A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial and uninformed.
– Nelson Mandela–
In ancient Greece, the exchange of different ideas in lively debate and argument was seen as crucial to education and growth. The key to personal growth and self-development is how we master the art of conversation and active listening.
Yet increasingly the narrative in our digital age has become a slamming match between opposing views. Dialogue with persons who don’t share our opinions, beliefs, and habits appears increasingly difficult if not impossible.
Free democratic societies are based on the acceptance and tolerance of different cultures, ideas, and beliefs. If we retreat back to tribal silos of talking only to those people who share our opinions conflict and authoritarian thought control are only one small step away.
Good conversation and dialogue are only possible through active listening and asking questions. Through active listening, we might just gain another insight or a new perspective on a topic that we would otherwise not have become aware of.
Belief and opinion
If an opinion becomes a belief and part of self-identity the mind will inevitably wall itself off to a different opinion or belief. It will never adapt, change or amend a perspective because such a mindset is ego-driven. You will see every different angle or opinion as a personal threat no matter how good or scientifically based the opposing argument is.
Rational level-headed thought falls prey to toxic emotion, fanatacism, and intolerance.
Civil discourse in the democratically organized community of ancient Greece sowed the seeds of philosophy, science, medicine, and all that we have achieved in successful modern societies. There was a consensus on the parameters on settling differences and dealing with different opinion.
Giving people the freedom to express themselves with their individual unique qualities and giving them an environment where they can freely develop an innovative mindset and utilize their creative abilities to the full is the backbone of every successfull democracy.
In my home country South Africa the lights are literally going out in a collapsing economy and failing infra-structure because a ruling party has for the past decades replaced experienced and competent employees in key state industries and local governments with loyal party hacks or “cadres” who share the same ideology and party loyalty. The result: corruption, maladministration, and nepotism.
Autocratic or authoritarian systems stifle free speech. Those opposing the mainstream are villified, persecuted, and often killed. But on the long-term nothing can suffocate the human spirit and desire for free expression. Autocratic systems inevitably are doomed because nobody has the courage to tell the “emperor” the truth about what is happening on the battlefield or on the street. At some point all that has been suppressed boils over in an uprising or revolution.
The foundation of the democratic state is built on how we communicate with each other
The art of active listening is indeed becoming a rare art. How often have you caught yourself already formulating what you are going to say before the other person has even finished speaking? How often do we interrupt the other person before he or she has finished speaking? (A common trait by the way among marriage partners). How often are you drifting away from a conversation by breaking off eye contact and looking at “important” messages” on your cell phone?
At some educational institutions, it has become acceptable to shout down people expressing opposing viewpoints with so-called “political correctness” stifling healthy debate. On social media, there is little evidence of an exchange of ideas on controversial topics. It often evolves into slamming matches, bullying, and the exchange of personal insults.
On the one hand, we have become more connected than ever in human society but at the same time more disconnected.
Ancient Greece was abuzz with different ideas in energetic debate and conversation. Hundreds of people engaged and listened to different arguments in the marketplace and in the courts. People could cast their vote for what they perceived to be the best argument. In symposia and the theatre, there was a long debate and probing inquiry on fundamental questions of human existence.
Philosophers such as Socrates believed that through dialogue opinions could be tested and held accountable in the search for truth based on a rational mindset. Socratic dialogue is different from a discussion where two or more parties are trying to “win” an argument. Participants are engaged in active listening and effort in trying to understand each other’s different perspectives.
On a spiritual level universal intelligence, or God, has created diversity as a principle of creation. It is no coincidence that dynamic, and diverse cultures have also been most creative in the arts, music, technology, and medical breakthroughs.
But we seem to be at a crossroads where we have the choice of either falling back into stifling autocratic conformity or choosing a free, democratic society abuzz in creative discourse and creativity.
Reino Gevers – Author – Mentor – Speaker
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