Sustainable Dialogue as a Necessary Template
for sustainable global community
- / -
Paper for the conference of the Academy of Management conference on
'Organization Dimensions of Global Change: No Limits to Cooperation'
Western Reserve University, May 1995)
Abstract: Taking account of criticism of sustainable development as
an unrealistic stable state, the paper explores the pattern of dialogue processes
necessary to the coherence and evolution of a complex social system characterized
by opposing views. This perspective recognizes the need to sustain the dialogue
between radically different viewpoints as a guarantee of a level of diversity
vital to unforeseeable responses to complex crises of the future. It is argued
that the dynamic and evolving pattern of such dialogue needs first to be understood
and given richer form in meeting-sized groups if the recommendations of such
groups for wider society are to be of any longer-term relevance. Inability
to sustain dialogue in widely representative conferences then becomes an early
indicator of the inadequacy of the understanding required for any sustainable
approach to development. Reference is also made to computer graphic devices
to manage the imagery through which the necessarily complex patterns of dialogue
can be understood and sustained, notably during electronic conferences.
This paper arises from the observation that the many efforts at dialogue, notably in
international conferences, tend to get trapped in meanderings, repetitive patterns and
over- simplifications, from which it is difficult to establish any conceptual distance.
Worthy attempts at formulating new agendas and visions are too often characterized by
lengthy recapitulations of old ideas which, to the extent that they are valuable, would be
better taken as read. It is regrettable that so many key conferences give priority to
affirmations, testimonials and the education of other participants -- whom it is assumed
are either ignorant of the issues or have not been able to do any preparatory
'homework'. Do participants have so little confidence in their preoccupations
and commitments that such reaffirmation is necessary? The issue of why previous dialogues
following this pattern have failed to ensure sufficiently significant breakthroughs is not
addressed. Rather the need to address this issue is carefully denied, usually implicitly.
Such forms of dialogue are then 'sustainable' only in that they can continue
to be repeated in different settings precisely because they do not establish any basis for
real change. In this sense a 'con-ference' tends to be the bringing together of
'one-shot' statements by key figures on the 'conference circuit'.
Especially at the intergovernmental level, they are not expected to engender any new
framework. The same statements are repeated in other settings. Whilst this has the
important consequence of giving wider legitimacy to valuable insights, it does not help in
taking concrete steps to act effectively on such insights. In particular the
time-consuming effort to achieve consensus, and to express that consensus in affirmative
declarations and pledges, has tended to litter international documentation with
unfulfilled good intentions -- somewhat analogous to the production of New Year
resolutions or to the 'vapourware' characteristic of over-optimistic computer
As instant communities, such conferences are a demonstration of the inability to
engender sustainability. The pattern of dialogue is only sustainable for a matter of days
as the increasing exhaustion and impatience of participants quickly demonstrate. It is not
surprising therefore that such dialogue is unable to provide the conceptual basis for
sustainable communities of a longer duration. Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda are memorials to
this approach. There will be others. Deploring impotence is not enough.
In what follows it is assumed that a sustainable community is primarily characterized,
at its most fundamental level, by a sustainable dialogue. The nature of sustainable
dialogue remains to be understood, even if its essence, like that of peace, may be that
which 'passeth all understanding'. Such dialogue could suggest a way of
understanding what is meant by 'communities of discourse'. The ability to
dialogue collectively is in this sense a necessary precursor of any collective ability to
'commune' and to cooperate -- whether at the local or the global level.
The socio-economic dimensions, as constrained by environmental considerations, which
are so often put forward as of primary importance to a sustainable community are here
treated as secondary consequences or manifestations of such a sustainable dialogue.
Briefly, if people cannot communicate together effectively, they cannot trade insights and
information effectively. They would then be handicapped in their ability to trade goods
and services, or to enter into sustainable social relations.
On the other hand, if people can maintain a sustainable pattern of communications, then
a sustainable community exists, whatever the degree to which it manifests in conventional
socio-economic terms. (The argument that a sustainable trading community can be based on
barter between people who cannot communicate effectively is inadequate to the challenges
of a complex global environment.)
Dangerous misinterpretation of 'sustainable community'
Sustainable community has become a fashionable notion. It is however too readily
assumed that by providing the much sought socio-economic conditions for 'basic
needs' a sustainable community will necessarily result, provided account is taken of
environmental constraints. This very conveniently lays responsibility on those who might
provide such conditions and not on those who might form the community, or on those who
might hinder its formation if it did not reflect conventional socio-economic priorities.
The nature of sustainable dialogue also challenges the assumptions of environmentalists
associated with initiatives to establish eco-villages or their urban equivalents. Their
concerns tend to focus on the alternative technologies and patterns of cultivation thought
to be basic to an improved quality of life. As with mainstream environmentalist approaches
to community design, the disciplines called upon (such as architecture) tend to be focused
on the design of 'containers' for interactions between humans, rather than on
the nature and quality of any such dialogue. The nature of sustainable dialogue also
raises the question of the quality of dialogue with nature, as stressed by the deep
Recent decades have witnessed major attempts by those sensitive to environmental issues
to ensure that these reframe the dominant economic thinking of the past. But just as the
economists have endeavoured to put forward many arguments to minimize the full
significance of the environmentalist perspective, so it would appear that the
environmentalists are now exhibiting similar behaviour in minimizing the psycho-cultural
dimensions which sustain the more balanced new approach to development that they advocate.
The literature on 'sustainable community', especially in the light of Agenda
21, reveals no concern with the psycho- cultural dimensions of the quality of life --
except insofar as they affect economic development or protection of the environment. This
is probably due to public relations efforts to reframe the less attractive original notion
of the sustainability of 'human settlements' and 'towns and cities'.
'Community', because of its multiple associations, usefully implies what is in
fact not present or intended.
'Human development', through the UNDP Human Development Report, has
been subject to a similar reductionist distortion and ignores all aspects of
psycho-cultural growth that make individual and community life meaningful. In both cases
surviving is stressed at the expense of thriving. It is ironic that the contrast is
perhaps drawn more effectively in the case of animals, where agribusiness is vociferous in
protesting how well animals are cared for in intensive farming units -- despite increasing
public repugnance at the constraints under which they survive.
Just as religious conflicts and schisms amongst Christians arose from different
perceptions of the Holy Trinity, so social conflicts are being aroused by the different
ways, and denials, through which the 'trinity' of economics, environment and the
psycho-cultural is understood. Specifically, for example, the environmentalist arguments
for 'zero-growth', whilst relevant when economies rely primarily on
non-renewable resources, are inappropriate (and possibly dangerous) when there is the
possibility of a new concept of growth in the psycho-cultural domain. How, and whether,
such cultural development is to be monetarized is another matter.
