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Dialogical Fitness: Being Ready for High Quality Conversations

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Cognitive reserves

Dialogue relies heavily on one’s ability to maintain concentrate and focus. For this we need good attentional stability. This means being able to both (1) steady our focus of attention, and (2) manage disturbances that might otherwise disrupt that focus. These disturbances can be internal (e.g. feeling frustrated by something that’s been said, feeling tired) and/or external (e.g. noise in the office, a client’s mannerisms). Disturbances compete for our limited attentional resources and pose a threat to ‘staying with’ the other person. Whilst findings from neuroscience have excited many people over the past decade or so (oftentimes being misrepresented or over interpreted), one finding seems clear; attention is a trainable skill. Evidence for this comes from research tracking the cognitive performance of highly skilled and novice meditators. Numerous studies have shown that committed mental practice changes the physical structure of the brain and improves its functioning (4).

What to do? There are several ways to build our cognitive reserves, with a variety of apps and online tools for ‘training the brain’. Meditative techniques are especially effective. From a dialogical perspective, there are two reasons for this. First, meditation practices develop skill for managing the body (e.g. lowering heart rate) and mind (e.g. settling thoughts). Second, they improve our ability to re-focus our attention whenever it wanders, as it invariably does. Both abilities serve dialogue well, as a still and consistently focused mind are critical to high quality conversations (3).

Numerous studies have shown that committed mental practice changes the physical structure of the brain and improves its functioning.

Spirit reserves

Finally, we come to the importance of what we are calling spirit, but could just as easily be labelled personal meaning, purpose or even spirituality. We see this as an important energy reserve primarily because it fuels our behavioural intentions or, if you prefer, it provides us with the reason(s) why we choose to engage in dialogue with others. These reasons are different for different people. What’s important is to stay connected to our intentions, because they provide our actions with a sense of significance and fortify our efforts in the face of challenge. The idea of goal neglect captures the importance of this dimension well. Goal neglect refers to the tendency for people to become focused on lower level, concrete action (e.g. SMART goals) whilst neglecting higher order goals or ‘master motives’ that those actions were originally meant to service. This has the effect of stripping the action of its personal significance and tends to erode commitment.

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