Let us pause for a second to think about what equal interaction might look like among a group of people.
Perhaps it would mean that nobody is acting or considered to be either superior or inferior. It could also mean that each person is able to be seen and heard just as they are. Perhaps it would even mean that every person is accepted by, belongs to, and participates equally in the group.
How might we ensure that the kinds of situations mentioned above are more of a rule than an exception, especially in the context of teaching and guidance? Is it possible to learn how to interact in this way? What kinds of competences would it require? What would be the kinds of skills and competences, how would they manifest, and how could they be learned?
This article seeks to answer these questions by presenting various dialogical skills and competences that can be utilised in promoting genuine equality in interpersonal interaction. While this article primarily discusses group interactions, dialogical skills and competences are also applicable in two-way encounters, for example, between a counsellor and counsellee. In writing this article, the main focus has been on the various group situations associated with educational institutions and One-Stop Guidance Centers (Forward in life – guidance for those under 30, n.d.).
What is genuine equality?
The term equality refers to an act of law determining that all people are treated equally, regardless of their gender, age, ethnic or cultural origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, disability, state of health, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics. (Non-Discrimination Act / Yhdenvertaisuuslaki L1325/2014.) This legislation stresses that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law and that no-one may be discriminated against on the basis of the aforementioned characteristics. The Act also applies to various services in which customers must be treated equally. The promotion of equality and non-discrimination is also a legal obligation for educational institutions and other organisations providing guidance, counselling, and teaching. (Lahtinen 2020b.)
Equality is sometimes understood in terms of so-called formal equality, whereby the same service is offered to everyone in the same way (cf. Linnanmäki 2019). However, treating everyone in the same way can, in fact, reinforce inequality by not taking into account people’s differing backgrounds. Consequently, de facto equality takes into account the premise that not everyone has the same opportunities and needs. Taking this into account can lead to, for example, the tailoring of services or positive discrimination. Many teachers and guidance and counselling professionals also have other practical tools for promoting equality and non-discrimination. These include paying attention to the use of language and gender roles. (Lahtinen 2020b.) In this article, the term equality is used to refer both to equality and equity as well as non-discrimination, even when these terms are not mentioned separately.
Instead of services or practical tools, however, the first thing to consider is the interactions themselves and how they might promote de facto equality – that is to say, genuine equality. It is to the advantage of all to promote this (Karttunen 2020). Genuine equality promotes the wellbeing of students and clients and the smooth running of studies, as well as preventing the discontinuation of studies and social exclusion (cf. Koulutus, n.d., Sekä koulukiusaajat että kiusatut kokevat muita vähemmän osallisuutta 2020).
What is interaction?
Attempting to define the term interaction (vuorovaikutus in Finnish) is like setting foot into a mire in which no firm footing can be found. In fact, depending on the situation, interaction can be understood in many different ways.
”An interaction is a relationship of influence between two or more objects or events, in which each party influences the other.” (Wikipedia, n.d.)
When talking about interaction in the context of learning, the Latin term communicare can be used to describe sharing, working together, and participating in a shared activity. In the Finnish language, the terms viestintä or kommunikaatio do not convey precisely the same meaning. Interaction skills refer to the expertise a participant utilises in order to interact with others by acting and sharing together. (Aarnio 1999.) In this situation, all parties involved affect one another. When the word equality is added to the definition, interaction begins to take on a certain appearance. Specific kinds of interaction skills are needed in order for genuine sharing, acting together, and participation in a common cause to be successful. These skills help build a bridge between people and can be referred to as dialogical competences.
Indeed, interaction skills are something that can be and are learned. A common misconception in the field of education, for example, is that one somehow automatically develops interaction skills through doing practical work. According to Talvio and Klemola (2017), studies show that there is no connection between a teacher’s work experience and their interaction skills (cf. Michelsson 2020a).
What kinds of dialogical competences promote equality?
This article focuses on the ideas that Helena Aarnio elicited in her dissertation (1999) and later in her development work (2012) regarding the kinds of dialogical competences that can be used to achieve the desired form of interaction, dialogue, and learning and thinking together. Let us examine a few key interaction skills. In this context, ‘dialogue’ does not refer to an everyday understanding of ordinary conversation or a dialogue between two or more persons. Indeed, scientific definitions of dialogue are based on the qualitative characteristics of the conversation. (Aarnio 2004.)
