A Conversation Among Equals: The Importance of De-ranking Conversations

A more complete version of this story complete with an example of a ranked biased conversation I had with a former Non-Commissioned Officer can be found at AllSides.com under the title, Speak Up or Shut Up: How Conversational Cowardice is Killing this Country.

It has become increasingly apparent to me that if we are ever to have any real hope of bridging the divides in this nation, it is going to require a commitment to dialogical discipline that few people have ever embarked on. And to help foster this movement, a contingent of us are going to have to be willing to cultivate space within ourselves to hold conversations that function at a level that transcends the limits of the typical power dynamics that constrain most conversational systems. In other words, we are going to have to “de-rank” our conversations.

The fact is that, whether we intend them to or not, most of our conversations happen in frameworks that are upheld by socially accepted ranking systems. And, when conversations happen in a context where someone holds a perceived “higher ranking”, it is virtually impossible to have the conversations we need to move our society forward into an age of cooperation and compatibility.

Because most conversations have an integrated, albeit unconscious, awareness of ranking or power dynamics that is shaping the context in which we have our discourse, there is often a fear of potential loss on the part of at least one party embedded in nearly every conversational system. Think of every conversational partner you’ve had and reflect on the power differentials. Children and parents, boss and worker, enlisted and officer, police and other citizens, loaner and loanee, teacher and student, minister and congregant, doctors and patients. And, in the minds of some who are resistant to expanding social “norms”, this ranking exists between men and women, black and white, immigrant and citizen, cisgender and LGBTQ+, the wealthy and the poor, ad infinitum. 

Almost everywhere you look in conversational systems, power dynamics are at play. And we wonder why it seems so difficult to create systems, processes, and policies that serve everyone equitably. It is because we don’t know how to converse courageously–to have conversations that defy convention and challenge us to own both what we say and how we listen to our conversation partners. To put it simply, conversational cowardice is killing this country. And unless enough of us put in the work to shift that, it is difficult for me to imagine this country making it another century.

I volunteer with Living Room Conversations (LRC), when I can, precisely because I believe that their conversational model is designed to hold space for people from any walk of life to practice and engage in transformative conversation less constrained by the power dynamics that most of us have been enculturated into. Consider that the conversations can be self facilitated and that the guides are open source and customizable. But, my favorite part of the LRC practice, are the conversational agreements that include this statement of responsibility:

“Own and guide the conversation – Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and the conversation as a whole. Be proactive in getting yourself and others back on track if needed. Use an agreed upon signal like the “time out” sign if you feel the agreements are not being honored.”

This agreement is a statement of equity–a concept that is severely lacking in our country, but very likely holds the key to us actualizing more of our potential as a nation of people in conversation with one another. When one person sees themselves as being of higher or lower social ranking, there is often the unspoken belief that they are in charge of the conversation. I had several experiences like this in the military. And in these instances, to the person who believed themselves to be “in charge of the conversation”, their interpretation of the events were what mattered. And any statement that potentially contradicted that interpretation challenged them because they were essentially enculturated to be conversational cowards, as many of us are, relying on rank to undergird the “rightness” of their position. Because of this fear, many of us experience our conversations as threatening even when we are “in charge”. But just like anything else in life, the more you practice something, the more confidence and courage you develop in any activity. Participating in LRCs, is one way to practice “de-ranking” how you converse.

If you find yourself conversing from a place of cowardice or feeling inherently right or wrong based on your perceived ranking, be encouraged that there is an entire network of bridging communities to practice with. Everyday, more and more people are taking steps toward being conversationally courageous. And with every step one of us takes, the closer we get to that more perfect Union that we are aspiring to.

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