The issue of sustainable dialogue gives focus to these psycho-cultural concerns.
Without these psycho-cultural dimensions 'sustainable community' is a dangerous
misrepresentation of aspirations to a better quality of life and of the means to achieve
them (as indicated by the growth example above). Still worse, there is every possibility
that the much sought 'paradigm shift' associated with 'new thinking'
will only emerge from these psycho-cultural dimensions and not from any materialistic
redisposition of environmental elements through a 'community design' reminiscent
of Brave New World.
The challenge explored here has to do with what makes or breaks the sustainability of
dialogue as the underlying dynamic of the social fabric. This requires attention to what
gets transferred, exchanged or blocked in dialogue. It also calls for understanding of the
different exchange pathways and how they may be configured. Such understanding may then
suggest richer possibilities for sustainable dialogue as well as the subtler requirements
essential for any sustainable community, whether local or global in nature.
In what ways do dialogues tend to be unsustainable? In general this occurs when they
become 'boring', 'simplistic' or 'threatening' to a
significant number of participants who will then leave, reduce their level of involvement,
or choose not to participate again. But 'boring' covers a range of conditions
involving recognition that the dialogue:
- will simply continue to offer 'more of the same';
- is effectively monopolized by a sub-set of participants;
- is simply a series of monologues;
- lacks any transformative dynamic through which it can progressively transcend its
- is being manipulated by some participants towards ends which may be unclear;
- tends to get stuck in particular modes;
- is paralyzed by some form of polarizing dynamic;
- is simply being used as a platform to further individual agendas;
- is essentially superficial or naive in its avoidance of more fundamental issues;
- is focused on the formation of a simplistic consensus;
- is unrepresentative of the variety of perspectives on the issues under discussion.
In metaphoric term, what prevents a dialogue from 'taking off' and
'flying' and what causes it to crash?
Beyond 'feel-good' dialogue: breaking the comfort barrier
The concern here is not primarily with forms of dialogue between participants who have
a predisposition to agree or who value agreement and consensus. Rather it is with the more
challenging category of dialogue between those who have little disposition to agree or
seek consensus, as typified by the belligerents in Bosnia or the faiths which encourage
such behaviour. With some 50 conflicts based to some degree on religion in 1993, it is
assumed that new ways of approaching such complex dynamics are required.
Forms of dialogue capable of embodying the depth of disagreement that sustains such
conflicts must honour difference in more profound ways. These are likely to challenge
conventional understandings of consensus and will involve a greater sense of risk. Whilst
feel-good dialogue may be vital to some forms of community-building, it is questionable
whether in its present simplistic form it is adequate to the challenge of a world in
crisis. If there are to be appeals for harmony and simplicity, it needs to be recognized
that these cannot be based on naive and simplistic notions of either.
Where consensus is possible, it is of course to be welcomed. But where individuals are
made to pay the highest personal price over several years, as in Bosnia, whilst those who
favour consensus nourish what may be an illusion (in the form they choose to understand
it), then other approaches should at least be considered. There is a danger that isolated
zones of simplistic consensus will start to take the form of fortresses in a sea of
disagreement, for lack of a more imaginative approach. The self-righteousness of those
within such fortresses does not help matters.
B. DIMENSIONS OF DIALOGUE
In the following sections an effort is made to identify the challenges to the
sustainability of dialogue seen through the frameworks of contrasting metaphors. In each
case the concern is with how to envisage avoiding any break in 'the pattern which
connects' the participants in the dialogue. As argued by Gregory Bateson,
breaking that pattern leads to loss of quality. However there is also the question of how
that pattern can be enriched and enhanced. For without that it becomes stultifying,
sterile and brittle, fragmenting of its own accord.
The contrasting metaphors below are in fact complementary. Each introduces an important
dimension but is in itself inadequate to capturing the complexity of sustainability. Taken
in isolation, each may even be a major factor in undermining it.
1. 'Levels' of dialogue: the vertical metaphor
Quality of life is intimately related to the depth of ongoing dialogue. What does it
mean when a dialogue becomes 'deeper', more profound or more significant? How is
it appropriate to think about different levels of dialogue?
This can perhaps best be explored through a metaphor that clarifies possible steps in
the evolution of dialogue. There may be a case, taking an Eastern martial art like aikido
as a metaphor, for distinguishing different levels of proficiency in dialogue -- up to a
'black belt' -- and bearing in mind the progression of philosophical and
attitudinal subtleties in responding to an 'opponent'! Shifting metaphors,
perhaps there is a case for a dialogue equivalent to a 'golf handicap' to
constrain the undisciplined and to provide a 'level table' (to use a phrase
vital to a stage in the Middle East peace process).
Alternatively, a musical metaphor could be used in different ways. One way is to take
the stages in the historical development of musical harmony as representing stages in the
complexification and enrichment of dialogue as an exercise in social harmony (**11). This
could give rise to a sequence of levels such as the following:
- Level 1: Singing in unison, based on scales (Ancient Greece)
- Level 2: Use of any of 12 scale patterns of tones with characteristic functions
(6th to 9th century)
- Level 3: Acceptance of only simplest 'perfect' harmonic ratios,
allowing the addition of one or two exactly parallel voices, that later acquired melodic
independence (9th century)
- Level 4: Acceptance of other intervals and the development beyond 3-part scoring
(12th to 15th century)
- Level 5: Breakdown of the distinction between the 12 classical modes,
foreshadowing the major/minor system (15th century)
- Level 6: Focus on the keynote as the point of departure and arrival in a
composition (16th century)
- Level 7: Emphasis on expressive melodic line harmonically underpinned by a base
line generating forces upon which harmonies were built (17th century)
- Level 8: Deliberate use of unresolved harmonies and of ambiguous chords (19th
- Level 9: ...
Is it possible that the many efforts by the international community towards consensus
on vital issues, such as sustainable development or human rights, are trapped in a
simplistic understanding of harmony that effectively dates back to Ancient Greece?
A related approach would be to consider a metaphor based on:
- Level 1: Monotone (enunciation of single pattern of values, drowning out or
ignoring all others)
- Level 2: Competing monotones (recognition of discordant patterns of values)
- Level 3: Responding tones (contrasting volumes responding to each other in some
- Level 4: Runs of tones...simple melodies (highlighting of sequences of values in
resonance one with another)
- Level 5: Isolated chords (harmonious value complexes and combinations)
- Level 6: Sequences of chords (sequences of value complexes, providing a context
for those of a more discordant nature)
- Level 7: ...
