Valentine’s Day: The Gift of Dialogue

Valentine’s Day is similar to Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other significant holidays in raising expectations that may not be met.

We idealize the loving couple out for dinner, holding hands, eyes locked together throughout their slow, romantic evening, exchanging thoughtful gifts.

More commonly, our real-world busy couple has a quick kiss as they run out the door to work, exchange the required flowers or chocolates they quickly picked up at the market on the way home, then chit-chat through dinner while their subterranean selves run through the chores and obligations they need to attend to the next day.

The difference, of course, is intimacy, and in whether our mythical valentine’s couple has developed this simple but most difficult of skills.

In my work at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, I’ve been impressed by how the formal and public practice of dialogue can lead to intimacy and connection outside the civic sphere, in our private relationships.

We describe dialogue as involving collaborative listening and learning to discover meaning among diverse participants, best conducted in the context of citizenship and civic engagement. Yet, in my experience the intimacy created through the art of public discourse is transferable to every aspect of our deeply personal interactions.

What are the dialogue tools that can turn a mundane conversation into a profound connection? The first is presence, being genuinely and fully engaged. Seems straightforward, yet it is the most forgotten aspect of contemporary conversation.

Try this exercise randomly in meetings at work: stop your meeting for a moment and ask everyone to write down what else was going through their minds while a colleague was talking. I do this often as I facilitate dialogues, and invariably the embarrassed participants write lists of distracting issues that were preventing them from being fully present in the discussion.

The good news is that I notice an immediate shift in the room, from distraction to attention, and a clear increase in presence and interaction, once we get the garbage thoughts out of our heads and truly listen.

Listening is a second key aspect of dialogue, whether talking about a tough issue at work, politics in the civic sphere, or in the most romantic of interactions. But we tend to listen with a judgment editor in our minds, an inner voice that weighs in to agree or disagree with the viewpoints we’re hearing.

Good communication requires that we suspend judgment of right or wrong, and accept the validity and equality of other points of view. In the end, we don’t have to agree, but true intimacy requires that we at least understand. Any opinion can be torn to shreds in debate by a skilled adversary, but arguing is not dialogue, and tolerance for nuance, ambiguity, and even inconsistency is a key element of intimate relationships, whether at work or at home.

Another aspect of dialogue is a not to do: do not suck the air out of the room by taking up too much space. Picture yourself sitting next to our valentine couple’s table in a quiet, romantic, checked-tablecloth restaurant, and eavesdropping. Yes, we’ve all listened in to our neighbours’ conversations, and too-often what we hear is one member of the couple talking on and on, while the other purports to listen but really drifts into their own thoughts.

An exercise I do with over-talkers is allow them one comment during a meeting, and one only. Once they’ve spoken, their task for the rest of the meeting is to stop themselves every time they want to speak, and write down what they learned by listening to someone else rather than monopolizing the floor. You can almost see the light bulb go on as they understand how discussions thrive and understandings grow through their own brevity and silence.

Two other aspects of dialogue are effectively transferable from the public to the private spheres. One is to ask deeper questions, which is a byproduct of strong listening. Try, for example, asking a colleague at work, or your valentine, why a particular conversation point is so important to them. Everything is personal, and uncovering the underlying history, experiences, and motivations behind perspectives will turn the most mundane discussion into intimacy.

Finally, listen not only to what is being said, but what is left unsaid. Ask yourself “What am I not saying in this conversation”? “What are we not saying to each other?” Often the most significant and connecting issues occur beneath the surface, at the place where even our own conscious minds may not be aware of what we mean.

Consider giving the gift of dialogue this Valentine’s Day. Be present, listen, provide room in conversations, ask real questions, and attend to the unsaid.

Dialogue is highly effective at work, but also promotes the closeness at home that will make this Valentine’s Day a truly intimate one.