本文原作者 ：方素惠， 整理 ：陳庭安，和載於EMBA雜誌2012年二月號
Dialogue Changes The Way We See The World
A good dialogue creates quality relationships and can fundamentally change the way one sees the world.
“Many people think that dialogue produces consensus and that as long as there is dialogue we’ll reach agreement; but, that is not true,” declared Philip Thomas, a consultant specializing in dialogue facilitation design. “There are many ways to make decisions, and each way can have a dialogic quality. Even though the ultimate decision may be made by a minority group, by raising the quality of participants’ interaction and information, the process can still be a dialogic one.”
Philip Thomas has spent the past twenty years involved in social change work in Central and South America in cross departmental, cross-ethnic, and cross-border public issues; using dialogue to resolve problems and promote change. Philip’s rich and varied dialogue facilitation experience draws from a variety of experiences including high stakes negotiations such as between guerillas and army factions.
The CP Yen Foundation invited Philip to Taiwan to discuss the principles and process of dialogue. Below is an EMBA Magazine interview with Philip Thomas:
Q：What impresses you about the power of dialogue?
A：There are many kinds of conflicts. Some are about a disagreement over facts, in which case, if you collect enough information one can eventually resolve the problem, which makes it a relatively easy conflict. In other cases, the parties agree what the goal is, but each side disagrees with the other’s means of reaching that goal. Relatively difficult conflicts arise when we even disagree on what the goal is. But the most difficult type of dialogue is when values are involved. These issues are about a person’s belief of what is right and wrong.
Changing The Way We See The World
A good dialogue can fundamentally change the way a person sees the world. For example, in El Salvador there was a time when labor strikes and demonstrations erupted on the streets and a worker was killed by the police. A Government official called my colleague who had before facilitated a dialogue between laborers and government officials. The
official told my colleague: ‘a year ago I would have felt that killing the protester was right, but after dialoguing with laborers, and seeing the way the other side sees the world, now I completely disagrees with the police’s behavior.’ This is the kind of change that can be created by dialogue.
I’ve participated in peace negotiation dialogues between guerilla fighters and the army; both sides would meet once a month for to talk. When these people are not in meetings, they would be trying to kill one another. But because they both wanted to have a peaceful future both parties worked hard to create a space for engaging in dialogue. This is the role that dialogue can place in even seemingly intractable situations.
Q：What’s the biggest obstacle to engaging in dialogue?
A：People do not automatically listen. We were not born to inquire into the perspectives of others; on the contrary, we are more inclined to defend ourselves and advocate our own views; we are in a hurry to tell people what we think we know, but are uncomfortable to admit what we do not know. So I think that increasing one’s ability to dialogue requires building a spirit of curiosity about the innumerable things we don’t know and begin asking questions. Many people will feel that what we need is action and not talk. The fact is though, that regardless of the decisions we make, only dialogue will create quality relationships between people.
Dialogue Does Not Mean Consensus
Q：What is a common myth about dialogue?
A：The biggest myth is that dialogue will produce consensus and that as long as we have dialogue we will achieve an agreement. This is wrong, there are actually many ways to reach a decision: from authority-based to voting-based methodologies and to pure consensus; and each process each can more or less be dialogic. That means, emphasis is placed on the quality of participants’ interactions and the quality of information, and even if I ultimately make the decision (and not you) the process can still be dialogic.
It’s a problem if we believe that the goal of dialogue is to achieve consensus. I can keep my power to decide; I can let everyone know that I will make the final decision, but I want to first listen to everyone dialogue so as to understand each person’s thoughts.
Problems arise when the process is construed to look like an inquiry but participant’s views are not in fact not listened to at all. That’s manipulation. Many government agencies and companies for example would appear as if they are welcoming everyone’s opinion, but their intention is merely to present image of dialogue for public relations. When we dialogue, we aim to put more points of view on the table. Afterall, we are facing an extremely complex world and it is dangerous to over-rely on an expert’s “answer”, whereas we do need experts when we make decisions but their role is to assist us and not override us.
Q：So is a dialogic attitude more important than skills?
A：The ultimate decisional result is important as well as how we make the decision. Higher orders of trust and collaboration produce greater flows of information leading to higher quality decisions.
Conversely, less trust and communication leads to less information and more speculation and assumptions. This is what a positive or a negative cycle can look like.
Dialogue can penetrate appearances and reveal deeper level things. When we’re faced with problems we often look for answers to their symptoms; but the crux of many problems lies in relationships in the system. For example, gang crime is a problem for some schools. In some cases the troublemakers are students who have immigrated from Central and South America. I was asked by schools to help resolve problems related to gang violence. In the beginning the schools believed we should give these students conflict resolution skills training. But looking at what structured the students’ relationships, we saw that at lunch break and after school the immigrants would gather to study English, which increased their alienation from other students. So we redesigned the way these students study English by having them to learn with their classmates, naturally relationship would grow close and the alienation and violence problem was resolved.
Embrace The Things You Do Not Understand
Q：What key recommendation do you give about dialogue?
A：My favorite word is curiosity. If you strengthen curiosity about the things you do not know, you will become more sensitive and willing to embrace what you do not understand. Dialogue will then naturally follow. Humility, ask questions as much as possible, and do not pre-prescribe answers.
Q：Do you think curiosity can be developed or is it innate?
A：I think curiosity can be inspired. If leaders are accustomed to asking questions, then that attitude will infect others; if you think you know all the answers, others will imitate you as well.
Original article written by 方素惠, arranged by 陳庭安, and published
in the EMBA magazine February 2012 edition.
EMBA magazine website: http://www.emba.com.tw