The focus is here on the Western concept of music. That of the East opens the ways to
seeking parallels with developments in modes of awareness which can allow the presence of
elements of an apparently higher degree of incompatibility.
In both cases levels are not 'superseded' through such development. Each
always has its value. But at the 'deeper' or 'higher' levels there is
greater richness. The context for any item included from a 'lower' level then
becomes of greater significance. At the higher levels, it is how lower level contributions
to the dialogue are combined with others that is more significant than the specific
quality of that contribution. As with music, the power and genius of a piece of dialogue
comes from the overall pattern of combinations. At the higher levels this may appear
increasingly chaotic, but is increasingly capable of holding the degree of order found in
nature. Lower levels of dialogue tend to be mechanistic, where the higher levels depend on
aesthetic significant patterns of associations. Of course, from a lower level, any pattern
connecting elements of significance at a higher level would necessarily be a challenge to
In terms of such a 'vertical' metaphor, the sustainability of dialogue is
dependent on the nature of the connection between 'levels'. In practice any
transition between levels during dialogue implies the possibility of discontinuity and
therefore the breakdown of dialogue -- although some discontinuity may be tolerable as
part of a larger pattern. The discontinuity from any 'lower' level arises from
the challenge to comprehension of the perspectives of any 'higher' levels --
they are essentially meaningless or irrelevant. From any 'higher' level, the
challenge of 'lower' levels is associated with frustration with their
restrictiveness and limited applicability.
Such vulnerability to vertical discontinuity may be partially reduced through
information and education. But this is seldom adequate, for the discontinuity is
essentially experiential. In a sense each level implies a paradigm shift, or even an
'initiation' in ritual terms. The reality of the perspective at a higher
'level' cannot be adequately explained or justified. It must be learnt, often as
a consequence of painful experience. Prior to learning, communication with those at a
'higher' level may evoke respect, even awe, but this does not ensure sustainable
The more interesting challenge is not how to ensure that everyone dialogues from the
'highest' level. Depending on this would postpone most initiatives indefinitely
whilst some participants are 'brought up to speed'. It would also be experienced
as profoundly elitist(**) -- whatever the subtleties through which those at the
'highest' level discover their identification with those of the
The challenge is rather how to ensure a sustainable dialogue between people whose
'centre of gravity' or 'comfort zone' are at different levels. The
possibilities and challenges are clear in any family with children of different ages.
Family breakdown can be seen as a consequence of unsustainable dialogue between levels of
experience or generations. Note that this may be due to the children having acquired far
more profound experience than the parents, so complacent paternalism or maternalism are
not enough. But it is understandable how traditional family structures are seen as
sustaining certain forms of social structure.
On the scale of the global community, the nature of the challenge becomes even clearer.
How is a 'higher' level to be distinguished? Many in the policy sciences plead
for greater sophistication on the part of policy-makers as the essential condition to meet
the challenges of complexity (Dror**). Others call for 'centres of excellence'.
However, other than through appeals for education and public information, they do not
clarify how the dialogue between such elites and a 'many-levelled' public is to
be rendered sustainable. And issues of political apathy and the democratic deficit are of
increasing concern. And what exactly is 'higher' in relation to the dramatic
conditions of the least developed countries or the fourth world?
It is also clear how those operating at 'higher' levels have ways of defining
and protecting their own excellence so as to increase their insensitivity to those at
'lower' levels. Some have a tendency to take advantage of their
'height', disguising their self-interest under demonstrations of sophistication.
It is of course possible that such levels are themselves merely the foothills to greater
heights from which such manipulation is rejected. All spiritual traditions would make this
claim, for example. But, switching metaphors, the challenge remains to find ways of
ensuring two-way traffic between different levels.
2. 'Otherness' in dialogue: the horizontal metaphor
Effort at dialogue between levels can be experienced as an encounter with
'otherness'. But this can be usefully distinguished from an encounter with
difference or incompatibility at the same level, where the emphasis is not on more complex
or subtle, but rather on an alternative perspective. In this case 'otherness' is
experienced as the strange or foreign. In the most extreme cases it carries the
characteristics of the 'shadow' in Jungian terms (***).
For an individual within a group, others holding a different point of view constitute a
challenge to dialogue. In terms of a 'horizontal' metaphor, it is useful to see
the relative difficulty of dialogue represented as the distance which separates people.
Indeed, the phrase 'they are far apart' is often used for this purpose.
Socio-metrics uses this approach.
Most of the accepted issues of inter-disciplinary, inter- faith, inter-cultural, or
inter-national dialogue appear to be associated with this form of 'otherness'.
But clearly it is easy to confuse vertical differences of level with such horizontal
differences. Indeed a vertically different perspective, if denied as such, may instead be
projected onto a horizontal plane.
The experience of otherness is associated with the challenge of diversity. Sufficient
is required to avoid monotony. But in any dialogue excessive variety leads to trivial
interactions or an unfruitful sense of chaos.
Otherness is closely associated with a sense of threat and insecurity. This may be
partially transformed into a sense of risk and adventure. Habitual responses may be
refreshingly called into question. But such unpredictability does not necessarily make for
a sustainable dialogue. Some kind of context is required within which perpetual challenge
3. 'Positioning' in dialogue: the territorial metaphor
Horizontal differences readily lead to territorial behaviour in communication space. An
individual, or a group, takes up a position on that surface and defends the area around it
against any infringement by others. In ecological terms, niches are sought. Species in an
ecosystem develop patterns of symbiosis, commensalism, predator-prey, or other
relationships. For dialogue then to be sustainable, a basis for ongoing interaction must
be found. Here a trading metaphor is very helpful initially. Those from different
territories learn to sustain a pattern of trade and exchange.
But use of a trading metaphor quickly points to the ways in which such dialogue can be
distorted to the point of unsustainability. Dominance and exploitation are well-known
issues in any dialogue. The options of 'free trade' versus 'managed
trade' are also a cause for concern. The 'environment' may itself be
exploited such as to deplete non-renewable resources. The dialogue then peters out, or
breaks off, in ways that might even foreshadow humanity's own decline.
