When I was 18, I moved from the small town of Comox on Vancouver Island to Vancouver to study communication at Simon Fraser University and dialogue at the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
City life was jarring. I met people with radically different life experiences than my own. I began to see privilege in the city, and its consequences.
As I commuted to school on the SkyTrain, feeling the overwhelming pace and vastness of the city, I began to piece together a picture of Vancouver.
I learned about inequities prevalent in the city, some of which were highlighted by COVID-19.
And I began to notice how the communities that all call Vancouver home communicate with each other.
I saw Vancouver was polarized. Different communities didn’t have a space to come together and understand each other, which pushed them further apart. The polarization I felt in physical spaces, and in traditional and social media, intensified my experience as a young person.
I wondered what my generation could do to construct a less polarized future.
I think it involves dialogue — a practice that involves bringing together individuals with different experiences to collaborate on identifying solutions to problems. A major element: you must be willing to change your own perceptions in the process.
Dialogue can be formal or informal. It can be used to help citizens collaborate on making their city centres livelier, or it can be used to discuss renewable energy options amongst stakeholders. Dialogue can be used in the classroom to bring students’ own expertise forward when discussing a societal problem.
More informally, dialogue can be used to solve personal problems and as a way to approach difficult conversations with loved ones.
You can listen to other people talking about hard topics and accept that you may change your opinions.
To help explore this idea, I called five young people — all past students at the Centre for Dialogue — to talk about how we can communicate in ways that centre our shared humanity so we can better understand one another.
Understand the landscape
There is a big difference between having a dialogue with someone you disagree with and having a dialogue with someone approaching the conversation from a totally different perception of reality.
“Not everyone has to agree on things, that’s not how our democracy is set up to work,” said Fergus Linley-Mota, who grew up in East Vancouver and is now program co-ordinator for the Centre for Dialogue’s Cities and COP26 initiative.
“The goal should be that even if people don’t get the outcome they wanted, then at least everyone in the room is speaking the same language and is premising what they’re saying on a similar basic foundation.”
Often, differences in understanding of basic facts can be attributed to the misinformation, polarization and fake news that we see every day on social media, Linley-Mota said.
“It’s scary that it feels like there are almost no areas where people can come together and say: ‘We all agree on the fundamental facts underpinning this issue.’”
When in a situation where there is no shared understanding of facts, it is easy to get frustrated or feel impatient. In more formal dialogue settings, capacity and knowledge building workshops can help participants contribute on an even basis of knowledge.
In a personal context, this feeling of conflict can sometimes come from an imbalance of privilege, whether in digital literacy or access to resources. This makes it imperative to slow down, to share what you know and contextualize how you know it.
Sometimes, though, these conflicts emerge from differences in lived experiences and backgrounds, leading to perspectives unlike your own.
“It is important to understand that those with different lived experiences experience the city differently,” said Adelle Sium, a community organizer and Eritrean based in Vancouver.
“Even when that effort is made, some people don’t feel like their voices matter because of culture and the way they have been conditioned which leaves some people to feel more valued than others, and these issues affect polarization.”
Cases like these are where a facilitator could come in handy.
Jocelyn Wong, an Asian-Canadian writer and facilitator, believes the role of a facilitator in dialogue spaces is to prevent harm.
Past harm, including feelings of being unheard in decision-making processes, may be a barrier to some individuals wanting to share ideas, she said, especially if feelings of being unheard are related to being marginalized.
Meet people where they are
Emma Leckie is a University of Guelph graduate who studied at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue and is now the executive officer at ReImagine17, a youth-led organization that equips young people with civic education and advocacy skills. She grew up in rural Bracebridge, Ontario, and has noticed a stark contrast in the level of political engagement in the rural areas she’s lived in versus the urban ones.
In more rural areas, Leckie has noticed decreased political engagement. She thinks rural residents may feel removed from the social issues that impact diverse populations living in city centres.
Lack of mandatory civic education also leaves young people’s knowledge of politics and civic issues up to their home and social environment, giving kids with highly political and engaged parents more of an opportunity to have civic literacy later in life, she says.
