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"Who didn't get it?"

This question, which is nothing to write home about, is perhaps the most fundamental in the philosophy workshop. Without it, there is a risk of believing that we are engaging participants in dialogue without it actually being the case.

Pablo Picasso, Le Fauteuil Rouge, 1931

A banal question but one of formidable effectiveness: thanks to it the masks fall off! The one who spoke must accept that he was not clear as he thought or wanted to believe. The one who has listened must recognize that he has not understood.

Why in general in a discussion is it not checked more often that the words exchanged are indeed understood by the interlocutors?

Is it because we consider that it is easy to make ourselves understood and to understand the other?

Is it because we do not dare to confront our lack of clarity? To confront the other with his lack of clarity?

Is it because it is embarrassing to admit that we don't understand?

Or is it because deep down, we don't care about being understood and understanding the other person?

We can put these questions together in one:

Do we prefer a comfortable or authentic dialogue with others?

Recently, I was doing a workshop in a ninth grade class to get them thinking about a show they had seen. One student brought up "the farce of capitalism." A young girl whispered to her neighbor : "What is capitalism?".

I then asked the student if he could define the term but he had no idea. I ask the rest of the group, but no one seems to be able to do it. So I suggest that they ask their teacher for help. The teacher comes up with a somewhat complex definition, with some subjective comments.

I then ask the group, "Who understood your teacher's definition? Raise your hand." Two hands go up. Laughter rings out. "Who didn't understand your teacher's definition? Raise your hand." The majority of the students raise their hands. They seem a little surprised by my questions. So did their teacher.

No one seemed to expect me to give their teacher's speech the same treatment as the students.

Why are they laughing? Probably because my question forces them to take a visible stand, and they can no longer hide from their teacher behind a simple nod of the head, as usually happens when we just ask them "Are you all right, do you understand?" and move on.

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