Transformative Approaches Project
Dialogue: learnings for the future of dialogue
Transformative Approaches Project |
1. Mapping forms and opportunities for dialogue
There is the clear implication that dialogues of different quality and
consequence could be associated with distinct conditions, whether considered
as stages or frameworks. But the dangers of focusing on "higher level"
dialogue, at the expense of others forms, derive from the failure to recognize
the functions of each kind of dialogue and how they complement each other
Jacobs points to the wide acceptance achieved by the Myers-Briggs Type
Indicator (1985), designed by two women based on the work of Carl Jung.
This effectively provides a 4x4 square of 16 places denoting different
categories of temperament (Kroeger, 1988). No developmental linear progression
is suggested. Also arousing much interest is the framework of 9 conditions
provided by the distinctly non-linear enneagram (Palmer, 1988). Users are
encouraged to work with the challenges of their own condition in relation
to those of others they encounter, and to broaden their range of responses.
A rich system was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs as an
international community in which the idea of a never-ending journey between
16 conditions was emphasized (Jenkins, 1987). It is also appropriate to
mention the remarkable significance attached to the Chinese Book of
Changes (Wilhlem, 1950) as perhaps the most sophisticated mapping of
relationships between a variety of human conditions and dilemmas.
Clearly one of the most conveniently comprehensible forms of map, as
a step beyond linearity, is a tabular presentation like that of Myers-Briggs.
It is therefore worth speculating on the possibilities of representing
the variety of opportunities for dialogue on a surface resembling the classical
board game common to many cultures. Clues to the organization of such a
mapping might be:
- board games like chess and draughts suggest ways of seeing relationships
between "opposing" dialogue partners. The games constrain the
ability of each to move in relation to the other. The "developmental"
value of "levels" is still present, with notions of lines and
angles of advance and retreat, advantage and disadvantage, challenge and
threat, that are experienced in dialogue. Particular pieces or positions
may be "lost" or "taken".
- such board games have been extensively used in Buddhist and related
traditions as a complement to religious education. Players move over the
board between conditions ("heavens", "hells", etc)
in a manner somewhat similar to "snakes and ladders" (Johari,
1980). Here each position is uniquely identified, possibly by illustration,
as are the inscribed pieces in a game such as mahjong or the areas of a
mandala. The Transformation Game developed at the Findhorn Foundation is
a recent innovation with related intentions.
- qualities of space occupation and encirclement are admirably represented
in games such as go. The transformation and interpenetration of spaces
is elegantly represented by some of the morphing drawings of M C Escher
-- a technique now highly developed on computers.
- one traditional presentation of the 64 different conditions identified
by the Book of Changes is a square 8x8 pattern. It is worth recalling
the number of studies that have explored the use of its binary coding pattern,
notably in relation to the genetic code (Schonberger, 1992) and the specificity
of certain key amino acids. Seemingly unrelated is the remarkable identification
by Buddhists of the network of 64 possible philosophical viewpoints (Bhikku
- the computer-based game of "life" has proved to be a very
thought provoking illustration of how patterns emerge, grow, move, evolve
and decay over a surface similar to that of the board games described above
(Eigen, 1981). This has been valuable in the study of chaotic systems.
2. Dialogue as flow and transition
To facilitate dialogue, there may be a very strong case for avoiding
the trap of imposing a pattern of definitively labelled conditions. Part
of the process of dialogue is working with the stereotyped labels that
one side needs to attempt to impose on the other. Indeed much of the manouevering
for advantage in dialogue lies in the effort to "corner" the
other in some pattern of labels through which he or she may be conveniently
handled. One can speculate on the nature of a board game reflecting this.
Those struggling with each other in the dialogue might for example "freeze"
temporarily the significance of some board positions by consensus. More
intriguingly in the absence of such consensus, other positions might be
given double labels, reflecting both the positive connotations of the occupier
as well as the negative connotations of the adversary experiencing that
position as challenging his own.
Allusions have been made to the possible nature of such rule-shifting
games in novels such as Herman Hesse's Glass Bead Game, or M A Foster's
The Game Players of Zan. From such a perspective, each of the efforts
to distinguish levels could be seen by dialogue partners as conceptual
resources that could potentially be imposed on the board during the course
of the dialogue. Such a dialogue then has the potential for being continually
transformed between different kinds of game. The dialogue is refreshingly
defined in terms of a set of transitional objects (Winnicott, 1974). Different
"light" filters or logics can be used to view the game or communication
space, just as different keys (or even scales) can be used for musical
expression (McClain, 1978).