In Table 1, the first column includes those forms of interaction that may be described using the term ‘equal interaction’ (yhdenvertainen vuorovaikutus in Finnish). The second column contains the dialogical competence describing the activity and interaction in question and the third column contains the method developed for the learning of this competence (Aarnio 2012). Although genuine dialogue cannot be realised merely by following a set of mechanical instructions, certain techniques and their practice increase the chances of successful dialogue. (Aarnio 2004.)
It is important that
Practising the dialogical method
|all participate and are involved in the activities||symmetrical participation, reciprocity, trust||Symmetrically
Taking and giving turns
|everyone is listened to and everyone becomes genuinely heard||symmetrical participation, word-for-word reception and coding, listening,
Reformulate and tidy up
|everyone is treated equally||respect for oneself and for others||As equals|
|treat other people as open-mindedly as possible||awareness of one’s own preconceptions and assumptions||Imprisoned by preconceptions|
|not assuming, but rather asking others what they are thinking||forming unbiased open questions to open up another person’s thinking||The art of inquiry|
|can and dare to express one’s opinions freely||open, sincere expression||Without ulterior motives|
Table 1: Dialogical competences table (adapted from Aarnio 2012)
In the following, the goal of practising each dialogical competence and what dialogical competence or a lack thereof may mean in practice is opened in more detail in direct reference to Aarnio’s methodological framework (Aarnio 2012).
The goal is to learn how to participate in dialogue and knowledge creation in a symmetrical manner. This means a balanced participation where a participant both shares their own thinking and listens as the others share theirs. One takes space to express one’s thinking and gives space for others to express theirs in equal measure.
Symmetrical participation means that everyone participates in an activity equally. In a group setting, this means that nobody gets left behind, and nobody is excluded from the group’s activity. In the context of two-way guidance or counselling, this means that both the counsellor and counsellee participate in examining the counsellee’s situation, and that the counsellor does not dominate the counselling session. This is also associated with the competence of concise expression; whereby other speakers are given space to express themselves and nobody speaks in long monologues. There is cause for teachers and counsellors to promote symmetrical participation in both face-to-face and online meetings. When teachers and counsellors themselves are proficient in this competence and are also able to teach it to their students or counsellees, the desired form of group participation is enabled. Nobody gets left behind, nobody is excluded, and everybody is able to participate.
As a teacher or counsellor, you can use the so-called ‘dialogical method cards’ to train your group in this competence. This method works by each member of a small group being given the same number of paper tickets, which then “grant entry” to the conversation. The topic of conversation can be anything relating to the group process or lesson at-hand. This allows for the group to simultaneously learn how to discuss matters and how to master the symmetrical participation competence. (Aarnio 2012; Aarnio & Mäki-Hakola 2012, 133.) Participants in such groups usually say that the method helps them feel that they have been heard and that the method can also teach us how to listen to everyone. The method also often helps participants gain insight into the value and meaning of symmetrical participation at the emotional level. (cf. Aarnio & Mäki-Hakola 2012, 135.)
Reciprocal activity, trust
The goal is to learn how to act in a reciprocal manner when engaged in dialogue and collaborative knowledge creation. The objective is to awaken oneself to reciprocity and to be able to act in a way that demonstrates reciprocity.
Reciprocal activity is related to symmetrical participation. In practice, it can mean that everyone’s utterances, whether in a face-to-face or online meeting, or even asynchronously in a discussion area, are responded to. In other words, our responses are not only directed at those with whom we agree. A prerequisite for this competence is that each participant feels safe to join in with the group activity. This competence can also be learned in a group setting, under the guidance of a teacher or counsellor. According to a student survey conducted by Valkonen, Tyrväinen and Uotinen (2020), in the context of an online course, reciprocal activity and trust promotes the participants stating their intent to take responsibility for and to contribute to group activities. This is one way of conveying the way in which the participants experience their own commitment to joint action and dialogue as fostering trust. Reciprocity is also promoted by self-presentation and getting to know others (Ibid.).
Word-for-word reception and coding, listening
The goal of this task is that the participants learn to receive another person’s speech in a word-for-word manner – to listen to every word. The opposite of word-for-word reception is randomly bundling up another person’s speech and filling gaps in information on the basis of one’s own assumptions. The objective is to learn to listen in such a manner that all the information related by another participant is available to the listener exactly as it is. This will help one steer clear of the drawbacks of assumptions and imagining caused by randomly received information.
