08/05/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Discussions Are Not Dialogues


Photo: Isabel Rimanoczy

I was driving my car listening to a program on NPR where Diane Rehm was hosting a discussion between an Israeli and a Palestinian expert. I didn't listen to the program from the start, so I don't know how she set it up, but at the time I tuned in, it was a shouting contest. The guests were victims of their own intense emotions and each had a hard time letting the other person finish his thoughts: they were interrupting each other, and the interrupted person would just speak louder and continue, like a passing train that is oblivious to other noises. It was impossible to understand either one, and on top Diane was trying to get some order saying "Hold on, hold on...", which didn't get much attention either. Not only where these individuals not listening to each other, but they were also blaming each other as representing whole cultures, history, leaders, parties and their initiatives. They were not responding to each other's points, but merely reacting to some words, or using them as springboards to state their own preconceived arguments.

I asked myself how will there ever be some progress towards peace if people -- thousands of miles away from the conflict zone -- cannot even listen to each other in a thoughtful way.

The next day I read a line on a website: "It won't stop until we talk," a phrase that could have been said by any couples' or family therapist. Or by the Bushmen in the Kalahari, who sit in a circle around two individuals who are having a problem, and the disputants have to stay there until they decide to talk -- and to talk their problem through. To avoid violence, the tribe members hide any weapons away from their disputants' reach.

"It won't stop until we talk". I found the phrase on the Parents Circle -- Families Forum website, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the prolonged conflict. They believe that the reconciliation between individuals and nations is possible and they are trying to pass on this insight to both sides of the conflict. They invite the victim's family members to meet and talk to each other.

What is the purpose of a conversation? The way we experience it daily, the purpose seems to be to convince someone about a point. Yet that sounds more like a debate, and while I know that debate is practiced regularly in schools, maybe what we need is some training in dialogue. Authentic dialogue is not about convincing -- but about listening; listening to the words but more importantly, to the heart speaking behind the words. With the purpose of listening to each other, the participants of a dialogue are not there to convince anyone of their point of view. Therefore there is no rush to interrupt, and one can wait until another person finishes. In this practice of dialogue, participants are invited to suspend their judgments: nothing is right or wrong, what we hear is what someone else thinks and feels right now and within his/her particular context. After having such an experience of profound listening, everyone is better prepared to address the problems and find solutions that work for all. Why? Because everyone wants to be heard, and not judged. And that is exactly what happens in a dialogue.

I always feel puzzled when I hear some politician say, "We don't talk to xxx until..." Wrong start. We need to start talking -- and listening. Nothing creates a stronger foundation for peace than feeling listened to, acknowledged, and respected. It doesn't require that we agree with the other perspective, just that we are able to "make space" for the other. I hear you, I see you.

Can you imagine what could come out of this? Let's talk. If we do, it might stop.