Other clues to representing the forms and challenges of dialogue are
suggested by frameworks like the periodic table of chemical elements. This
is organized into columnar "groups" and row "levels"
which effectively identify cellular "elements" with particular
qualities. It thus highlights the possibility of development from "lighter"
to "heavier" elements, as well as the emergence of the electrochemically
"positive" and "negative". Such terms are of course
used to distinguish different kinds of dialogue. Of special interest is
the implication that suitably distant positions might "strongly"
or "weakly" interact to form more or less stable configurations
based on strong or weak "bonds". Physicists and chemists have
long pursued the possibilities of very heavy elements, whilst appreciating
the role of the lighterst in the sustenance of life. Some of the social
implications of such an ordering have been explored by Ed Haskell (1972).
A framework based on this approach is used for the functional interrelationship
of international organizations (Judge, 1985).
Such clues point to forms of dialogue that would not be dependent for
their dynamic on any convergence towards consensus (or away from it). As
suggested by the computer game of life, stable configurations could emerge
for a time, but they might also slowly migrate and develop across a framework
of significance. As in many inter-personal relationships, they would be
significant for a duration. Some of the above pointers suggest possibilities
of "collaborative" games through which richer and more complex
patterns get built through the dialogue process. Research on team building,
and the variety of skills required (Belbin, 1981; Katzenbach, 1993), suggest
that these could be fruitfully associated with columns or rows of the table.
Much remains to be discoveredfrom the transition from a 2-dimensional table
to a 3-dimensional map, as explored elsewhere (Judge, 1984; Beer, 1994)
and as suggested by the recent explosion of interest in fullerenes (Stephens,
1992). The implications for management processes crossing cultural divides
are especially relevant (Lessem, 1993).
Many inter-personal relationships founder on obsession with togetherness,
and its claustrophobic consequences for one or other partner. The challenge
of relationships between kibbutz children is one example. It may well be
that dialogue needs to free itself from the obsession with consensus as
the holy grail of dialogue. Conflict is now being creatively explored by
major corporations (Pascale, 1990). In terms of Zen-style challenging paradoxes
(Seltzer, 1986),it may well be that the art of fruitful dialogue lies in
avoiding the stultifying consequences of agreement. The challenge of sustainable
dialogue (as opposed to "cash cropping" through consensual dialogue)
may require understandings analogous to those for sustainable development
as exemplified by permaculture (Mollison, 1988). What does it take to sustain
dialogue? Like the grail, pehraps sustainable consensus is far more mysterious
than is naively assumed. Why does dialogue stop when it does? Are there
more profound meanings to "flow" in dialogue (Csikszentmihalyi,
1990). Reframing dialogue as suggested above might also counter the tendency
for certain dialogues to meander endlessly without constraint, as has been
apparent in David Bohm's experiments.
2. Towards higher orders of consensus: freeing the voices
The above framework might be used to examine what was attempted in the
Assembly of Spiritual and Religious Leaders (Chicago, 1993) in endeavouring
to manoeuvre participants into signature of the Global Ethic (Hans
Küng, 1993). As a parenthetical note, it is interesting that portions
of that declaration were read to the Assembly using alternate male and
female voices. The written declaration could however be compared to a plainsong
chant from which any form of polyphony was absent. The organizers did however
want the participants to furnish a chorus line ("Peace, Peace --
We agree, We agree"!). As such, the design of the declaration
is clearly relatively simple, if not simplistic, in terms of the musical
metaphor outlined above. Leaders, and especially spiritual leaders, do
not like to sing in chorus lines or to be part of backing vocals. That
is not why they are leaders.
A more interesting form of declaration, in terms of the musical metaphor,
would not have sought immediate concord between the "voices"
represented by the different factions at the Assembly. Rather the declaration
would have been designed to allow the different voices to challenge each
other, exploring various possibilities of harmony and discord between them
-- using new discords to force the articulation of more profound harmonies
(McClain, 1978; Judge, 1992). Any group of composers or musicians could
articulate a wealth of interesting possibilities (Aldwell, 1989). The declaration
would then have taken the form of a shared journey in which each voice
could be allowed a measure of "dominance" for a time. The "ethic"
is then given form as a dynamic process rather than as a static end state,
as a dynamic pattern of relationships rather than a static set of rules.
