Lesson 2 from our bumper sticker of last week:

Imagine a group of recent immigrants (with limited English skills) and lifelong U.S. citizens in a room to discuss language issues. Before the dialogue has any chance to make progress, a citizen lets loose with the statement in our bumper sticker.

That’s bad dialogue practice. Obviously. But what makes it bad? There are many answers, but one in particular may help us think more clearly about how we do dialogue.

Let’s start with the basics: the people involved. Each of us is exactly one person. We bring exactly one person’s perspective to any dialogue: a perspective that feeds (and is made up of) our heritage, our experiences, our unique thought processes, our relationships, our time in history, our gifts, our faith.

Outside of hard evidence and factual statements, this is all we can bring to any dialogue. In other words, we speak from what we know. The process of dialogue is, in part, about getting to know more—specifically the perspectives, insights, histories, etc., of the other people in the room.  

See how this might work in our hypothetical example. The immigrants in the room could relate their struggles with learning English, or the pain they feel when disparaged by English speakers like our bumper-sticker fellow. The citizens might share their disorientation in a suddenly multilingual culture, or their frustration when talking to tech support experts with limited English skills.

All these sentiments, even the hot-button ones, come from personal experience and—when spoken civilly and deeply heard, without defensiveness or anger—can advance the dialogue. It is sharing with.

Contrast that with “You need to learn English.” By saying this, our bumper-sticker guy is suddenly prescribing an action for someone else—whether it fits her experience or not, whether it even makes sense for her or not. He is now speaking at.

Speaking at objectifies the listener. Mr. You Need To might as well be talking to a wall for all the listener matters in this conversation. He is also assuming that he knows what’s best, not only for the non-English-speakers in the room, but for the society at large. That’s more than one person can know with certainty.

Do “you need to” statements ever have value? Sure. People in interventions can tell their alcoholic loved ones they need to quit drinking. Doctors should tell concussion victims they need to follow instructions. More often than not, however, we know less about what x should do than x herself. We can suggest, we can ask careful questions to help her find her own solution, but rarely can we get anywhere by speaking at.

As our bumper sticker (and its many cousins) make clear, we do a lot of speaking at. We need a lot more sharing with. Only through sharing with can we learn from one another, draw more perspectives into each discussion, and build the collective wisdom that, often, has the best chance of bridging divides and solving dilemmas.

I just lived through an example of speaking at, and I’ll share it next week. But what about you? When’s the last time somebody talked at you? When has someone talked with you? How did you feel in each case?