Two articles I recently published clarify what we’re doing when we really connect with somebody else–when we recognize something about them as an individual AND know that they see something about our uniqueness.  I had to make up a label for this process, because, so far as I can tell, nobody’s identified and described it before.

I call it “co-constructing uniquenesses.”  I know this term sounds strange, and that’s because it’s new.  The process it names happens when conversation partners collaborate in their verbal/nonverbal talk to construct a glimpse–one that’s relevant to the topic they’re discussing–of each conversation partner’s uniqueness.  By “uniqueness,” I mean each person’s version of this truth from the children’s book, Maybe, by Kobi Yamada and Gabriella Barouch: “You are the only you there ever has been or ever will be.”

As you would expect, empathy helps build toward this process.  And empathy is limited, because it is based on similarity, while co-constructing uniquenesses is based on difference.  You “walk a mile in their moccasins” (empathize) to find ways you can relate to, feel similar to the other person.  And when you really connect with another person, it’s because you notice some ways they’re unique.

Think of a person you love.  You don’t love them because they’re similar to you–although you probably do have several things in common–but because they’re distinct, one-of-a-kind in some ways you really like.

There’s a real-world example of this happening on pages 370-375 of a current best-selling book called Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, and it’s a conversation between a Black woman and a bigoted White man.  In the article, I unpack another example from another book about Black/White communicating, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo.

Here’s a link to a summary of my writing about co-constructing uniquenesses.

Intimate communication through co-creating uniqueness

Dr John Stewart proposes that people can fulfil the deep human need for connection with others in dialogic conversations. At the heart of this process lies the concept of individual ‘uniqueness’. This can be co-constructed by the partners in dialogic conversation, as each takes turns sharing unique aspects of themselves and helping the uniqueness of the other to emerge. Getting to know the other person as a unique human being goes beyond empathy, and enables a sense of intimacy and an enriched relationship based on understanding individual differences.

Humans have a fundamental need for close relationships that provide a sense of deep connection with others. Dr John Stewart has dedicated decades of conceptual and empirical research to understanding what enables people to attain this state of intimate human connection. Through extensive reviews of theoretical frameworks intertwined with close reading of actual conversations, he has mapped out key features of the process through which dialogue can create intimacy between individuals. At the heart of this process, he believes, lies the concept of individuals’ ‘uniqueness’ which can be co-constructed by conversation partners in their verbal and nonverbal talk.

Dr Stewart explains that dialogue is a collaborative process of communicating in which verbal and non-verbal information evolves into meaning. Listening is a fundamental skill essential for effective communication, and it has many layers. At a basic level, listening is important to understand conversation content, but genuine listening also requires empathy. Empathy is a fundamental skill in a number of professional fields, including clinical medicine and psychotherapy, and many different understandings of what it involves have developed over time. Traditionally, empathy has been understood as the ability to, emotionally and cognitively, grasp another person’s experiences by setting aside the self to enter the world of the other person. This understanding of empathy is problematic because of a version of the bootstrap problem – the self-purported to be doing the setting aside is the very one supposedly being set aside. Other definitions have pointed out that empathy requires some similarity in personal experiences. Dr Stewart proposes instead that when conversation partners enable one another to express their uniquenesses, they can move beyond empathy and towards an intimacy based on understanding relevant features of each other’s differences. This kind of conversational engagement requires that each partner listen in a way that allows for self-disclosure and mutual confirmation.

Austrian philosopher Martin Buber.Individual uniqueness
Empathy, then, is limited in what it can accomplish, because it is based on similarity rather than difference. And uniqueness, Dr Stewart argues, is about difference. Listening with compassion helps elements of this uniqueness to be shared and understood. The reality of human uniqueness is affirmed each time a student of history recognises that there will never be another Socrates, Mother Teresa, Hitler, Mandela, or the student themselves. Understanding a conversation partner in his or her uniqueness allows for a sense of deep connection that enriches the quality of the relationship.

  People can co-create an intimate understanding of others and establish a deep sense of connection and relationship.

Although each person inherently brings elements of his or her uniqueness into every conversation, mutual understanding of these elements requires co-construction. This happens when conversation partners verbally and nonverbally make available aspects of who they are as an individual while inviting the other to reciprocate. This process is the opposite of stereotyping; hence the title of this essay. Personalist philosopher Martin Buber prominently foregrounded the significance of this process in his seminal work, I and Thou, and many of the hundreds of works he published between 1923 and his death in 1965. The need for, and impact of, co-constructing uniquenesses is also illustrated in two important 21st-century books about profound human division and profound human contact.

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino at PopTech conference, Camden, Maine, in 2010.Co-constructing intimacy

Dr Stewart analyses two examples in particular. The first is a conversation between central characters Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino in their book Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption. Ronald was imprisoned for 11 years after being identified by Jennifer as her rapist, and later was exonerated by DNA evidence. On his release, he wanted to hear Jennifer’s thoughts about what had happened. Dr Stewart’s close reading of their conversation displays in detail how they co-constructed uniquenesses when they met, and illustrates the profound impact this event had on both their lives. In Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Dr Stewart finds a second example of how co-constructing uniquenesses transformed the relationship between a black woman and a white man. Many of the elements present in the Jennifer–Ronald conversation also occur in this case: explicit appeals to the other’s humanity; reciprocally-conditioned interpretations; mindful presence to each other; and choosing to share. In both cases the protagonists were able to move beyond the stereotyped preconceptions that had determined their original communication.

Dr Stewart says that co-constructing uniquenesses can occur when conversation partners engage in certain practices. Firstly, we should be mindful, which entails being present and attentive to the other person’s verbal and nonverbal communicating, while also practicing reflective listening to extend the other person’s conversation and add examples from one’s own life. Secondly, is to engage in reflecting on our own thoughts, preferences, and actions, which embody unique aspects of ourselves, so that we can share these in conversation with others while encouraging our conversation partners to share their own reflections. Thirdly, we need to be open to emergent meaning within conversation; this means listening attentively and with interest, to be able to hear new and surprising elements of the other person. Finally, through being aware of the choices a person makes in conversation, we can also probe, explore, and understand their uniqueness.

Wilkerson’s best-seller contains a clear example of co-constructing uniquenesses.Many traditional beliefs about how to approach management, learning, and wellness, Dr Stewart believes, can be helpfully revised in light of this analysis. Keeping one’s distance and clinging to objectivity in personal and professional relationships does not always serve us well. Instead, working towards the conversational goal of co-constructing uniqueness can enable individuals to establish a deeper sense of connection. This has potentially profound implications for improving outcomes through, for example, person-centred medicine and organisational change. And, beyond this, co-constructing uniqueness could also be a potent way to respond to today’s deep cultural polarisation. Dr Stewart’s work, backed up by a body of studies of actual conversations, show that optimal communication happens when uniquenesses meet.


Personal Response

Could you expand on the ethical implications of these intimate dialogues for changing the way people treat one another?

Ethics focuses centrally on ‘oughts’: individually, ethics prompts us to reflect on and potentially revise what we ‘ought to do’ in challenging situations. One ethical implication of this article is about the crucial importance of co-constructing, of collaboration. No individual knows what’s best for any other, which means that each individual’s change efforts should begin with an invitation to affected others to be a full partner in the process. A second ethical implication concerns the image of intimacy developed here. Intimate connection emerges most centrally not when similarities are revealed, but when uniquenesses are co-constructed. When we long for intimate connection, we ought to consider seriously co-constructing uniquenesses.