Dialogue: How to Talk

Dialogue: How to Discuss an Issue

One of my retirement activities is conversation.  I love talking with people, but not so much small talk as big talk.  I like to discuss things that really matter.  For decades I have sought out people not likely to agree with me for such discussions.  I do a lot of this online as emails, but my favorite way is in person.

A few years ago I started an email conversation with Tony, a political conservative.  We had both had letters-to-the-editor published locally and we got in touch by email to discuss our very different views.  A little later a local psychologist got a letter published suggesting civil discussion across ideological and party lines.  Tony and I got in touch with him and the three of us met every few weeks in Larry’s office.  Over time each of us told friends about our little group and it grew.  Eventually it grew to an email list of about twenty people who range from the left all the way to the Tea Party.  We now call our group The Curmudgeons.

The email correspondence is overwhelming but I try to engage in it as best as I can.  The in-person meetings are now monthly and these follow a format that allows everyone to be heard.  There is a main speaker and then everyone in the room gets an opportunity to ask questions or express an opinion.  We try to find speakers among ourselves but have started bringing in people.  Our most recent meeting, at which there were 16 people in attendance, had a professional commercial lobbyist as speaker.

I came to this idea of conversations among different kinds of people from my own life experience.  At age fourteen I was part of a group which probably consisted entirely of what we would now call nerds.  We met once a month and brought in a speaker or film for discussion.  On TV in Chicago we had a truly remarkable talk show, “At Random” with Irv Kupcinet.  This unrehearsed one-camera program started after the late movie on Saturday night and lasted for about two hours.  I wish I could find a recording of one of these programs but I think none exist.  I did find a brief clip on YouTube with just the introduction of the guests which included Walter Winchell, Walter Cronkheit, and Edward R. Murrow.  I guess the subject was going to be news media.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NP_bJJYuP9U

There are also historical models for this group.  Benjamin Franklin presided over such a group for about forty years, until he got too busy with the Revolution.  He called his group Junto and its members included people of various opinions.  Mark Twain also had such a group who met over cigars and scotch for decades.  Before then, there were the coffee houses of Europe where men (I think it was mostly men) would discuss the affairs of the day over cups of joe.  Madame de Stael held salons in Paris and other places where the great men of her day met to discuss and argue.  Then, of course, there was the salon of Gertrude Stein early in the 20th century.

The Curmudgeons seeks to keep alive a wonderful and venerable tradition of polite conversation of hot issues.

How do we do this?  We are not allowed to attack each other personally and we are encouraged to argue our own opinions and beliefs while respecting those of others.  I have a favorite teaching about dialogue from Hasidic tradition.  It says that in order to dialogue we must be true to ourselves.  I learned this from my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who quotes it in the name of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (sources are important).  Here goes (you ought to read this out loud and probably more than once in order to understand it).

If I am I because you are you


You are you because I am I


I am not I and You are not you.


If I am I because I am I


You are you because you are you


I am I


You are you.

[And we can talk]


3 responses to “Dialogue: How to Talk”

  1. Lynn D Sherman says :

    I thought the topic of your blog post todaywas quite eye opening. It is so important to hear diverse ideas. The challange for each of us is learning and practicing how to listen. In the world we live in, I find that I am constantly barraged by information. It is so difficult to absorb information and to turn it into knowledge. I continue to watch and learn from others as to how they are able to drill down and learn.
    I am interested in knowing what ideas you think of as “big ideas”?

    I continue to follow your blog and to learn from it. Thank you

  2. Joshua says :

    “For decades I have sought out people not likely to disagree with me for such discussions.”

    I have a hard time believing that this wasn’t a misstatement as I think you’ve been pretty open about talking to people who disagree with you. Maybe I’ve just been fortunate enough to see it happen. Of all the things I admire about you one of the more prominent ones is your ability to converse rather than debate.

    One of my favorite examples of this was when a Libertarian friend of mine who was a collegiate debate champion and is now a lawyer engaged you on some social issue. As the conversation continued it became clear that he was trying to win while you were just expressing your thoughts and imparting your knowledge while hearing his thoughts and point of view.

    I’d like to think some of this rubbed off on me. When I first started working I was up having drinks with an EVP of sales one night talking about the nature and ultimate importance of winning. I argued that sometimes the experience is just as important as the outcome. After almost an hour and several glasses of scotch I said something like “At the end of the night I will have enjoyed our conversation (and the scotch) but won’t have changed my mind about whether winning is the most important thing. So I win.”

    • pearleaf2012 says :

      Wow! I cannot believe I made such an error in my first blog. Of course I meant that I have always sought out people I do not agree with for real dialogue. I think you can learn far more from argument than from affirmation or agreement. I’ll edit that blog right now. Thanks.

      On Thu, May 16, 2013 at 4:03 PM, pearleafblog

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