Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Communication as dialogue

Dialogue and the situated individual

On account of the very nature of the human social situation, all human communication is dialogue according to Eisenberg, Goodall, & Tretheway (2010). Humans are “situated individuals” caught up in the dialectical tension between what Mead calls “the story of I” and “the story of me” (38). This distinction amounts to what a person is in their closet (the story of I) versus the person they are in the world (story of me). In the closet, they have a developed sense of self, with their own unique thoughts, creative insights, and personal identity while in the social world, they feel the pull to think and act according the constraints prevailing within their community. In this sense, constraints are limitations set upon the creativity and freedom of the self in “the story of I” and help form the context for the self in interpreting and then appropriately navigating the social world in “the story of me” (38). Since the human social experience does not exist in radical isolation, but is rather inescapably caught up in this interface between the public and private self, communication is appropriately understood as dialogue. '

Dialogue as mindful communication

Dialogue represents the intersection of the individual and the community in a conversation about the meaning or interpretation of things effecting both groups. At the level of individual self, participation in this constructive conversation begins with conscious thoughtful reflection. This is what Eisenberg et al., call “mindful communication” (41). When a particular group is faced with conflict or possible negative outcomes, individuals come together and communicate mindfully in order to construct an interpretation which is rational and strategic. At the group level, conversation includes “listening” as thoughtful ideas are communicated. This added dimension of listening now draws into the discussion the concepts of equity and quality.

Dialogue as equitable transaction

Equity, in group conversation, addresses the problem of “voice.” Voice, according to Eisenberg et al., involves not only the questions of who may participate in the conversation, when, and for how long, but the additional question of whether individuap participants maintain the confidence that they are permitted to contribute their perspective without fear of reprisal at the hands of the dominant (43).  This issue of voice is an especially important consideration in situations where tensions exist between opinions of superiors and subordinates. In a situation such as this, the outstanding concern is not only who will be allowed to speak but who will be heard, and why? This last thought leads to a discussion of the quality of communication.

Dialogue as empathic communication

One response to the set of questions addressed in the concern above, about who would be allowed to speak and be heard is that of empathic communication. Empathic communication is “the ability to understand or imagine the world as another person understands or imagines it” (43). This perspective represents an attempt to try to appreciate opinions of others without being judgmental of those viewpoints which are contradictory to the prevailing opinion. In the sense that it offers voice to members in conversation and permits participation without vilification it does address the questions raised, but only up to a point. It has been successfully argued by Buber, that empathic communication tends to objectify other participants rather than include them as fellow interpreters. Buber’s concern is that merely permitting verbal participation without judgment does not necessarily entail voice for the other person if the opinion is immediately discarded all the while leaving the superficial impression that all parties are equal participants in dialogue.

Dialogue as real meeting

The counterproposal to empathic communication is dialogue as real meeting (43). On this construction, dialogue is built on a foundation of mutual respect for all involved and it acknowledges all parties as equal interpreters. Two components sharply distinguish this perspective from empathic communication. First, in dialogue as real meeting, all who contribute to the dialogue share responsibility for the conversation and are equally responsible for the risks taken as a result of the dialogue. This clearly goes beyond permitting participation without judgment in that it invites participation for all who desire to share responsibility for the outcome whether it ends up positively or negatively. Second, in dialogue as real meeting, discussion is not merely for the purpose of exchanging ideas or information in order to learn, it is engaged in for the purpose of revising how the parties involved actually understand something (46). Obviously, this involves far more than simply getting someone’s “take” on a situation for the sake of information; it involves being open to changing an opinion as the result of soliciting the perspective of another. Taking such a risk in opening up this kind of dialogue certainly requires that enormous respect must be granted up front to those invited into such a conversation.