Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Dialogue not Debate

Dialogue – the recognition that “two heads are better than one” - is a key skill for a sailor. Yet many rookie skippers and even some older hands find difficulty in “thinking together” in this way.

In a storm, I usually take the wheel while TBH moves up to the mast to reef the mainsail. Both of us can do either, but he is better on the fore deck and I am better at the helm. Either may call orders to the other, the lead rotates to the person best placed at that time, in that situation. Knowing our relative strengths and weaknesses helps us perform better as a team than either of us can on our own.

“A conversation with a centre not sides” is yet another definition of Dialogue, and it is the essence of a good captain. Thus in Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin books (and in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the film of the books starring Russell Crowe), the brilliance of Jack Aubrey, the Captain of the Surprise, is rooted in his ability to transcend the ingrained Naval tradition of the infallibility of the Captain and to take aboard critical feedback from his surgeon, Stephen Maturin, and from his crew.

I would like a dollar for the number of times I have seen insecure Captains who start yelling at their bewildered crew as soon as they come under any pressure. The people they abuse are often their wives who, unsurprisingly, resolve never to sail with them again.

Maybe the failure to understand the importance of Dialogue lies in the antediluvian notion that leadership means “taking names and kicking ass”. Dialogue is about the frank expression of different views, it is about respecting the other person and about listening. But many people have a problem grasping this notion. This may stem in part from the appalling example set by political debate on TV. Here is a useful table from the Public Conversations Project that contrasts TV Debate and Dialogue.



Pre-meeting communication between sponsor and participants is minimal and largely irrelevant to what follows.

Pre-meeting contacts and preparation of participants are essential elements of the full process.

Participants tend to be leaders known for propounding a carefully crafted position. The personas displayed in the debate are usually already familiar to the public. The behavior of the participants tends to conform to stereotypes.

Those chosen to participate are not necessarily outspoken “leaders”. Whoever they are, they speak as individuals whose own unique experience differs in some respect from others on their “side”. Their behavior is likely to vary in some degree and along some dimensions from stereotypic images others may hold.

The atmosphere is threatening: attacks and interruptions are expected by participants and are usually permitted by moderators.

The atmosphere is one of safety; facilitators propose, get agreement on, and enforce clear ground rules to enhance safety and promote respectful exchange.

Participants speak as representatives of groups.

Participants speak as individuals, from their own unique perspective.

Participants speak to their constituents and, perhaps, to the undecided middle.

Participants speak to each other.

Differences within “sides” are denied or minimized.

Differences among participants on the same “side” are revealed, as individual and personal foundations of beliefs and values are explored

Participants express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach, or idea.

Participants express uncertainties as well as deeply held beliefs.

Participants listen in order to refute the other side’s data and to expose faulty logic in their arguments. Questions are asked from a position of certainty. These questions are often rhetorical challenges or disguised statements.

Participants listen to understand and gain insight into the beliefs and concerns of the others. Questions are asked from a position of curiosity.

Success requires simple impassioned statements.

Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.

These thoughts were prompted by the dire moderation of the General Discussion forum,see the thread titled 'Flicka 20 is this crazy or what?' The moderator violates the first principle of facilitating any conversation by taking sides in the discussion rather than remaining neutral. He does not listen to the points made or address the questions raised, instead he bullies anyone who dares to voice a different viewpoint, conducting a “reign of terror” that rapidly drives thoughtful comment out of the discussion. In his megalomania he re-frames discussion as personal attack, and he can't see why.

I'd hate to sail with this character.

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