Monday, December 20, 2010

(en)gendering dialogue

The latest post from the State of Formation project:

A colleague of mine recently shared a hard-to-find video relating the work of linguist Deborah Tannen to children's communication styles in same-sex pairs and groups. (If anyone discovers the link, let me know--I'll happily include it here!) While I have mixed feelings about any work that runs the risk of being interpreted as biological determinism, I had to laugh outloud as one little girl leaned in to the other and cried, "Same!" as they were comparing notes on their families. The boys at a similar age were engaged in classic one-upmanship behavior, declaring how far they could each hit a baseball until the final child had hit the ball all the way to God, while the girls were seeking to find points of similarity--even to the point of creating new details about their lives in order to connect.

I believe we human beings are a unique mix of feminine and masculine energies, the gift of both nature and nurture. In my experience, this mix of gendered elements, both fixed and continually shaped by environment, is key in how we approach dialogue--what draws us in, and what turns us away. As we State of Formation authors were introducing ourselves via short email messages to the group, I was a classic female Tannen subject. I'd scan messages for a point of connection and then send an email to say, in essence, "Same!" Whether it was to mention a shared institution, region of the world, experience, or to offer a resource that links the author's viewpoint to mine, I was looking to connect--it is where the path to dialogue begins for me, and I'm not terribly interested in projects or places where this step is skipped. If this is indeed my feminine energy leading the way, how about others? What gender-spirit brings you to dialogue? What are the essential experiences for your particular mix of feminine and masculine?

I'll readily admit to steering away from more controversial topics until I've established a relationship with someone, and I likely shy away from people who make clear their intention is to convince me of something or hold their views over mine. The "one over" stance is one I've held at many points in my life, both consciously and unconsciously, so I will not pretend this energy isn't in my make-up, but it's less and less dominant--and less and less useful for me, I've found. If I know what you think about when you're alone--what scares you when you think about those you love moving through an uncertain world--what generates pride in who you are and where you've come from, I can wade in to the conversation with comfort. Typically, any potential defense is set aside. I can be curious about how you think as you do, and the experiences that have shaped your ideas that are both like and unlike mine. We are in a relationship--the home of dialogue, for me. And, sometimes, if we enter that home in just the right way, or we share it for just the right amount of time, a miracle takes place--the relationship becomes what is real, and any conflicts or controversies that might have previously framed our coming together suddenly cease to matter. In essence, I find more I can say, "Same!" to than I find that sets us apart.

As I was contemplating this post, I was trying to uncover in my own mind what value there might be in the "one over" perspective in dialogue. If I am truly aiming to ask an authentic question about our gendered spirits, what are the gifts brought by the Tannen-defined masculine spirit in dialogue? I'm hoping you all will shine a light for me--this is a complementary question to my work in women's leadership and in dialogue--but know that a bright light already appeared as I remembered one of my many thoughtful Muslim classmates and a comment he made in one shared dialogue experience. "Let us outdo one another in acts of loving kindness," he said. "Same!" I say to that.