The theory of musical harmony suggests many possibilities for resolving
the differences between voices through the text as a whole. The strength
of this approach is that the identities of the different factional perspectives
are not lost in a univocal "consensus" document. The discipline
of designing a declaration, that could be "sung" in polyphony
or "played" by a variety of instruments, would ensure its far
wider dissemination than as a legalistic text or press communique. (Al
Huang was so frustrated with the poetic inadequacies of the Global Ethic
text in the Assembly, that he said he could dance it better!) Adherents
of each religion could then follow through the explorations of "their
voice" and the challenges to it by the other partners in the ethical
ecosystem -- adding their own chorus lines if they so wished.
If different styles of music and musical values tend to be favoured
by different cultures, is it any surprise that the same might be true of
ethical values? If each religion or ideological faction is perceived as
a musical instrument, with certain musical strengths and weaknesses, how
can the most valued music be created from a group of such instruments?
It would be a foolish loss of richness for them all to do the same thing.
As an instrument, there are dimensions that "Christianity" can
best explore, just as there are others best explored by "Buddhism"
or "Islam". Management is coming to this realization (Lessem,
19931). Chicago gathered some 40 main religions with a further 200 variants
-- the resources for a truly magnificent choral symphony, if ways could
but be found to evoke the music from them (or through them). The challenge
is to bring out the points of resonance and dissonance so as to enrich
their interplay, rather than to seek simplistically to eliminate all dissonance.
The music provides coherence through which the pattern of differences is
"held". As noted by Leonard Swidler, as for Arnold Toynbee, "if
the distinct melodies of eachreligion of the world could be played together,
they would make for more harmony than cacophony" (Swidler, 1990, p.
86). Why not explore this metaphor more seriously?
It is worth remembering that religions have in the past severely condemned
particular styles of music, and even particular chords (diabolus in
musica), because they did not reflect some simplistic notion of harmony.
Is the Global Ethic, as currently conceived, not an effort to do
just that? Surely what is required is an ethical presentation that honours
the differences and justifies them within a larger context. It is the articulation
of that context that constitutes the much-sought new paradigm. It can only
be effectively articulated by using both what makes religions different
and what makes them appeal differently to different cultures, rather than
by simply building on commonalities. How dull and alienating music would
be if it only used what was common to all cultures!
Recent years have dramatically highlighted the ineffectual nature of
policies and structures based on consensus -- especially when confronted
with fundamental dilemmas and radically opposed alternatives as in Bosnia.
Just as significant dialogue cannot effectively be sustained without significant
differences, there is a case for exploring ways of configuring and using
differences regarding sustainable policies. The comprehension of more challenging
approaches to dialogue, as suggested above, provides a way of evoking the
new styles of comprehension required in policy-making and coalition design
where differences are intractable and likely to remain so.
3. No doubt? No dialogue!
At an event such as the Parliament of the World's Religions (Chicago,
1993), it is useful to be sensitive to four modes, which everyone can get
into, although some may be primarily characterized by only one of them:
- (a) Participating to teach: characteristic of presenters, spiritual
leaders, and many others who actively wish to convey information from their
experience, and to be seen to do so.
- (b) Participating to learn: characteristic of many who wish
to hear from presenters and spiritual leaders in order to benefit from
- (c) Participating to exchange information: characteristic of
the networking mode.
- (d) Participating to share doubts: characteristic of those who
have discovered the limitations of both the teaching and the learning roles,
and the communications they encourage.
"Doubt sharing" is exemplified by a parable offered by a member
of the Parliament's Board of Trustees: A man is lost deep in the woods.
In his futile search for a way out, he comes upon another man and seeks
his assistance. The other man replies: "Do not take the way I have
for it will surely lead you astray. Now, let us seek to find the right
Unfortunately the Parliament proved to be an exercise in presenting
certainties (Mode a) and learning of them (Mode b). Information exchange
(Mode c) was suppressed. And no process was developed to work collectively
with uncertainty to uncover new routes forward (Mode d). It is from the
combination of this Mode (d) with dialogue Type (e), at "higher"
levels of dialogue, that the real opportunities for the future will emerge.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential