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Fr. 638

June 8, 2015

Contemporary political discourse is fraught with differences in principle and identity that often do as much to stop conversation as provoke it. If the difficulties that participants to discourse experience stem primarily from differences at the level of reason-giving, it is nonetheless important to remember that the necessary conditions for such reason-giving can also be lacking and, by extension, undermine discourse as much as contrary principles and identities. How can the lack of discursive conditions such as turn-taking block convergence and consensus on opinion and action?

A recent post at Big Think takes aim at just such a question in the hopes of remedying the basic failings of discourse:

Conversation involves taking turns. The challenge comes from the fact that we don’t follow the same pace in taking turns. Something as seemingly simple as taking turns in talk involves a number of subtle signals, indicating that one person has finished — or is nearly finished — and so another person’s turn may begin. How long each of us waits or pauses between turns is affected by our culture, family patterns, ethnicity, the social context, and other factors. So, is it any wonder that most of us, at times, find it difficult to edge into conversations?

In short, culture, family, ethnicity, and context determine not only principles and identity but also the conditions under which participants to discourse manifest those same principles and identity. Following from the work of Stout, it is reasonable to suppose that, given ample time for discussion and equal opportunity for expression, opposed parties will create shared ground and come to mutual understanding, in a greater or lesser measure.

To the author’s credit, the presentation corroborates a similar view, albeit with a slightly different focus:

Conversations enable us to convey our thoughts and ideas. That alone is important enough for us to participate. But conversations also are the building blocks of relationships. We signal through speech our status among others, whether we’re interesting people, our level of rapport, and a host of other relational clues that help others determine (usually quite beyond our notice) who we are. In this sense, being able to get into a conversation, hold others’ attention, contribute effectively, and then hand the turn to another person are all important to having good relationships.

For the author, time and opportunity, while key ingredients to reaching understanding, are not enough to secure that understanding. In addition to the preceding, it proves just as necessary to show through speaking that we merit being heard and and to speak to show that our beliefs merit being heard. Thus, the key to understanding lies in speaking up and getting into conversation.

If time and opportunity prove lacking due to the conditions surrounding upbringing and in spite of explicit rules governing discourse, it is necessary to supplement conditions and rules with practices and individual measures to secure time and opportunity. To that end, the article furnishes just such ways of creating time and opportunity for oneself in order to rejoin discussion:

[…] consider using some of the following phrases to enter or rejoin a conversation. At the right volume, they’ll signal to people that you have something to say. Unless you’ve already been monopolizing the talk, these polite, yet assertive phrases are likely to be heeded by others — perhaps even those who are uninterested in what you say or just too rude to listen.

Such phrases include but are not limited to:

I was just thinking when you said that … Yes. I agree, but…. You know what…. About what you just said… Let me add a thought here… On a related note/subject/topic… You know, I think that’s true, but… There’s another way to look at that… We should also consider… What you just said just reminded me of something…

Yet phrases which signal determination to rejoin the conversation can receive further reinforcement through visual or body cues, such as gestures:

Gestures, like slightly raising your hand to show you want to talk, are important. It’s also useful to watch how people around you enter conversations and then adapt those entry cues to fit your particular style. Coupled with gestures that gain attention — and ones that hold it during your pauses — the phrases above and others suited to your own style can reduce the frustration most of us feel when no one seems to be listening. It’s far better to push open the gate than to let it close because you haven’t practiced such skills and learned the extent of personal determination to exert.

These practical considerations for rejoining conversation, while not sufficient in themselves, can prove an important corrective for current failings in political dialogue. In our estimation, it will, however, prove necessary to join to these correctives more thoroughgoing measures to address time and opportunity at the level of discursive norms, structures and institutions so as to target the problem at its root.

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