Towards Better Dialogue?

This post is an excerpt from a fuller piece on mediate.com - link here.

Much has been written about the need for better dialogue in Scotland and the world as we seek to find effective ways to address some of the seemingly intractable issues we face in the twenty first century. There is a strong sense that the conventional antagonism of adversarial politics and the blame culture, which attaches to so much decision-making, is not what most people want.

There is little doubt that the win-lose, black-white paradigm is costly, in money, time, opportunity and dignity. It denies the obvious fact that life is complex, that most people are trying their best in difficult circumstances and that creativity, imagination and compassion are more likely to achieve better outcomes than zero-sum games where there are often only losers.

Sadly, many of us seem hard-wired to be defensive, critical and judgmental. Them and us. Our instinct is towards self-preservation and self-justification. It seems hard to really listen to another point of view, to acknowledge different perspectives, to work with others to find new approaches to problem-solving, and to recognise difference and diversity as resources rather than threats.

We tend to personalise the issues and to confuse the problems with the individuals who are trying to deal with them or who are perceived to have caused them. Instinctively, we look for confirmation of our beliefs, perceptions and prejudices, not appreciating that these are often wrong and based on assumptions which we make about the world and our fellow travellers and which are often ill-founded. Our minds are frequently closed to other points of view.

This partisan and rather unsophisticated approach to public debate, decision-making, problem-solving and conflict resolution deserves our understanding as a facet of our vulnerability and fearfulness as humans. It reflects our strong need to save face and not to seem to be losing status or whatever it is that gives us a sense of importance in the world. But such a way of doing things is no longer acceptable. The problems and challenges we face individually and collectively are too great and multi-dimensional. The need for a different means to engage, consult, decide and resolve is too pressing. We do need to change.

The aspiration to find a more civilised way to conduct discourse in the public square is easy to state. The more fundamental question is how. Diagnostically, we are probably relatively unskilled in holding effective conversations. We lack the process and the techniques to engage properly with the difficult issues and to work our way through to fully developed solutions.

Arguably we need to learn a new way of conversing, moving from debate to dialogue. This would give us the ability to hold more effective public consultations, conduct difficult meetings with confidence, reach more productive decisions, and resolve disputes and conflict in a more collaborative way. What might this new learning involve?

More on this in a later post!