This lack of education about civics and politics in some communities can affect people’s capacity to engage in dialogue and means that many don’t feel heard in conversations.
“What about the fact that some kids don’t learn about politics, and their parents aren’t interested?” Leckie asked. “How do we get them engaged?”
Leckie said that since she’s studied dialogue, she’s become much more aware of power dynamics in conversations, including those produced by different levels of civic literacy.
“I’ve learned about my position as a young white woman in society and what that means for the voice and power that I hold in conversations,” Leckie said. “I also think it’s really important to find where people are at and try to meet them there.”
When speaking to friends from her hometown, Leckie sometimes prefaces the topics that she brings to conversations by stating that it is something she “just learned” or is “still learning.”
Contextualizing topics that others might not be as familiar with in this way opens up the conversation for more curiosity rather than introducing a power dynamic where one individual is further educated than another.
Set the rules
The algorithms on our social media feeds create echo chambers, feeding us what we want to see. They were created to keep users on the app for longer periods, resulting in more potential ad revenue. They also make it harder to engage with those who think differently than us online and in real life.
“When people finally come out of their echo chambers and say, ‘Hey, we want to have a discussion,’ that is a very crucial moment,” said Melvin Singh. He’s a community organizer and second-generation Punjabi Canadian who was born and raised in Malaysia and now calls Vancouver home.
It’s important for participants in a dialogue to agree and adhere to the terms of engagement for the duration of the discussion, Singh said. The terms of engagement can vary, and ultimately serve the purpose of allowing for a safe and exploratory conversation.
Singh reflected on a time he equated a Black student speaking loudly into a microphone at a student council meeting with violence. “Through years and years of socialization on my part, this was my internalized racism acting out,” he said.
When the discussion’s facilitator pointed this out to Singh, he worked through his initial feelings of intense shame and fear and thanked her for calling him out.
The facilitator quickly clarified that they were calling him in and that they still wanted him to be active in the space and grow from the experience. This allowed Singh to feel comfortable to continue being part of the conversation and bringing his experience forward.
Most importantly, he also needed to continue to conform to the rules that they had set to be able to engage with each other. Of “calling in,” Singh explained, “You can tell when someone is doing it performatively — the air in the room doesn’t change when it is authentic.”
“People often want to place blame and guilt on others without giving them the opportunity to learn and grow,” said writer and facilitator Wong.
Shame often causes people to retreat and hide rather than actively reflect, she said. But dialogue spaces “are these really unique spaces where you can share your opinion, be held accountable, and hold people accountable in a really respectful and reciprocal way.”
An important way of creating a space like that is to be intentional about it. Plan your dialogue as you would any other important occasion and have everyone involved agree on how you will engage with each other.
A dialogue space can be different from a conversation because the participants are making an active effort to create space for others and contribute themselves to a conversation.
They can be set intentionally between friends or roommates to have a tough conversation or can be used by communities, stakeholders or policy-makers to come together and understand different viewpoints on a topic. Because of the inclusionary nature of dialogue space, there is room to be your full self and learn from others.
Some recent examples of people coming together in a dialogue setting include a community workshop for the future of False Creek and a dialogue about living together and tackling housing, social well-being and resilience.
Because of the solution-based nature of the events, it is crucial that people with different lived experiences join and help identify solutions to social problems. “You often see a lot of the same people attending [dialogue] events,” Wong said.
So being intentional also means fostering spaces that are representative of the community’s diversity and their needs, particularly anti-racist spaces.
“If the table is racist or homophobic or sexist, then I don’t want a seat there” says Chinese-Canadian researcher Sarah Law.
To create a future where we better understand each other, help more people feel a sense of belonging and can work collaboratively on society’s complex issues, we need to come out of our echo chambers more often and take the crucial step towards fostering dialogue with people who have different viewpoints from us.
We can be intentional about how we hold space and use robust and respectful terms of engagement to understand and communicate with others. And we can be gracious with each other and teach one another, drawing from our unique areas of expertise.
A less polarized future is possible. Dialogue can help us get there.