In the age of social media, focusing on listening to everything that another person has to say is a victory in itself. In equal interaction, it is particularly important that everyone is listened to, and not just those with whom we agree. In the context of an asynchronous online chat, listening means that the messages of the other people participating in the chat are read and that the ideas they contain are examined (Tyrväinen, Uotinen & Valkonen 2021). According to a student survey conducted by Valkonen, Tyrväinen and Uotinen (2020), one act that increases trust in the context of an online course is that each participant is interested in the thoughts and opinions of the others.
In terms of the counsellor’s and teacher’s competence, this also means that there can be no preconceptions or assumptions, nor may the expert role be allowed to subjugate the genuine experiences and say of others. In other words, the counsellor should remain quiet and listen to the counsellee word-for-word, receiving and coding what they have been able to say about the matter at hand. Teachers and counsellors can also instruct small group participants in this practise. Groups can practise this technique though various listening exercises. The feeling of being heard increases trust, and when participants feel sufficiently safe in a group they also dare to participate in the group activity.
Respect for self and for others
The goal is to learn to understand what it means to establish a relationship of equals (as opposed to unequals) with another person. The objective is to understand that every person has the same value as human beings. This means that everyone has a right to think as they do and to express their thoughts. Freedom to share one’s thinking as an equal member of the group is a central principle of dialogue and dialogue-based knowledge creation. When one has an insight into the same value of every individual and the significance of equality, one knows how to value oneself and others. This means that one respects oneself and others.
This competence is the key in working together successfully. Many professionals say that they automatically treat everyone equally, but when viewed from the perspective of genuine equality, this competence is not necessarily borne out in their words and actions. When I have practised this competence with my students, the insights have been deep, and the students have been able to recognise in their own actions the ways in which they act superior or inferior in different settings. other people are subjugated and marginalised. While treating others equally can sometimes be challenging, and when done successfully it is to the benefit of all involved. Equality leads to psychological safety. In other words, behind equal interaction lies an insight into every one of us being of equal value. As such, our conception of others is openminded in nature. (Aarnio 2020a and 2020b; Ruhalahti 2020.)
As a teacher and counsellor, it is important to identify not only one’s own ability to act as an equal, but also negative group phenomena that create an unequal relationship with others. These relationships manifest themselves as the exercising of power and in role expectations, not to mention instances of bullying and discrimination. These are also phenomena that should be addressed in the group from the point of view of both equality and dialogical competences, so that the students or the counsellees themselves reflect on these phenomena. When acting equally with others, there can be no favourites, such as those that are on the same wavelength or who have chemistry together. Instead, everyone must successfully work together. (Aarnio 2020b.) When the intention is for everyone to participate in the activities equally, the teacher and the supervisor must promote equality through various tasks, exercises, and other pedagogical and instructive ways of working. Equality is also fostered by the other dialogical competences mentioned in this article. (Aarnio 2020c.)
Awareness of one’s preconceptions and assumptions
The goal is to learn to recognise and become aware of one’s preconceptions and assumptions. This awareness influences the way one shares those preconceptions with others and the way one views the preconceptions and assumptions of other people. The behaviour that results from this awareness reflects an opportunity and an ability to use various approaches.
We are full of different perceptions of things, and our thinking is coloured both by our own experiences and personalities, as well as our individual circumstances and backgrounds. It is important for us as professionals to learn to recognise our own preconceptions and assumptions. Once we have done so, we get the opportunity to step back from them in dialogue and other joint action. Stepping back is something that can, in fact, be practised, and once the skill is mastered, one can engage in dialogue as if from a clean slate. This enables us to listen to different ideas and resist the urge to immediately put forward our own opinion. (Aarnio 2020c.) This is essential to treating people equally.
Forming unbiased open questions to open another person’s thinking
The goal of this method is to learn how questions can be used to open another person’s thinking and to help them develop their thinking further or to stimulate collaborative knowledge creation. The objective is, therefore, to learn to form unbiased open questions. Questions are unbiased and open when the personal opinion or view of the person asking the question is not expressed in that question; thus, the question contains no material that might lead the person answering that question to respond in a certain way.
