Getting Over Our Selves

March 25, 2010 Leave a comment


|Photo by jaycross||

“How do we help people move toward authentic inquiry when their default is aggressive inquisition?”  This question was offered up in a tweet by Larry Dressler a week ago and presaged my planned post today.  My departure was going to be a return to the work of Marcial Losada mentioned in a previous post, which shows that optimal group performance is attributed in part to members striking a balance between asking questions and promoting their own points of view.  Low performing groups tend to get caught up in self-absorbed advocacy.  “Aggressive inquisition” can simply be a form of advocacy, intended to attack and tear down other ideas.  This is not the spirit Losada is talking about.  And yet, it can be challenging for some to avoid simply campaigning for their own proposals.

So what are some steps or strategies to encourage people to make it less about them and more about the best ideas on the table?  A few thoughts:

  • Practice dialogue. Dialogue is a poorly understood form of interaction in this country.  What is sometimes dubbed dialogue is actually debate or discussion.  The difference?  The good people at the Public Conversations Project point out that while debate often takes place in a threatening environment where differences on the sides of an issue are minimized or denied and where the ultimate point is to poke holes in other positions, dialogue is about creating safety for people to speak to one another, to express uncertainty about their own positions and show curiosity about others, with the desire being to surface new information and understanding.  David Bohm articulated the difference between discussion and dialogue as first and foremost being the difference between driving towards a decision and learning.  Dialogue asks participants to practice suspending opinions and judgments.
  • Assign Systemic Perspectives. Jeanette Armstrong is an Okanagan Canadian writer who has shared the decision-making framework of her people as a model for having more informed less politicized conversations.  When people come together to discuss a matter, each person is assigned one of four perspectives to speak from: land/place, family/relationships, security/sustenance, and vision/creativity.  In considering any decision, all four perspectives must be fully considered and balanced holistically with respect to ultimate impact.
  • Wear Different Thinking Hats. Edward deBono’s method of lateral thinking asks that groups collectively cycle through different modes of thinking to effectively evaluate ideas.  These include considerations of: possible pitfalls, benefits, needed information, emotional reactions, and new ideas.  The point is to try on a bunch of perspectives together, and to all have the same conversation at the same time.

What about you?  What have you done to keep people’s eyes on the collective prize?

No Comments

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Curtis. These are helpful antidotes to the all-too-common problem you describe. Another one is to “ritualize dissent.” It’s related to Armgstong’s four perspectives. People are asked to play the role of “devil’s advocate” or “opposition” intentionally (and without commiting themselves to agreeing with the oppositional position)to be sure that multiple sides of an issue are explored and disagreement is “normalized.”

    A related strategy is to have the entire group (or a fishbowl conversation if the group is very large) fully explore all of the pro’s and all of the con’s of an issue separately and as fully as possible, again, without hacing to agree or disagree with the points raised during the exploration (and without necesarily revealing one’s own points of view). I’ve found this particularly helpful in discussions of race and diversity where people were initially uncomfortable putting their own views on the table. After this kind of exploration, folks were able to say “I think xyz…” and hear each other with deeper understanding and even some compassion.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Cynthia. Great additions!

  • Gibran says:

    Another great one Curtis! I appreciate the process tips and wonder what might be ways to ensure a conversation remains a dialogue without sneaking into debate?

  • Curtis says:

    G, I think the Center for Whole Communities has some good guidelines and practices for this. They really do emphasize staying in inquiry and not advocacy, and also “speaking to the center.” More about this later . . .

  • Sauda says:

    Thanks for this Curtis. I really appreciate approaches that encourage us to come out of our own points of view and which push us into thinking, feeling and intellectual rigor. What I love about Assigning Systemic Perspectives is that the group can initially agree on the perspectives that are important to the group and then take shared responsibility for making sure that those perspectives are given ample time for consideration. I think I will borrow this for use with a group that I am working with that has gotten really stuck in individual perspectives. Thanks to Jeanette Armstrong!

  • Curtis says:

    Another thought I’ve had in response to some of the great comments and question posted here is that I think it is vitally important to help people learn to really respect the spaces we create for dialogue and deliberation. I’m talking ritual, I’m talking reverence. If we learn to respect “the center” as a sacred place where wisdom can arise, this might be an effective way of taking the light off of the individuals contributing. I’m thinking now about that Robert Frost line – “We dance round in a ring and suppose, while the secret sits in the middle and knows.” What if we really believed that?

  • Gibran says:

    I think that’s it Curtis, it is about developing the right rituals for the group to transition into an alternative space, a space where dialogue and deliberation are sacred practices – it is how we open and close these spaces that helps mark them as such.

  • Curtis says:

    Yes, Gibran. I think the transitions into and out of that space is particularly important. This is showing up in so many places in mainstream culture. With no transitions, we are always running, going with what we know, and generally feeling like we have no time to do anything!

  • Kim says:

    I’m curious if there are low performing groups that come from people refusing to commit to any advocacy at all? My college students are very conflict adverse and adopt a morally-relative line because trying to persuade someone of something seems rude to them. So while the challenge in a feminist classroom in the 90s was what to do with “aggressive inquisitors,” I find the current challenge is often about how to make it ok for someone to speak with passion, persuasion, and advocacy without it feeling rude.

    (I do think if they were better question-askers, the class might move in that direction sometimes, because a great question encourages a deep response, and I need to get better at that kind of question as well).

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Kim. I think you raise a good question and point. My experience is that groups can get hemmed up if they are too “polite” for lack of a better word (of course politeness on the surface may really be about fear and power plays at a deeper level). The research suggests that it’s about finding a good balance between inquiry and advocacy, and that when we are advocating we are making it about the ideas on the table and not about one another. And I completely agree with you that being better question-askers would go a long way in eliciting deep responses that might make our path forward clearer. I’m reminded of the quote that I came across recently about the primacy of building trust and relationships in groups – “Relationships can break our paralysis by giving us ideas of what structures need reforming.” Seems listening and asking really good questions are what are required to build that trust.

  • Christian says:

    I also see the cultivation of the intellectual traits as essential.

    P.S. The comment activity on this blog is so awesome. It’s like an actual conversation, which is something quite rare in today’s blogosphere. You guys rock!

  • Curtis says:

    Christian, your comment is music to our ears! So glad that you are finding value in and contributing to the conversation beyond the post. And thank you for the link to the info about intellectual traits. Agreed.

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