Moving through the word

December 8, 2008

I have been thinking a lot about perspective. Last Thursday I participated in a “salon” hosted by The Ecce Gallery in Bozeman. Each month, a theme is selected and five brave souls provide a response. Well, I saw us as brave souls since we were required to either read a corresponding essay or to tell a story free form. 

The evening’s organizers had selected “Audacity of Adventure” as our theme. It’s a great choice for the mountain town that houses some of the world’s top alpinists, river runners, travel writers and NGO’s like Central Asia Institute. Some of our residents have to sew extra pages into their passports to handle all the visas. Knowing the biographies of some of my neighbors, I was surprised to be asked to be part of the presentation.

Meanwhile, about twenty of us gathered in the Emerson Cultural Center for wine, appetizers and conversation. Lori Lawson, who had organized the event, began by sharing a piece called “First Date” describing when she and a college boyfriend hopped a freight train in southern California. Author Alan Kesselheim

added an essay on being chased by a polar bear while on a month-long canoe trip in northern Canada. International journalist Michael Finkel

 provided extraordinary stories from border crossings including one into Tehran.  Ecce’s owner Robin Chopus closed out the salon by describing an African odyssey at eighteen where she witnessed a Masai male and female circumcision ceremony.

 And me? The external adventures I painted were tamer than those of my compatriots, telling about eighteen year old travels with two fellow exchange students around Mexico and a snippet from a visit to India. But, I also shared a journey through tough times where I ventured through “flat land,” or what John of Cross might have called a trek through “the dark night of the soul.”

 All adventures, yes, but listening to one another it was clear how different a perspective we each brought to our response. While we all equated adventure with travel, what was audacious was clearly unique. Alan’s edges live in the outdoors, while Mike’s are found in his choice of country. Lori played on the edges of the law and Robin dove into an outlying culture. My frontier lay within my interior.

 At the evening’s end, I had a richer understanding of what adventure and audacity could mean.  While alone we each provided a window onto the world of “The Audacity of Adventure,” together we created a composite view that left us all moved.

 The fuller picture is what continues to draw me to fostering any sincere dialogue whether at work or beyond. Dialogue derived from Greek means “moving through the word.” Dialogue occurs when we use conversation to move our understanding forward. It is those times when we seek more to learn from one another than to convince.

Dialogue needs multiple perspectives to be successful. I need to hear reports from as many viewpoints as possible to gather a sense of the true landscape. For example, if through my window I see sunny projections, and you meanwhile spot a financial tornado approaching, it behooves me to listen to your perspective. Thus, we want to invite those whose perspectives we might find wrong, crazy or strange to the conversation.

 Dialogue can be played well by following a few simple rules:

  1. Listen as intently and carefully as possible.
  2. Create ground rules that assure everyone is given ample time and quiet to speak.
  3. Welcome all viewpoints as simply “windows onto the situation.”
  4. Whoever can articulate a viewpoint that incorporates all the opposing perspectives wins the game.

 With some topics, like “the audacity of adventure” learning will be easy. I welcomed the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the topic. However, with topics like capital punishment, abortion or, say, drilling in ANWR, playing well takes practice. How can I open myself to perspectives from those I believe threaten my survival? Difficult, yes, but, practice we must.   

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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