The objective is to learn to start a question with an interrogative pronoun and to ask short questions. This makes it possible to open another person’s thinking exactly as it is, without having one’s own thoughts influence that thinking. A skill in itself is realising to ask the other person about their thinking in the first place!
Ask and don’t assume. This competence is combined with the aforementioned listening competence. When we genuinely and open-mindedly listen to another person, we can ask more about their thinking instead of relying on preconceptions and our own imagination. Asking about another person’s thinking promotes acting as an equal because it shows interest in the other person. (Aarnio 2020c.) Asking open questions is surprisingly difficult. Teachers or counsellor often ask questions with friendly intent. An example of this is “Could you perhaps think about nursing studies?”, which actually includes the supervisor’s own perspective, i.e., that this might be a good alternative for the counsellee. And when the supervisor’s position of authority as an expert is added to the mix, the counsellee may get the impression that the expert is recommending this option to them and that it would be best to follow this advice.
Too often, communication in groups takes place via monologues, meaning that everyone expresses their own thinking in turn and that this is not necessarily related to the content of the other participants’ speech. This does not lead to the development of collaborative thinking. The competence of inquiring is one of the most challenging dialogical competences and, therefore, requires practice. In watching the recordings of participants working in small groups as part of their training to be study counsellors, the participants themselves often note that they only ask a few open questions at first before the questions become closed. The recordings also help the participants notice when they sometimes fail to ask about a matter that the counsellee themself has brought up. (cf. Michelsson 2020b.)
Open, sincere expression
The goal is to learn how to express one’s thinking openly and sincerely while engaged in dialogue and collaborative knowledge creation. The objective is to learn to talk about one’s personal views and opinions. This is how participants learn to contribute to the dialogue and collaborative knowledge creation with their own, unique way of seeing things. Another objective of the task is to get novel ideas from the others.
In order for open and sincere expression to be successful in a group, many of the competences mentioned above need to be reflected in action and, consequently, in the group atmosphere. When we are genuinely treated equally and with respect and can genuinely participate in group activities as our true selves, when we are heard and not made subject to preconceptions, and when everyone has space and no one person dominates a situation, then the atmosphere is safe enough for common thinking and action and everyone dares to bring their unfinished thoughts to the table. Difficult things can also be discussed without breaking the bridge to others.
Equal treatment and interaction have clear benefits, both emotionally and economically, for example through the resulting reduction in social exclusion, and can also be learned. Expertise in equality and non-discrimination is, of course, more than just interaction skills, but competence or incompetence often manifests itself precisely during interactions. As a form of conversation, dialogue is based on a state of equality in which the way that all the participants think about and relate to a common issue or activity is equally important. Dialogue is also a means to delve deeper below the surface in a conversation. (Aarnio & Enqvist 2002; Michelsson 2020b.)
Dialogical methods have been developed specifically to promote such interactions. That is why dialogical competences are so central to equality and non-discrimination expertise. Dialogical competences enable working and learning together. There are no winners nor losers in dialogue. Dialogical competences – and interaction skills – do not need to be taught separately but can be learned in the context of different study tasks and linked to a wide range of content, including curricula and the core study components of degree qualifications.
Various perspectives on competences and expertise in equality and non-discrimination are highlighted in the ‘Potential – Promoting gender and culture sensitive career guidance’ project (Jokaisen potentiaali käyttöön, n.d.). E xpertise is affected by knowledge, skills, and emotional/attitudinal competencies, as well as the working environment in which teaching and counselling work is carried out. According to one report, it appears that, in many development projects in the area of guidance and counselling, the perspectives of gender and culture have been taken into account primarily in relation to information sharing. (Lahtinen 2020a.) Merely sharing information on equality and non-discrimination or even on the legal obligations in this area does not seem to be enough to advance de facto equality. Might this be one reason why equality and non-discrimination issues have not progressed very much, despite the efforts made? Perhaps the various aspects of competences in this area, such as interaction skills, have not been promoted?
This article was originally published in Finnish in this Elo online magazine, on Feb 25th 2021. Read the article here.
I dedicate this article to the memory of Senior Lecturer Helena Aarnio PhD. (1949–2021), a leading developer of dialogical competences.
The author works as a senior lecturer at JAMK University of Applied Sciences and as an expert in the Potential – Promoting Gender and Culture Sensitive Career Guidance project. Riikka is a highly experienced developer and educator in the field of dialogical competences.
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