Designing dialogue

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As a computer scientist in human-computer interaction, I spend a lot of time contemplating dialogue, or the interaction between people as a model for how dialogue could occur between a person and a computer as physicist David Bohm put it, in a mutual quest for understanding and insight.

Dia means two, logos can mean speech, as oppose to say a monologue which is one person giving a speech, like the super villains in the superhero movies, when they are caught monologuing. They have finally got the hero/heroine into a position in which they have no choice but to listen to what the villain has to say.

We all want to be seen and heard so that we feel better about ourselves, about the world around us, and that we have some sort of control in what can, at times, seem a random, cruel, meaningless place in which to exist. Moreover whoever holds the power is in charge of the story, the story of how things work and how the world should be. Right now we are seeing the damage that a white male dominated society has caused for the last millennia and how progress often takes us backwards. Hopefully, as more people tell their stories, we can begin to work towards a better world, a better society. For me personally as a woman I am finding the opportunity to hold more conversations about what we can do about making the field of computing more balanced for women full of possibility, full of hope.

The only way in which we can make change is by truly listening to what other people have to say, and so the question I am asking today, is: How often do we really listen and take on board what other people are saying in order to go on that mutual quest for understanding and insight?

In his book Theory U, economist Otto Scharmer, outlines four levels of listening. He calls these downloading, factual, empathetic, and generative.

  1. Downloading is when we are only listening to confirm what we already know. We use our past knowledge to anticipate how the conversation will go. Sociologist Lucy Suchman calls this scripting. Marvin Minsky used Frames. For example, we are talking to a friend or family member all the while hoping that they don’t get started on their pet peeve about the neighbours/the government/the youth of today, and when they do we immediately tune out as we know what they are going to say, we have heard it all before and so wait for it to be over.
  2. Factual is when we are only listening to the take home message. So, in the case above, we are not really listening until we hear that the neighbours have moved, or our person thinks that the government got something right and we listen long enough so that we can dive in and debate the new fact with them, or possibly tell them that they are wrong.
  3. Empathetic listening is the level when things start to change, we are listening without agreeing or disagreeing, we are witnessing the world through someone else’s eyes. We are holding space for them, and giving them what meditation teacher davidji calls the four ‘A’s: attention, appreciation, admiration and acceptance.
  4. Generative listening is when we are listening without our personalities, we put aside our conditioning, fears, hopes, triggers, etc., and are really there listening. This leads to a dialogue of ease and discovery which Scharmer calls: listening for the emerging future as at this level we are able to create new insights and feel inspired. We get into the flow where endless possibilities open up and change at all levels becomes possible.

I am lucky enough to experience levels 3 and 4 on a regular basis, but left to my own devices, I often slide into 1 and 2, and into what meditation teacher Scott Schwenk calls battles of will. This comes from childhood patterns of conditioning when I often felt powerless and not seen and not heard, and left behind, excluded. Rather like our super villain who likes to monologue. I am not a super villain but I guess I monologue here a lot, mainly as I grew up feeling unheard, and then I have worked in many environments in which people spent their whole time debating instead of listening. I have had to fight to be heard and it’s exhausting.

When we look at technology we can see that like me monologuing here, Web 1.0 was all about monologuing, people put their blogs up and their ideas. As we developed dynamically changing websites, Web 2.0 became about dialogue and feedback in the form of social computing. Web 3.0 is more about semantics,  things and less about people as we bring the Internet of things and the web of data online, even some of the scripting languages are less people friendly, as HCI guru Alan Dix discusses in a recent blog. Already, the BBC uses the whole of the internet instead of a content management system to keep current. Though as a corporation, I wonder, has the BBC ever stopped to ask: How much information is too much? Why do we need this constant output? Why recycle all of this information? It seems sometimes that we are not progressing, we are just collecting.

But even if we are not collecting data or coding, on a day-to-day basis many of us are left frustrated as we interact with dreadful software systems which basically say: Give me this data or you cannot proceed.

I had an incident last week when I was asked to supply my date of birth, national insurance number, etc., I know by law the place in question cannot ask for these things but does so anyway by putting an asterisk next to the field demanding the information. If I don’t comply, I cannot proceed, if I do comply, I feel that I have no control over my data, and if I put in false data just to fill the box, then I cannot honestly tick the terms and conditions at the end asked me if I lied or not.

It’s ironic that human feelings in the systems have not been considered at all during the design of the specific human resources software system I was using. Actually now I think about it, the term human resources sounds quite sinister – humans are just a resource to feed into the machine.

And to be honest, how many people do we know who treat other people like that too as a resource to be consumed?

Social psychologist Sherry Turkle said in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, (2011)  that technology was training us to be like this. I have blogged about this twice (Alone Together (1), Alone together (2)) and change my mind about it regularly.

Today, though like I’ve said before when talking about cyberpsychology, I believe that we can’t just blame technology for our own shortcomings. We know plenty of people in the world who use us as a spare part. I know plenty of people who treat me like a filler until their real friends, their real lives, their real emotions come online or turn up in real life. Like all those men who slide into the DMs (direct messages) looking to be seen, heard and appreciated from a woman who will invariably give them their full attention, as that’s how women have been socialised. Is it because society doesn’t give men attention or appreciation in any other way? These are the questions we need to try and answer. After all, I’ve never had a woman slide into my DMs to give me a monologue and then once satisfied that they have been heard, slide off without reciprocating never to be heard from again.

The one interesting part of automating our conversation in all of this, for me, is the idea of robots for therapy. Turkle said that she found it sad that some people were so lonely they happily talked to a robot as they would a person, but I really don’t see what is wrong with that, it’s like talking to a pet, or talking to God. And, I think after this extended lockdown life we have all been living, we will be seeing the fallout of social isolation for a long time to come.

Research shows (gah, can’t find the reference right now) that many people find it easier to talk to a therapist robot than a therapist person as they feel that a robot doesn’t judge. In normal life with humans, especially people we know, it takes courage to be open and vulnerable, for our fear of rejection is so strong, that just thinking about being rejected is enough for us to start behaving differently like we are already rejected, and then we go ahead and fulfil that prophecy and slowly shut down until we no longer feel safe to share how we really feel. It is easier not to go there.

Connection is our life force, it give us meaning and we feel better for interconnectedness and intimacy with ourselves, with others and with nature. Connection starts with dialogue, with ourselves, with others and the world around us, and our computers.

So, my question is this: How do we replicate the empathetic generative dialogue we need to make this world a better one? How do we create a robot or a software system with which we can make a soulful connection in a shared space in which we feel safe enough to not only listen for the emerging future but to bring it into being?


  1. Very interesting reading this and pondering the question would I seek out a robot therapist? I will get back to you on this!
    Also what does DM stand for please?
    I did a communication course years ago, and so interested to read about the different levels of listening.
    Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks Francesca, oh yes please, let me know. I am not sure either. I’ve added direct message to clarify DM as yep assuming everyone knows all the acronyms or idioms isn’t including everyone. <3

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