What kind of a discussion is an inspiring one? Is it a discussion where I can freely talk about the things that are important to me? Or one where the other participants have something interesting to say? Or a discussion that leads to a discovery of something new and surprising?
At its best, dialogical discussions are inspiring. As they aim at creating deeper understanding, dialogues are primarily learning situations. Thus, they are regulated by the same factors as learning in general. In the light of research in learning psychology, we know that a person learns best in a situation that is safe but also exciting.
Safety is required so that people dare venture to try new things; excitement is needed so that they want to do so. When the right kind of balance between safety and excitement is achieved, learning is profound and often also exhilarating.
Creating safety has received a lot of attention in the context of dialogue. Creation of excitement has gotten less attention. This is understandable because almost always – especially when we are unfamiliar with each other or talk about difficult things – building safety needs to be focused on first. Rules of discussion, attuning into the other participants and their experiences, and the discussion facilitator’s trust evoking actions gradually increases safety in dialogue. When the feeling of trust has emerged, however, it might so happen that the discussion remains a polite exchange of ideas. Dialogue does not deepen; passions do not budge.
How can we, then, increase excitement in dialogue? It is clear that disagreements and conflicts often automatically raise the excitement of the situation, at worst even to the point of anxiety that suffocates learning. However, they are not the only things bringing excitement. The emergence of confusing, weird, and unexpected things in the discussion also increases the excitement: the discussed topic evokes completely different kinds of feelings in the participants, different people take the matter into diverge directions, and views are justified with experiences conflicting between each other.
Where do these kinds of surprises stem from? The answer is simple but multifaceted. Excitement emerges when people’s different experiences meet each other in a new way. For this reason, it is essential that the entire spectrum of human experience – thoughts, perceptions, feelings, memories, and imagination – is richly brought up in dialogue. Thus, we should first encourage the participants to diversely express their experiences. Often, they have to be invited to talk about perception and mental images alongside thoughts, to tempt out feelings and memories.
When we talk about different dimensions of experience, hidden differences in them need to be grasped. At what points do we experience the topics of dialogue in differently? What is perplexing about these differences? Where do they stem from? Ask more about the participants’ experiences!
In the end, it the dialogue facilitator’s responsibility to add the excitement in the dialogue. They can prepare the raising of excitement by thinking about the following things. What in this topic perplexes, annoys, or exhilarates me? What could be puzzling in the other people’s viewpoints? Which are the hidden dangers of handling this topic blandly? What would surprise me? What is the big mystery of our topic for me?
Not only should one think about these kinds of questions beforehand, but it is also relevant to listen and observe what the participants bring up. It is also worthwhile to stretch one’s imagination to envision other’s experiences so that the situations and events others talk about can be seen in one’s mind. When a confusing or surprising matter emerges in the dialogue’s facilitator’s mind, they can try to say something about it loud. Did others also get confused about it? Was it surprising also to them? Provocative perhaps? Hopefully the discussion becomes gradually more exciting…
- Prepare beforehand for bringing both safety and excitement into the dialogue.
- Create safety: with your own actions, rules, tuning into the topic and other participants
- Make sure that the participants talk diversely about their own experiences. Pay attention to the different dimensions of the experience.
- Pay attention to the differences between the participants’ experiences.
- Bring up matters that puzzle you: confusions, surprises, tensions.
- Invite the participants along to create excitement.