This metaphor raises the issue as to exactly what forms of information or insight can
be traded between very different perspectives. How can that exchange be sustained? What
cultural or other resources get irreversibly depleted through inappropriate dialogue? A
meeting session can certainly be 'exhausting', but people can often continue
after a 'break'. What gets regenerated during the break? Why cannot such
regeneration be integrated into the meeting session? When is a break insufficient to
But the trading metaphor also facilitates understanding of the issue of
interdependence. In principle there is a complementarity between different perspectives
that should encourage fruitful exchanges on a sustainable basis. The different territories
could be positioned onto the surface of a map. In the case of inter-faith dialogue, for
example, a necessary preliminary is to ensure that all the religions are represented on
such a map. If they are not, any dialogue is already of limited significance. Assumptions
that such a map can be divided up into the 'spheres of influence' of the
'five major' religions, are reminiscent of outdated 'great power'
geopolitics. Distributing all the faiths onto a map with minimal distortion is a major
challenge, especially when even the 'smallest' faiths consider themselves to be
of the greatest significance. As suggested by the following section, two dimensional
surfaces cannot respect a multiplicity of such privileged perspectives. But much can
already be achieved by using such features as islands, dividing ranges, separating oceans,
and the like - - provided the map is effectively redisplayed for each faith to give it
central prominence (as is still down in many tourist brochures to highlight a promoted
destination). Why are such maps never produced as a guide to dialogue?
Direct and indirect exchange relationships can be indicated on the map, possibly with
an indication of what is exchanged. Issues of net losers and net gainers can be
highlighted. Who gains and who loses from a dialogue and what does this imply for its
sustainability? What happens to a dialogue when some participants are categorized as
winners and others as losers?
But within the trading metaphor there is also the obvious challenge of maintaining
'competitiveness', to avoid the perceived danger of being a loser, and to
perceive a sense of place that is threatened. This is quite insensitive to the niceties of
interdependence. Competition is also a temptation in dialogue. An environment perceived as
competitive may be one reason many withdraw from a dialogue process. Both people and
nations seek to position themselves on territory to their best advantage -- and even
withdrawal (or delinking) can be seen in this light.
To understand how it can maintain its sense of worth by acting less competitively,
appears to be as difficult for a nation as it is for a person or for a group. In both
cases some value must continue to be exchanged, maintaining a sense of appreciation, for
the dynamics to be sustainable. How should what line be drawn, where, and for what?
Clearly one issue is what value is best exchanged for this purpose. Maybe there is a more
fruitful basis for competition (**). But an artificially bounded (weekend) dialogue does
not bring people face-to-face with the survival issues and options faced by a nation in
savage global markets. Clues to sustainability in both cases must be sought elsewhere.
4. 'Coherence' in dialogue: the configurative metaphor
The horizontal metaphor leads to a perception of the winners being progressively more
centrally positioned, whilst the losers are progressively marginalized to the periphery --
even to the point of falling off the edge of the map. This is for many an operating
assumption within the global community. Africa and the South are recognized as unfortunate
victims of this process. An analogous process is perceptible in many dialogue situations.
Often there are the few who effectively monopolize the discussion and the many who are
often effectively ignored -- even though much effort may have been devoted to negotiating
their participation from distant regions.
The centre-periphery situation mapped by the horizontal metaphor has been extensively
criticized over the past decades. Marginalization of any kind has been called into
question, although few clues exist as to how to avoid it in practice -- even it there were
the will to do so.
Another metaphor may be used to counteract such marginalization. By wrapping the
'horizontal' map around a sphere (or a topologically similar surface, such as a
torus), there is no longer any edge off which those at the margins can be safely allowed
to fall. In such a closed system the negative consequences of the marginalizing tendency
any where on the surface must necessarily result in corrective feedback pressures. Account
must then be taken of the other occupants of that closed system: refugees are an
increasingly important example. This is the argument of environmentalists. How to achieve
this is another matter. But there is intuitive value to using a sphere as a surface given
its isomorphism with the planetary surface over which our collective survival issues are
being played out.
In a dialogue many efforts can be made to ensure the effective participation of all the
participants. An appropriately configured dialogue is important to the coherence and
integrity of the group. It is vital to any sense of belonging and as a counter to any
sense of alienation. But it is one thing to use artificial devices like 'allowing
everyone to speak for the same time' ('talking sticks', etc) and another
for participants to find the dialogue meaningful as a whole. This is especially the case
where some participants have perspectives that are very distant in preoccupation from
others. Such distance may be so great that participants may be 'over' a
communication 'horizon', or effectively on the other side of the sphere. In this
sense communication between them can only be achieved through the mediation of a chain of
others. For others any such 'global' perception can be ignored since everything
seems to be satisfactorily handled from a 'local' perspective. A horizontal,
'flat Earth' metaphor is quite satisfactory for the many day-to-day issues of
specialists and neighbourhoods.
The spherical configuration introduces a useful pattern of constraints through which
export of negative impacts into an infinite environmental or behavioral 'sink'
is brought into question. Some form of recycling becomes increasingly necessary, however
much every 'local' tries to export such impacts rather than import them. In a
dialogue of any significance people are increasingly challenged with their own behavioral
problems as others refuse to tolerate having to deal with their effects.
The challenge from any perspective is to know how to distinguish an uncomfortable
alternative mode of behaviour, valuable to the diversity of the whole, from one which
calls for (self-)constraint in the light of some global norms. How can perspectives be
optimally positioned over the surface of the sphere to allow for maximum diversity,
minimizing counter-productive confrontations? Does this suggest that aspiring to achieve
direct communication between all is a mistaken understanding of 'universal
brother/sister-hood'? A rich dialogue of appropriate diversity may depend upon some
people not being able to communicate with some others - - if only because the results
would be totally disruptive? How is the meshing between local and global norms to be
achieved? How are global norms to be understood from a local perspective -- and how are
local norms to be understood from a global perspective?
5. 'Phasing' in dialogue: the time metaphor
The preceding metaphors all repress the time dimension in favour of essentially static
frameworks. This is quite unrealistic in practice -- if only in that people 'take
turns' to speak. In a dialogue a participant may act or perceive one way and then
later act in a quite different way without any sense of inconsistency. Behavioral
diversity is not only appreciated in a participant, it may be vital to the life of the
dialogue as a whole. Repetitive behaviour patterns are questioned. The complex coherence
of an individual may only be expressible at any one time by acting differently over time.
Similarly dialogue in a group may have a range of characteristics and qualities over time
-- including seriousness, humour, technicality, commemoration, affirmation, and the like.
