Whether we are talking about food production or the growing problem of refugees, if an issue becomes too complex, we start calling for a dialogue. But dialogues themselves are complex as well. Unlike a debate, you cannot win a dialogue. The idea is that everyone taking part contributes to the answer until you jointly arrive at a solution. But as people are naturally inclined to stick to their guns, dialogues are very rarely successful. These were the words of Noelle Aarts upon taking of the post of Professor of Communication and Change in Life Science Contexts at Wageningen University, on 3 September.
Professor Aarts is researching the course of conversations between people involved in complex and controversial issues in the field of life science. She is looking for patterns that might explain why these discussions are often unproductive and tend to do more harm than good to the underlying relationship between the opponents.
People use all kinds of strategies to convince their conversation partner that they are right, said Aarts in her lecture entitled ‘The art of dialogue’. Unintentionally, many of these strategies actually have a polarising effect. “For example, we tend to use suggestive, intensifying language – consider ‘a tsunami of refugees flooding our country’ – or exaggerations, and we impose our own standards and values, forcing ourselves and the other party to think and reason in dichotomies: the wolf does or doesn’t belong here, it spontaneously wandered across the border or it didn’t. Contradictions like these may help us to make straightforward decisions about complex questions, but they do not bring the parties closer together.”
Opinion becomes reality
Another contributing factor is the fact that people tend to choose like-minded people to discuss complex and controversial issues with. In these conversations, the parties endorse each other’s opinions and turn them into a shared reality. This only serves to increase the distance between them and their opponents.
In spite of this, conversations between people with differing opinions are the key to bringing people closer together. “In principle, conversations are an important mechanism for instigating change and innovation, as they introduce people to a different view of the world,” says Aarts. “This is what makes it so important to stimulate conversation between people with different views.”
However, most people do not have the skills needed to conduct an effective discussion with people who think differently. Aarts is astonished that given the importance of effective dialogue, the art of conversation is not higher on the educational agenda. “We must ensure that society does not splinter into groups of people who live back-to-back. The idea that there is only one reality is what leads to conflict, not differences of opinion.”
The professor would like to see society develop ‘conversational responsibility’, i.e. an awareness of the assumptions that we make without thinking, the way in which we formulate these assumptions and the possible consequences this has for others. The way we formulate our opinions has an impact on how other people perceive them, which in turn affects their opinions and ultimately the decisions made at various different levels. We must also learn to listen more carefully, says Aarts. “Our everyday conversations are not entirely free of implications. They give shape and order to society, sometimes in a way that we did not intend.”