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What is dialogue #3: Reflecting and Generating Newness
In the last post we covered a bit about suspension and how suspending a viewpoint can lead a conversation down a different kind of path. In this post I want to describe the lands that path can lead to: Reflective dialogue and generative dialogue (full disclosure, I’m unsure if I’ve ever spent time in either of these “lands”).
Reflective Dialogue - Explores underlying causes, rules, and assumptions to get to deeper questions and framing problems
Generative Dialogue - Invents unprecedented possibilities and new insights; produces a collective flow
First off, how do these two conversation types differ? In spite of a lot of overlap, the main difference I see is in Reflective Dialogue, Isaacs is pointing out we might be exploring existing, while in Generative Dialogue we’re explore new.
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I don’t always have generative conversations but I love having them. Being in conversation, creating newness. Generating understanding that never existed before. Ideas that remake us anew. Thoughts we’ve never had before. Novel interpretations that surprise even ourselves. I want this so much more often than I currently experience it. It’s the main motivation behind the digesting that makes up Your Reading Life. I want everyone to know that our conversations, especially those about what we’re reading, and especially especially the conversations about humanities that we’re reading, need not just be circles about what already is. We can, together, break new ground.
So often I end up in conversations in which I and others want the answer. The answer as it already exists. It’s out there, discovered in someone else’s, usually someone who’s an expert’s, mind. If we could just go get it. Google it, read up on it on Wikipedia, phone a more knowledgeable friend. I’m not saying these things are bad in any way but that if these are the only way we go about seeking new understanding we’re leaving out some real juicy experiences and practice thinking for ourselves to boot.
Moving the conversation down the path from the existing to the novel is a bit of a needle threading. It doesn’t just happen. In the “talking about what already exists” version of the conversation we might be sharing our thoughts and ideas and reactions to what we read. What hit us while reading in the moment. Possibly even opinions that hit us in the moment or formed as we were discussing.
As an example, I’ll take my recent digestion session with my brother where we talked about The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Throughout our conversation I’d share thoughts I’d already had, things that occurred to me in between reading like when you ruminate after an argument. In the back of my mind I’m putting things together slowly and vaguely. Questions are coming up. What is the title pointing to? How are these four brother similar and how are they different? What’s the deal with these long asides where we learn about a seemingly tangential character in extreme depth? What was the epigraph about again? All half learnings that lie there incomplete until we start diving into the text in-depth. All of this is existing if incomplete.
Socrates said, wonder is the beginning of wisdom. It’s also the entrypoint for reflective and generative dialogue.
Then we dive in and we bounce around. We follow a few different threads. We share what’s incomplete to us. Our questions, curiosities. We wonder. Isaacs writes about suspension as an act of inquiring into our inner worlds. Why do I think this? Where did this opinion come from? Why did this character rub me the wrong way? Unfolding a great written work of the humanities might be a little less personal in the beginning, as we’re gaining understanding of the author’s message. But we are in that state of curiosity and wonder.
Socrates said, wonder is the beginning of wisdom. It’s also the entrypoint for reflective and generative dialogue. And once you’ve generated an interpretation of a written work of the humanities, your own interpretation that never existed before, you might enter into a different space. My brother and I explored the question, towards the end of our conversation, what does Dostoyevsky teach us about us as leaders in particular and about being a leader in general? Based on my unique interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s message, why do I think this is his message for leaders? How might I apply this author’s message? What does it mean to me and why?
At this point we’ve gone from words passing before our eyes and a bunch of what “the hell does all this mean” to I think I get what the author is saying to making meaning, together. This is the promised land of dialogue. I don’t think many people know it’s out there. I don’t think many have experienced it even if they do know its out there. I’m writing to say, it’s out there. Let’s go explore it. It’ll be a blast. I promise (d land).
What are you reading at the moment?