Contemplative Approaches in Communication and Media Studies: Dialogue, Language, and Empathy

By Dr. Annette M. Holba, Communication and Media Studies at Plymouth State University

Contemplative approaches to learning and knowing in communication and media studies involves understanding and comprehending the other at a basic human level. In doing so, conscious listening and conscious communication aims at building empathy and cultivating conditions for dialogue so that collaborative and deliberative dialogue ensues, opening public communication and dialogue toward collaboration, consensus, and community.

When we consciously listen contemplatively, we achieve empathetic understanding of the other allowing us to step in the shoes of the other and learn from their experiences. This enhances our ability to communicate openly with others from different contexts. This can transform our own perspective(s) and inform our decision making.

We consciously listen contemplatively when we intentionally bring an attitude of openness and curiosity, and the capacity to ask questions grounded in the experience of others.

Example: “Tell me about a time when you felt uncomfortable in a situation and what you did about it to become comfortable?

Rather than: “I don’t really need to know about your experiences – I suspect we have similar experiences and I have had a broad range of experience, so I already get it….”

We consciously communicate contemplatively by intentionally considering how we might connect with the other from a different worldview—using dialogic principles to cultivate empathy with others and making decisions from a place of collaboration, consensus, and hermeneutic humility. We do this with a disposition of openness and serendipity.

Example: “I don’t understand why you think this is important, so, please tell me why you believe this is important and together we can find a way to go forward together?”

Rather than: “This doesn’t make sense. I have no idea what you are talking about and I don’t understand why this is important—so let’s do something else, ok?”

We listen and communicate contemplatively when we notice our own feelings and thoughts as they arise and we consider how our feelings and thinking relates to thoughts of others. We allow this openness to keep our mindsets open and we seek dialogic means for finding common ground from which we can move forward together.

Example: “Let’s figure this out together. Both of us bring valuable and legitimate experience to the table and we can figure this out together if we set goals and have a shared vision of our outcomes.”

Rather than: “I do not care what you think…. I am tired and finished talking.”

Conscious listening and conscious communication are essential elements for meaningful interdependent engagement with others while supporting our ability to be independent yet empathetic thinkers. This enables us to discern rhetorical strategies so we may become informed and responsible citizens able to make our own choices about what is right and wrong, true or false, and good or bad while recognizing interpretive possibilities. Without conscious listening and conscious communication, we cannot be purposeful or thoughtful about what we communicate or how we communicate.

Contemplative conscious listening and communicating enables us to identify pathways for connecting with other human beings, enhance communication competencies, and to forego missteps, assumptions, and unintentional consequences of sloppy communication with others.

Conscious listening and conscious communication practices cultivates an empathetic sensibility encouraging us to explore our deeply held values, biases, and preferences so that we can move through and with them into compassionate engagement with the Other.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a document Dr. Holba  created for undergraduate students in a contemplative General education course that explores The Self and Society: “Curiosity, Ethics, and the Public Good.” This course was part of a suite of four courses, including those that explore Creative Thought (“Curiosity, Playfulness, Creativity”) and Past & Present (“Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare”)