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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

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 within society.

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:

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:

"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 way together."

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

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