The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 12, 2020 1:00 am

Toward a deeper understanding

Honing conversation skills enhances cooperation opportunities

Leih Boyden

This New Year's Eve, a conservative, a liberal and an anarchist had a conversation in a Fort Wayne bar. They didn't agree on any one point. Like jazz musicians, they jumped off of one another's ideas instead of continuously harmonizing.

But there were moments of intersection and cohesion. Ultimately, they consciously chose to create space for each idea to be weighed and subtly interact among themselves. Whether they realized it or not, they were practicing cooperation through a process called dialogic conversation.

As we look out onto a new decade, cooperation as a practiced skill is valuable and urgent.

While humans are drawn to tribalism, we must engage in the complexity of human communication and interrupt our inclination to avoid being uncomfortable. Having studied, taught and, most importantly, lived across the U.S. and abroad for the past 10 years, I've witnessed and taken part in uncountable moments of cooperation and tribalism.

American society, and its structures of power, heavily relies on ever-increasing tribalism. Tribalism is the solidarity and acceptance of people like yourself coupled with aggression against those who differ. It's a natural impulse but in human societies can be counterproductive.

Aristotle describes tribalism as assuming one knows what other people are like without actually engaging with them. Lacking direct experience of others, we fall into fear-based fantasies. These fictional narratives have clear, dangerous consequences.

The antidote is the practice of cooperation. But cooperating with people we don't know or trust is difficult. Sociologist Yuval Noah Harari explains, “To reach out to everyone we pass isn't in our nature.”

Research has shown humans can only intimately bond with about 150 people. Coupled with the lack of safety in American public spaces, history of racism and genocidal violence, and more, it's logical that we Americans find ourselves fearful of people we don't personally know or trust.

However, to combat the issues of the new decade, we must consciously engage and incrementally work together. Like a muscle, we can strengthen our ability to cooperate and build tolerance for uncomfortable conversations with daily, even hourly, exercise.

In “Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation,” Richard Sennett explains, “People's capacities for cooperation are far greater and more complex than institutions allow.”

Cooperation exists in all social animals to complete tasks that can't be done alone. Rooted in the earliest stages of human development, the capacity to cooperate in complex ways doesn't disappear in adulthood. Americans, and humans across the globe, are tasked with a new decade of complex challenges which must be addressed with cooperation.

One way to practice cooperation is by increasing our capacity and skill set for dialogic conversation. Normally, we begin a conversation with two opposite viewpoints and eventually arrive at a common understanding. However, this pressures individuals who have very different values and experiences to agree within a single conversation.

Dialogic conversation is a discussion which doesn't aspire to finding common ground. While no shared agreements may be reached, the process of the exchange helps each person become more aware of his or her own views and expands the understanding of one another.

Like jazz music, these conversations allow for more texture and complexity as individuals spark off one another and their own creativity without a preordained destination.

When choosing to engage in a dialogic conversation, the following considerations are essential.

Use empathy, not sympathy, to make space for the other person on his or her own terms. Refrain from assertiveness or judgment when looking into another person's life and for them to equally look into yours. Listen between the lines for small phrases, facial expressions and silences. Manage disagreement and the inevitable frustration of an uncomfortable discussion.

By strengthening our capacity for dialogic conversation, we can engage in difficult, but necessary, conversations more effectively.

Practiced cooperation and the skills of dialogic conversation are hard work that is cultivated over a lifetime. But being able to interact and communicate beyond the complex tribalism of American society is required for the next decade. Understanding cooperation elevates a short conversation at a local bar on New Year's Eve to one in a lifetime of moments where each of us has the choice to either shut down or engage to the best of our abilities.

Engaging creates the opportunity to imperceptibly shift the perspectives of all those involved.

Fort Wayne resident Leih Boyden is a copywriter.

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