Tuesday, 14 June 2011
A cardinal principle of dialogue states that one should strive to understand the other from within the other’s own terms of reference and then strive to respond accordingly. This means being sensitive to the cultural and theological barriers that lead easily to miscommunications. Rather than presuming similarities, one needs to be open to differences, subtle or not, and to learn how the other can operate with a different perspective on the world, with a different set of presuppositions and a differently nuanced set of values. Otherwise, we miss what is distinctive about our dialogue partners. This is particularly critical when we share so many aspects of culture that we become unaware of the need to translate, presuming that our words and ideas are received as we intend them.
Our brains can be compared to filing cabinets or hard drives. We humans tend to listen selectively, filing away that which fits into our preconceived constructs, that for which we already have folders, and either misfiling or ignoring the rest. In dialogue, we meet an other who frequently structures ideas and information differently, who organizes information into a different set of mental files. How do we achieve communication? Dialogue challenges us, on the one hand, to open new files for ourselves, to acquire new ways of organizing and integrating incoming information. On the other hand, it challenges us to discern how our partner has previously learned to organize information and to try to communicate in such a way that what is important to us fits as well as possible into the other’s preexisting file structure – to minimize our partner’s need for architectural reform to achieve understanding. By striving to maximize our own mental flexibility and to minimize our demands on our dialogue partner, we seek a maximally successful act of communication.