As one of the initial signatories of the protocol for a respectful dialogue I recently found myself rather shamefacedly apologising for my contribution to a less than exemplary discussion with friends over dinner. As the meal progressed I increasingly felt I was generating more heat (and noise) than light as I got more and more frustrated at apparently not being able to make myself understood and as I found myself boxed into a position entirely of my own making.
This led me to reflect more widely on why what causes dialogue to slip into a debate in which respect can become a victim. After all few of us would want to sign up to a protocol for disrespectful dialogue. Fear, passion and frustration at not being able to explain seem to be some of the things at the heart of what can cause things to slip out of control.
The desire to explain (what often seems blindingly obvious to us) can cause us to omit some preparatory steps which will increase the odds of your explanation being heard. Acknowledging and accepting where someone is coming from (even if you don’t agree with them), recognising why they might find themselves there and reassuring them of your motivations, provides a platform for engagement against which your explanations might better be heard. How often in our desire to be understood do we simply dive into an explanation without any attempt to set the scene?
This can probably also be linked to one of the many psychological biases that cloud our judgements. These biases have deep evolutionary roots and have aided our survival in an dangerous environment where decisions have to be made quickly. We have a tendency to judge other people by what they say and do with little reference to the context that they find themselves in – while at the same time we see our own words and actions as being conditioned by circumstances and as such should not be taken as an indication of who we really are.
This is particularly the case if what someone says appears to confirm a conclusion we have already reached, often on very limited evidence. And if we’re doing this to others, it’s very likely the same thing is happening in reverse. It’s for this reason that taking a bit of time to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you better understand where they’re coming from. It’s sometime hard to do in the heat of the moment but it might engender a bit more respect in any dialogue that follows and a more productive outcome.
 See ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahnaman for a fascinating insight into the many traps and biases that influence our understanding and the way we make decisions.