Thursday, January 1, 2015


“That was your point when you challenged him,” my husband concluded.   I didn’t even hear the rest of his remarks, fixated as I was on the idea of challenge.  Really?  I challenged?  I tried to recall the conversation with my nephew.  In my mind, it was a discussion, a mix of ideas, research, and experience from various perspectives around a particular topic for the purpose of elucidation.  

What could have led my husband to describe my contribution to the discussion as a challenge?  My tone of voice, maybe?  I know I can be passionate about subjects dear to my heart, and that passion can affect my body language.  I can speak more loudly, sit forward in my chair, and often make gestures to reinforce my point of view.  Conscious of those tendencies, I try to monitor myself as I speak.  I hoped that I was doing that during that particular conversation.  Still, I have reflected since then on what might constitute a challenge in various contexts.

One context that comes to mind is challenge as a selected or imposed goal to accomplish.    For example, I have set myself the challenge of playing the harp.  In the classroom, teachers provide students with problematic situations that require them to synthesize their skills and knowledge to propose a solution; in so doing, students experience new learning and growth.  Athletes set goals for faster times, new heights, or enhanced skill.  In these cases, challenge provides motivation.

Challenge can also denote defiance.   Children question the structures that their guardians or teachers have put in place for their benefit; citizens protest laws that they consider unjust; football coaches throw the yellow flag to have a ruling on the field reviewed.  Here, a stand against the the status quo is implicit in the actions of the people involved.

In the conext of the conversation with my nephew, however, challenge means questioning a person’s position.  My intent in this case would be to expose weaknesses in the opposing argument, and, ultimately, to convince people to change their mind.  Those conditions did not apply in this case.

My only purpose in that conversation was to contribute knowledge I had on the subject, albeit offering an opposite perspective, and to ask questions.  In that way, I could ensure that both sides of the issue could be aired.  I was aiming for deliberative dialogue.

Deliberative dialogue offers a structure for exploring various facets of an issue for the purpose of discovering alternatives and a possible solution.  It differs from a debate in that the purpose is amassing as much information and thought as possible around a question to inform decision-making, as opposed to convincing others that one approach is superior to another.  In classrooms, it encourages students to understand that decision-making results less from selecting one approach or package effectively presented, and more from airing as many alternatives and their corresponding advantages and disadvantages as possible, in order to arrive at a solid and workable decision.

In the spirit of deliberative dialogue, I thought I contributed questions and information to the discussion with my nephew.  I look at discussions in which I am involved in that light.  My purpose is not to challenge another person's viewpoint, but rather, if I am inclined and able,  to offer another perspective,  remembering to soften my voice, keep an open and relaxed posture, and control the gestures. 

Given my orientation to deliberative dialogue, challenge did not apply in the conversation with my nephew, at least from my end.  That my husband used the word, however, shows that congruence between intent and the accompanying physical manifestations does require constant fine-tuning.  That's where the challenge is.

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