One afternoon, while walking through the corridors of my university, I caught a conversation mid-air, a distressed one. This is what I heard.
“They don’t even want to listen, but will rush to defend what they are saying.”
“Yes! When I say something, I am first labelled a feminist and then they go on to tell me why I am wrong and they are right.”
This university teaches the social sciences and the students I passed were part of a postgraduate course in education. What is taught at the university often brings to the fore differing ideologies and narratives, including extreme ones. Essentially, the university is a microcosm of the larger world we live in and it offers a fair amount of scope for engagement between these ideologies because they exist within the same shared space. And yet, fairly often, as the friends in the conversation pointed out, there seems to be little or no listening.
While drawing this conclusion from a single conversation could be considered too broad a generalization, it would not be untrue to say that we often find ourselves in positions like this, where we think the other person is not listening. I, for one, have found myself here very often with my parents, friends, neighbours and acquaintances. In conversations, I would often wonder if they were listening at all or if they were already thinking about how to reply to what I was saying.
And then I made a new discovery. On reading Bohm, a physicist who wrote about dialogue and the need to communicate, I wondered for the first time, whether I was listening at all.
While attending a course on sociology in the first year of my post-graduation (at the same university), I was initiated into understanding the ways in which our lives are organized through structures and systems that are oppressive. I resolved that from that moment on, I was going to work against these systems, and I began by having conversations with my mother. Before beginning, I, being the social scientist, would tell my mother, “Amma, we can only have this conversation if you are willing to come in believing that after the conversation, you could leave the room thinking differently.” For myself, I gave no disclaimers because by now I believed I knew all there was to know about the oppressiveness of the systems I was passionately fighting against.
And then, I read Bohm. When Lee Nichols, in his foreword to Bohm’s book titled On Dialogue, refers to Bohm’s idea of listening, I took it personally. Nichols writes,
“Bohm here outlines a listening of a different order, a listening in which the very mis-perception of one’s spoken intent can lead to new meaning that is created on the spot.”
In dialogue, listening often refers to paying thorough and careful attention to what the other person has to say, to offer them the space and time to express what they want to without being interrupted, and to being empathetic when they speak. Bohm’s idea of listening, in his conception of dialogue (detailed below) does not negate this, but adds another layer to it.
It is when I read this that I realized that while I told my mother that she should consider the possibility of leaving the conversation believing something differently, I did not expect myself to. I would listen to her, nod my head and hum in response, but I still believed that I definitely knew better than her, what with my sociology education and everything I had learnt.
Bohm’s conception of dialogue is one that allows for the free flow of meaning. This means that when in dialogue, meaning is being created as it passes from person to person; it is being layered by one after the other. This ultimately leads to a shared meaning that is created through the process. Here, listening is as much an important part of dialoguing as contributing is. What then does it take to listen?
Bohm believes that our inability to communicate is partly a result of the ‘blocks’ that we have. By blocks, he refers to assumptions or opinions that prevent us from accepting or even accessing other ideas or thoughts. The nature of these blocks is that they are “anesthetic”, meaning it is hard for us to be aware of these blocks ourselves. So, we could very well step into a conversation not knowing that we hold within ourselves rigid ideas, much like I did with my mother. The key then, Bohm says, is to pay attention to these blocks, which are essentially our assumptions and opinions.
Engaging in dialogue offers us the opportunity to both suspend our thoughts and to reflect on them. To suspend, according to Bohm, is not to hold back or hold on to, but to let out. For instance, in a conversation that angers me, I am to let out my anger and then see what I have let out. Thus, my anger hangs before me and allows me to look at it, allowing me to reflect on it – what did I get angry about, why did I get angry, did I have to get angry, could there have been a different response? This process occurs for each individual in the group that dialogues, thus becoming mirrors for each other.
A reflective process like this will help us de-anesthetize ourselves and once we are conscious of our defenses, we may be stepping closer to becoming more receptive listeners. This will break down the ‘ultimate-truth’ value that we often ascribe to our assumptions and opinions. It would allow us to place our perspectives, with due value, alongside those of others. Through dialogue we could then create shared meanings collectively.
However, a prerequisite to being able to share in a process like this is a sense of community that is rooted in a particular nature of relationship shared by the people within. For individuals to be able to express their views without the fear of being attacked and to be able to listen without needing to be defensive there would have to be some sense of mutual respect and warmth. The relationship would have to be characterized by something that goes beyond identifying the right and wrong arguments. In an interview for the Atlantic, psychologist Jonathan Haidt, talks of the relevance of universities as being ideal spaces for this. With their ability to cultivate relationships that are rooted not in winning over the other but in learning, Haidt identifies universities as being powerful, “especially universities that include a diversity of viewpoints”. He contrasts these with the internet and social media platforms that are spaces of engagement not based on relationships, but are used to prove “how smart (people) are”.
This takes me back to the conversation between the friends and now I ask, in dealing with differing ideologies is Bohmian dialogue in a university space the answer then?
What necessarily needs to be addressed in this context is the inherent power dynamics that exist within spaces like a university. The different identities we hold based on our caste, class and gender will play an important role in the possibilities and limitations of dialogue. Further, within the university are definite power differentials in terms of the positions ascribed – a professor holds more power than a student does. In contexts like these, there has to be an attempt to identify these inequalities and dialogue while being conscious of them. While Bohm’s writings on dialogue do take these into account, considering that our realities are coloured by elements like this, closer attention must be paid to such nuances. If we are to bring his abstract ideals of what good dialogue must be like, we cannot ignore the social realities we live in.
Considering the diversities that we live in and experience, there will be as many opinions as there are people. In contexts like this, what would it take for us to dialogue in the manner that Bohm intended? Knowing our realities, how can we be conscious of power in the context of obvious power differentials? And further, once we are conscious, how do we reorganize ourselves in order to delve into meaning making as equals? Could a university that engages in conversations on radically different ideologies and thoughts prepare its students to be receptive listeners and thoughtful contributors to a shared meaning making process? If yes, what would it take?
The author is a student of education. Her interests lie in the areas of gender, dialogue, and compassionate education. She is currently a research associate with Azim Premji University, exploring how safe spaces for dialogue can be created in classrooms and schools to discuss issues of contention, particularly gender. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.