Dialogues effectively have their 'weather' and their 'seasons' to
whose rhythms experienced participants learn to adjust their behaviour.
The global community can also be seen as expressing itself through interweaving cycles,
of which those most carefully studied are the business and economic cycles. Much more
rapid cycles are a major feature of the financial markets. Analogues to these are to be
sensed in the rapid shifts in the value attached to dialogue participants and their
In responding to the time dimension, the major issue is how to mesh short- and
long-term perspectives. Short-term survival issues may appear to undermine long-term
survival issues. In a dialogue, failing to correct unacceptable behaviour in the
short-term may reinforce a pattern which renders long-term corrective measures impossible.
And yet the identity of the participant exhibiting that behaviour may seem closely tied to
that behaviour so that any suggestion of the need for constraint is perceived as
infringing on freedom of expression. Most global policy- making is in practice based on
the short-term interests of nations and corporations (including the appearance of adhering
to long-term policy measures).
There is little sensitivity to the variety of cycles which interweave in the ongoing
life of any dialogue. Using a Jungian perspective, for example, one approach is to think
in terms of intellectual, affective, intuitive and sensation cycles all simultaneously
active and inter-locking -- peaking and troughing at different times, possibly for
different people in the group. More cycles might be envisaged. The difficulty of being
aware of such cycles in a dialogue is matched by the difficulty of similar awareness in
the case of the global community. Economic cycles are one thing, but what of cycles of
public opinion, fashions, collective excitement or gloom, religious fervour, and the like?
And yet it is through such cycles that both a dialoguing group and the global community
move beyond monotony and express a living quality -- a quality of life.
6. 'Development' in dialogue: the transformative metaphor
It is one thing to perceive a cycle of changes over time in a group, namely the
different conditions and moods the dialogue can get into. And acquiring this detached
awareness may be difficult enough. It is quite another to understand how the quality of
the dialogue is developing or changing over time beyond such cyclic phasing. After the
fact, there may be a shared perception that the group 'changed', and that
'things are different now'.
Many specialists in group dynamics are concerned to help bring about such developmental
changes. It is however difficult for a group to be conscious of how it is developing. What
characterizes the development of a group towards 'maturity'? What is a
'transformative moment' in the life of a group? What is 'group
consciousness' or 'community spirit' -- and how are these related to the
emergence of the 'solidarity' that so many leaders plead for? In the light of
the above metaphors, are there ways of understanding such changes as changes of
configuration and phasing, for example?
If such developmental transformation implies greater 'integrity' in the
dialogue, namely greater 'group integrity', how is the sequence of such
progressively higher orders of integration to be understood and described? Can a
dialoguing group be usefully understood as metamorphosing through developmental phases
like some insects: from caterpillar, through pupa, to butterfly? Is such a final stage
what is meant by a group 'taking off' or 'flying'? The same phrase,
'taking off', is of course used to describe a particular stage in the successful
economic development of a country or a region.
Development has been an explicit major issue for the global community for a number of
decades. Despite much effort, the situation can be seen as becoming progressively worse,
at least for some countries. And, even within industrialized countries, the challenge of
the 'marginalized' is reaching dramatic proportions, especially in urban areas.
Developmental theorists of the past have been discredited - - as is evident in the
criticism of the World Bank and UNDP track records and calls for their reform. There is
much call for 'new ways of thinking' -- to enable the much heralded
'paradigm shift' or 'quantum leap'. This is the current plea of the UN
Secretary-General in launching the UN World Conference on Social Development (Copenhagen,
It can be argued that inability to adequately distinguish developmental phases in a
dialogue process systematically undermines ability to give credibility to the development
process. The quality of thinking is inadequate. The image of a more mature dialogue is
unclear and lacks credibility. Ironically much discussion of development takes places
through dialogue processes that manifest many symptoms of such lack of maturity. Even if
there were calls for it to be different, there is no ability to distinguish the quality of
dialogue at the World Conference on Social Development from that of any other United
Nations conferences of the past.
Such conferences are trapped in a particular unchanging form of dialogue whose
conceptual restrictions are unquestionable. Such dialogue reinforces inability to respond
to the issues with which the conferences purport to deal. Tragically conferences of the
'greens' are subject to the same constraints. In failing to use their own
ecological insights as richer organizational metaphors to counter factionalism and
integrate divergent perspectives, it is little wonder that their political credibility
7. 'Evolution' in dialogue the generative metaphor
Just as developmental change in a dialogue is difficult to distinguish in practice from
the cyclic phase changes in that dialogue, so it is even more difficult to distinguish
evolutionary changes from developmental changes. Developmental changes occur because they
are inherent in an underlying pattern (the genotype in biological development), of which
only a small proportion is actually expressed at any one time. Evolution on the other hand
is the result of an unpredictable mutation which changes that underlying pattern, drawing
upon some of its inherent potential. Is there confusion between the 'new
thinking' or 'paradigm shift' as a developmental change and what would be
required for an evolutionary change? Worse still, is 'new thinking' confused
with the need for short-term cyclic changes (see above) that are essential to the life of
In a social community any such evolution of some part of it raises special challenges.
Pleas for 'centres of excellence', notably in the sciences and in industrial
research complexes, lead deliberately to a new mode of operating, of which Silicon Valley
and Route 132 are classic examples. This is also true of spiritual or artistic
communities. The special challenge is the interface between such 'evolved'
communities and the rest of the social system. In deliberately designing them to have a
competitive advantage, they naturally result in the rest of the system being placed at a
competitive disadvantage. This may not necessarily be to the advantage of the social
system as a whole, as the issue of transfer of technology and know-how, and the protection
of intellectual copyright, are currently illustrating.
In inter-faith dialogue, participants remark on the almost mystical breakthroughs
achieved within a suitably (self- )selected group from different religions. They will bear
witness to the possibilities of such an evolution, although they may have considerable
difficult in describing the nature of what they experienced. However this is far from
being the case when the participants 'officially' represent their religious
hierarchies. The dialogue then seldom, if ever, progresses beyond the niceties of
diplomatic exchanges and symbolic tokenism. Too much is at stake. No evolution in
perspective could be effectively communicated back to the respective religious
communities. Such emergent insight could not be in any way integrated into their fixed
understandings of their uniquely privileged insights into the truths which humanity must
necessarily come to understand in their particular terms. The bearers of such insights
would need to be 'sanctioned'. This phenomena is also evident in
inter-disciplinary, inter-cultural and inter-sectoral dialogues.
