interfaith prayer gathering in the Italian town of Assisi. Both of his successors have held similar gatherings in Assisi. CNS file photo
According to “Dialogue and Proclamation,” this is “where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.” In other words, this moves beyond intellectually focusing on each other to spiritually walking together and grasping the reality of the other’s experience of the divine. Practically, this can be found in a setting as simple as an ecumenical or interfaith prayer service, such as the one Pope Francis led at Ground Zero in New York during his 2015 visit to the United States, or the famous gathering in Assisi, which Pope St. John Paul II led in 1986.