Dialogue of Silence

by Glen

The most recent edition of National Geographic presents us with some troubling news. Around the globe, one language dies every 14 days. In the next century nearly half of the world’s languages will have disappeared. That’s startling – made even more pronounced by the fact we aren’t even aware of it. When you lose some history from memory that’s bad; lose a language and it’s over.

My time in Ottawa enforced for me again and again that the language of democracy is closing in on extinction – at least in the political order. Everything seems to be about brinksmanship, bludgeoning, obscuring the real issues, and a rancid partisanship. Citizens grow sickened by it; certain political elites, here and south of the border, relish it. Either way, the refined vocabulary of compromise, respect, shared outcomes, and respect of process is becoming endangered. I just finished a new book on the life of John A. McDonald and realized once again that he wouldn’t recognize his modern descendants. He pulled together a nation, not just out of excellent political skills, but an in-depth understanding of need for joint ownership over the final results. He was a great talker just as equipped to listen.

The dialogue of citizen engagement has much to learn from this. It’s been a long time since most of us talked to one another as citizens, if at all. We acted as average people have always acted – using an everyday vernacular for our pedestrian life and leaving the nuances of political dealings to the elites and the professionals. Surprisingly it worked for a lengthy time. Not anymore, sadly, as it becomes increasingly clear that modern political language is more akin to professional sports than intelligent diplomacy.

Which brings this all around to us. As the supposed guardians of democratic management flounder on their expletives, we are being called upon to pick up the responsibility. Talking about the future lives of our communities in a responsible fashion isn’t proving easy. Many don’t appear interested and others want to merely provide an opinion.

The new democratic language of citizenship can be heard only as you move towards the other person instead of standing your ground in stubbornness. And we won’t move if we don’t listen. One of the greatest blunders of all these democratic ideas is the assumption that insight and argument will work with those unmotivated to change. It won’t happen. True communicating isn’t about phrasing or eloquence, rhetoric or articulation, but instead on the ability to listen. If our words pursue others in order to best them, they will never move in our direction. In this sense, attitude is the greatest figure of speech, and the greatest attitude is one of curiosity and the willingness to concentrate on what the other is saying.

I greatly enjoyed being a participant in the City of London’s ReThink initiative – a grand exercise calling on engaged citizens to work out the future of their own community together. There were five broad themes of discussion – live, move, green, prosper and grow. Some 300 registered for the session I was in and the energy was palpable. Yet after a time I realized something was missing – a sixth theme without which the others couldn’t be completed. It was simply “Listen.”

The participants were expressing some frustration. At various tables they were compromising and had shown that the ReThink process was actually helping them communicate better. They could talk about any of the themes they desired, but, in part because it was a City of London initiative, they couldn’t really talk about the one reality that was foremost on their minds – politics. They were at the venue not just to give their ideas and have their opinions modified by others. They have also expressed the fear that the city’s political masters don’t appear all that interested in what is being said. At many of the tables the sentiment was expressed that it’s tough to take part in democratic dialogue when the people it’s ultimately supposed to reach in the end might just as easily give it a tin ear. It’s an open and valid concern, expressed by many.

We must learn that the most important things we have to say in citizen engagement are also the most difficult because words diminish them. Behind our sentences, phrases and entreaties lie our hope for our community, the wishes for our children, the desire to live together in prosperity and modification – all of which are emotions, not words. Listening respectfully permits those emotions room to have an effect on any gathering of citizens. Yes, we must seek to cultivate our own unique voice – it is our right and obligation as citizens – but we must also learn to suspend our words in order to permit those things people feel to set the emotional context.

Author Stephen Covey once said to a business audience, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” On the journey of dialogue that we are undertaking in these posts we must come to stage where we understand that the word “listen” contains the same letters as “silent.” It prepares the conversation for the wonderful thing that happens next. But there can no progress if we don’t carefully walk that delicate balance between reasoning and listening.

Next: The Connection