Clearly this challenge of evolution in dialogue over time creates the challenge of
levels of dialogue at any one time, as discussed with respect to the first metaphor.
C. IMMEDIATE CHALLENGES
It is not sufficient to offer a richer set of ways to look at dialogue, as above. The
question is what is needed to improve the sustainability of dialogue as a template for
more fruitful approaches to global cooperation.
More specifically, the question is how to distinguish and avoid the traps of simplistic
dialogue. This has proved unable to engender new approaches to sustainable global
cooperation, notably as a result of the obsession with consensus, 'getting to
yes' and an almost pathological fear of overt disagreement. How can sustainability be
ensured even when people profoundly disagree as is so often the case? Immediate challenges
1. Ability to discuss dialogue
Regrettably, dialogue methodologies and their advocates, tend to hinder any ability to
discuss dialogue. It has not been possible to create a space in which dialogue can be
dialogued about -- a meta-dialogue 'sacred space'. Such a space is completely
vulnerable to the desire to impose particular dialogue approaches.
Many have thought deeply about dialogue. There are many valuable insights in the
methodologies on offer. A space is required within which these methodologies can be
compared to determine under which conditions which approaches may be the most advantageous
given the current state of the art. Any such exercise is however bedeviled by the
economics of many dialogue methodologies. Their development and use is a manifestation of
'growth' in the psycho-cultural domain. Ironically, these are increasingly
treated as proprietary technologies, especially in North America. Presentation or use of
them can then only be made by duly licensed practitioners.
An even remotely objective discussion of their strengths, weaknesses and complementary
functions is also rendered very difficult by the psychological needs of their originators.
These are used to being invited to perform the key dialogue function at a conference. Many
less well-known dialogue facilitators without their own proprietary technologies are
anxious to receive the rewards of similar treatment. This situation makes extremely
difficult the task of any conference organizer, concerned to improve the quality of
dialogue. How to decide between them? There is therefore a real possibility that
proprietary dialogue innovations may acquire a stranglehold on the future of sustainable
dialogue and the processes of sustainable cooperation it underlies (***).
2. Real-time dialogue monitoring and evaluation
During the course of any conference there is a need for new ways to monitor the
dialogue as a whole and the roles performed by different participants. How can it be
understood in terms of the metaphoric contexts outlined above? In what way is improvement
in its quality constrained?
At a minimum this calls for some form of psycho-dynamics report to be provided on the
event as a whole. Even as a confidential document, this would provide valuable learnings
for future events of a similar nature. Such a document could be prepared from several
different perspectives, possibly by advocates of competing dialogue methodologies, and
submitted in separate sections. Such evaluation documents are almost never prepared.
Of much greater interest is the possibility of providing real-time monitoring of the
conference dynamics. This could take the form of a series of memos. Better still, it could
be provided as optional feedback to key conference figures (chairpersons, etc), notably
via electronic means (via earphones over a free interpretation channel, or on monitors),
as is done with TV anchor people.
Of the greatest interest, however, is the design of feedback to individual
participants. General feedback could be provided as above (***). Personalized feedback is
the ultimate challenge. Like prize-fighters, dialogue supremos need their
'managers', especially when they are egotistical geniuses. Ideally a situation
could be envisaged in which a participant could select between several channels all
providing personalized feedback (even to the point of being paid for by the participant).
This feedback is equivalent to that received in whispered form by statesmen from their
advisors during major events, but given with the professional detachment of
psychotherapists or spin doctors.
For the future of governance of global cooperation, too much is at stake in major
conferences for participants to assume that their style of communication is without need
of corrective professional feedback. An indicator of the potential for breakthroughs at a
conference may come to be measured in terms of the ratio of number of participants to the
number of such dialogue support people ('minders'). A 1:0.01 dialogue is
indicative of a very different commitment from a 1:5 dialogue (with 5 facilitators to each
participant). Willingness to accept such feedback is indicative of participation of a
different order of maturity on the part of participants. Willingness to offer feedback in
the light of different methodologies is an indication of a different order of maturity on
the part of the organizers, and those providing the feedback. After all, if it is
considered appropriate for top professional football players to require massage and
individual coaching between sessions, is it not ironic that participants at key
conferences on global governance do not benefit from having their psychic muscles
professionally 'massaged' and from behavioral feedback?
Of course the real art is to integrate the monitoring roles back into the dialogue as
participants. Participants do indeed tend to perform such roles to some degree as part of
the dialogue dynamic, but usually without the detachment and insights of professionals.
Ensuring a more appropriate pattern of checks and balances is the concern in what follows.
3. Factionalism and its necessity
Rich dialogues involve participants with strongly differing perspectives. Where there
is a comprehensible framework for such diversity, it is valued. However, efforts towards
consensus and solidarity are bedeviled by the tendency of factions to emerge, possibly
after what then appears to have been token agreement. On matters of any significance, a
unified approach cannot be successfully maintained and this is then much deplored. The
'centre can no longer hold'. This was most tragically evident amongst peace
organizations and more recently amongst the 'greens'. It has long been a
characteristic of religious movements.
Rather than deploring such factionalism, it is more fruitful to consider that it may be
essential. What it effectively represents are vital dimensions of any profoundly
significant issue. The failure to be deplored is rather the inadequacy and over-simplicity
of the unifying frameworks on offer. More adequate frameworks would provide a context for
mutually hostile factions, justifying the tensions between them as is the case between
competing species in any ecosystem.
It is therefore useful to consider the kinds of factions that tend to 'break
out' of any condition of consensus, once that consensus is sensed to be overly
simplistic. Whatever the original unifying perspective, psycho-cultural growth will be
represented by a tendency for a 'conservative' faction to emerge in opposition
to a more 'liberal' faction. The more mature and significant the topic, the
greater the range of factions that emerge.
The challenge is therefore to determine, or recognize, the kinds of perspective that
tend to emerge around any issue as it attracts a broader constituency. In biological
terms, it is these sub-constituencies which are the organs sustaining the life of that
particular dialogue. Ensuring an appropriate pattern of communications between such organs
is therefore vital.
Within the international community, the creation (not to say proliferation) of
specialized agencies can be seen as a manifestation of this factionalizing tendency. Lip
service is paid to their complementarity and to the manner in which they collaborate. Any
experience of the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination, or of any inter-agency
body, reveals another story. And there are many specialized bodies which are not involved
in such integrating exercises, to say nothing of those which are nongovernmental. There
have been no efforts to seek ways of configuring the vast network of governmental and
nongovernmental bodies in ways which bypass the simplistic tendencies of those who fail to
acknowledge the underlying psycho-social dynamics favouring such factionalism.
A fruitful point of departure would be to review together the more obvious factionalism
by discipline and subject areas, with the more subtle factionalism by temperamental or
psychological preferences. The latter are most clearly acknowledged in psychological type
theory, notably in such systems as that of Myers-Briggs. There are other such systems,
precisely because factionalizing tendencies also operate with respect to type theory as
much as subject classification. There is a need for software tools to alternate between a
variety of such perspectives without losing coherence (**).
The status of any 'deviance' from a party line now acquires different
significance. In particle physics a deviance from a trajectory is an indication of forces
at work, or of a collision resulting in the generation of other particles with other
trajectories. Patterns of schism-formation could be looked at in a similar light as a
feature of meta- physics. From such perspectives all deviant strategies are of
significance and contextually they in effect define the non-deviant trajectory.
Basarab Nicolescu's question of the small deviation which is of great significance is
then best mapped by recognition of the curvature of the earth which we daily experience as
flat. His question concerning the balance between interiority and exteriority is, within
that metaphor, then related to recognition that the earth is spherical and has a central
reference point (orientation towards a centre). This, like curvature, is of course very
difficult to prove to anyone whose attention is focused on the flatness of daily
This perspective may then be used to suggest that schisms and deviations are constantly
being formed around the surface of the metaphorical sphere. There are clearly privileged
trajectories, such as great circles which have an ourobouros function in experience. But
apparently cross- cutting deviant trajectories may form quite different great circles with
a similar significance for experience. But all these are surface phenomena.
4. Re-configuring dialogue
In the light of the above there is a case for favouring the emergence of factions,
provided they can be appropriately configured in relationship to one another. They are
then to be seen as necessary complementaries, especially when the tensions between them
are great. It is to be expected that factions of recognizable style will emerge, often in
pairs ('liberal - conservative', 'idealistic - practical',
'emotional - intellectual', etc). However they will emerge when appropriate, so
that premature provision for them can be totally counter-productive (notably facilitation
exercises such as: 'who is going to represent the ideal perspective?').
There is therefore an art to encouraging patterns to emerge without imposing the
emergence of particular patterns. Many clues are available in existing dialogue-related
methodologies. For example:
- Edward de Bono's 'thinking hats': He demonstrates how six different
styles of thinking are essential for effective group decision-making. He has colour coded
- Henry Evering's 'eidetics': He configures sets of approaches into
simple polyhedral form. Each approach correspond to a surface of the polyhedron. These are
- Stafford Beer's 'syntegrity': He configures issues onto the apices of
an icosahedron, with each edge represented by a person. The features are again colour
Only in the case of Beer's approach do participants progressively engender the
qualitative content to be associated with the elements of the pattern, but the pattern is
in all cases fixed. In the case of Harrison Owen's 'Open Space Technology'
even the pattern is determined by the participants, but it is far less structured.
Each of these methodologies is of course proprietary and may only be used under
license. This would be laughable, if it was not so tragic, for each has important clues to
the process of configuration vital to transcending process impotence (**). But the
originators of each would be 'loathe' to acknowledge the insights of the others.
And there are many others with more insights vital to any new approach to configuring
dialogue to achieve higher orders of coherence and consensus.
But the challenge of configuring is in special ways dependent precisely on dynamics
like those caricatured here as 'loathing'. It is such antipathy which is one
manifestation of distinctiveness and boundary preservation. These are vital to the
emergence of a structure capable of embodying such mutually opposed perspectives. The
parts effectively compete in a larger whole that preserves their relationships, as with
sibling rivalry in a family. In a dialogue group, mutual oppositions need to be valued as
vital structuring elements rather than 'reconciled' into a homogeneous feel-good
consensus that effectively destroys the pattern that connects across difference.
5. Structured dialogue on Internet
There are many vital processes that only manifest in face- to-face dialogue. But there
are also many other processes that emerge to disrupt discoveries vital at this time. There
is therefore a case for extensive experimentation with structured dialogue via Internet,
constraining and freeing communication possibilities as appropriate, in order to discover
the art of self-organization and self-governance in dialogue.
Issues of proprietary technology aside, there are vital insights in Beer's work, but
these need to be confronted and married with other authors he has failed to take into
account, for whatever reason, including earlier work on tensegrity organization
(Judge***). Especially noteworthy is work on Q-analysis by Ron Atkin (**) and Jeffrey
Comprehension of the complexities of emergent patterns of dialogue calls for new
graphic display software. This could also be fruitfully made accessible via Internet. In
particular the value of art in offering new approaches to organization of concepts needs
to be considered (Judge**).
1. Governance in dialogue
Most of the styles of governance of nations have their roots in styles of governing a
dialogue. Dialogues also have their dictators, feudal lords and aristocrats. The
chairperson of many classic forms of dialogue is faced with similar challenges to the
president of a country -- and indeed is often called 'president'. Dialogues may
even naively imitate the structures of governance of a country. Many NGOs appear to
imitate structural patterns employed by the United Nations.
The pattern of communications in a country's cabinet is replicated between the
government departments represented there. However there is usually greater freedom to
experiment with new forms of governance in dialogue. Participants may explore alternatives
to hierarchical models of governance. Understandings of self-governance and self-
organization can be given expression. What options for self- organization are open,
allowing agendas to change rather than be pre-defined? Many such explorations are guided
by 'facilitators' performing a process equivalent to a presidential role. But it
is rare for such facilitators to be called upon in the governance of countries. This may
be because facilitators usually require that people subscribe completely to the process
they advocate -- in effect they are 'process dictators' encouraging new forms of
How can facilitator skills be integrated into the roles that dialogue participants
perform for each other? And in a self- governing dialogue, how can 'fee-good'
concerns be transcended in ways that evoke effective action, constraining participants in
ways that may even be painful - - 'no pain, no gain'?
Such learnings are vital for world governance faced with longer term challenges that
call for fundamental changes in behaviour. But if implementation of such changes cannot be
made credible in a dialogue, then there is little chance that they can be made credible
nationally or internationally.
2. Governance through dialogue
The emphasis in governance is on laws and orders. The European Union is being swamped
by 'directives'. The USSR was ruled by decree as with the Roman Catholic Church.
Islam is controlled by edicts (fatwas). Corporations have traditionally used similar
devices although there is now much debate about new organizational cultures in which
dialogue is stressed -- much inspired by Japanese corporate success. But how would a
nation or the world be governed through dialogue? Why do parliamentarians engage in verbal
(and even physical) abuse?
Intuitions as to how this might be done were given expression in Ross Perot's
'town hall meetings', now widely imitated. Televised 'fireside chats'
are a continuing favourite for government leaders. The White House encourages e-mail and
telephone callers (but not the United Nations or its specialized agencies). It is however
easy to question whether anything is meaningfully exchanged.
The challenge is obvious:
- for any leader, how are significant new insights to be mined from a mass of incoming
communication? Or is it sufficient to respond only to opinion poll averages?
- for any of the multitude of non-leaders, what level of apparent indifference on the part
of leaders is acceptable following frustrated attempts at communication (and despite
computer-generated personalized responses)?
With the best will in the world, leaders can only respond to a flood of incoming
messages by aggregating them. The question is what conceptual and classificatory tools are
used in the reduction of variety and how can important insights be detected? And to what
extent is the procedure subject to pressures which distort and block the filtering
Leaders are increasingly reduced to communication through sound-bites and
photo-opportunities. Given the increasing distortion in widespread dissemination of
outgoing messages from leaders, what vehicles are available that best ensure effective
dissemination of insightful, empowering messages - - especially when resources for
programme implementation are absent or laughably inadequate?
One interesting approach, used by some organizations and movements, is to develop a
special form of language as a vehicle for their interactions. The language then sustains
the community, offering opportunities for identity and self- expression, whilst at the
same time providing a number of self-organizing functions important to any understanding
of governance. Obvious examples include CB-radio, electronic newsgroup conventions,
exchange market transaction code, student and gang jargons, and New Age conversational
style. Many organizations have their jargons and peculiar styles. Some have devoted
special attention to crafting and using them, notably the Institute of Cultural Affairs or
the Hunger Project (***). But there is also the danger that styles of dialogue, such as
those favoured by the diplomatic community, may be inadequate to the new crises of the
global community -- just as Japanese bureaucratic communication styles were inadequate to
the 1995 Kobe earthquake emergency.
3. Metaphor as a vehicle for dialogue
The complexity of the communication space within which dialogue may take place is
indicated by the set of metaphors above. Clearly this may be approached and rationalized
by some simple strategy of control. The inadequacies of such control have now been well
demonstrated both in smaller groups, nationally and at the level of the international
community. The same may be said between disciplines or faiths.
If ideological positions are not about to change to any significant degree, then there
is a case for adopting a more imaginative approach to dialogue between political or
religious factions. Such an approach needs to be able to reframe the dialogue so that
intractable differences are expressed more creatively without endeavouring to subsume them
within an unsustainable consensus -- however attractive.
How might a meeting or congress function when the factions represent strongly opposed
views and metaphor is the prime medium of discourse? The main interest here lies in the
nature of that dialogue process, and how it may transcend the difficulties usually
encountered in international congresses that bring together very different perspectives -
- reflecting differences that may be considered quite intractable.
What form might metaphoric discourse take? What would be the guidelines for such
discourse? Are there examples of cultures in which this mode of discourse is favoured
relative to more technical forms? A series of guidelines for such a discourse might be
envisaged. These could be revised and extended in the light of experience. Consider the
- Guideline 1: Doctrinal positions should only be expressed through metaphor or
The intention here is to free plenary discourse from dependence on
well-developed cognitive frameworks and patterns of statements. Whereas the insights
conveyed by such statements may well be widely appreciated, the form through which they
are conveyed may however constitute a significant barrier to communication with those with
Set statements evoke set responses and inhibit the evolution of a dialogue.
Presentation of insights through metaphor or parable involves the audience in a story
which can evoke a variety of insights that can nourish and sustain a dialogue.
- Guideline 2: Metaphors and parables in inter- framework discourse should be
developed using common experience and everyday roles rather than be structured around
symbolic figures with complex connotations not widely understood.
discourse about the primacy of particular symbols or about the insights and understandings
to which they point? Can the two be separated?
For example, to the extent that religious insights are universal they should lend
themselves to articulation through a variety of symbols especially those common to
- Guideline 3: Differences should be expressed by questioning the aesthetic
design of a metaphor or by creating contrast and perspective through the use of
There are deep differences between political perspectives or
between religions. Blunt statements of disagreement and opposition do not necessarily help
the dialogue to move forward. However, an understanding articulated through a metaphor can
be encountered by suggesting preferred alternatives to the structure of that metaphor or
to the evolution of the story told by any parable. Alternatively, a counter-metaphor may
be introduced which reflects a different pattern of insights.
Questions may be asked as to why a metaphor has particular features and not others
which may be put forward as richer, more pertinent, or less restrictive. Efforts in this
direction have been explored in metaphorical theology, for example.
- Guideline 4: The pattern of discourse is of greater significance than any
particular feature of it -- although each such feature contributes to the pattern of the
It is not usually helpful to expect that an audience's attention will be
captured by a single perspective. The many dimensions of discourse associated with the
challenges of spiritual concord or of sustainable development constitute a greater
Differences can usefully be treated as challenges calling for reconciliation at higher
levels of understanding. But these too have to be articulated. Such articulation should
also be done through metaphor -- indeed this may be all that is possible.
The real challenges of a congress may therefore lie in using metaphor to hold many
differences and provide subtle constructs to contain or bridge between them. But such
metaphorical 'containers' and 'bridges' become increasingly subtle as
the dialogue evolves. In effect they become temples of the insight. The work of the
congress could then be seen in terms of the construction of such temples. Metaphors of
this kind can be the most valuable and communicable product of the work of the congress.
- Guideline 5: The interplay between perspectives should allow for challenge.
It is the encounter with seemingly incompatible perspectives that can often evoke
deeper levels of insight. A meeting can usefully be seen as a place of challenge through
which more subtle levels of insight are brought into play -- levels which may be concealed
or implicit in more conventional political or religious discourse.
The opportunities for the development of such interplay is best seen in music where
instruments and musical themes challenge each other and are driven to creative responses
which move the collective work of the whole to a higher level of significance. In this
sense the congress may perhaps be better understood as a symphony orchestra.
- Guideline 6: The intention of plenary discourse should include the generation
of a product significant to wider society.
Whilst much may be accomplished between
congress participants alone, and through them in the inspiration offered to their
constituencies, the world is both weary and impatient. Care should be taken to avoid the
production of wordy declarations that many will perceive as empty of significance for
In a media-oriented world, there is much to be said for a congress whose product is in
the form of images rather than words -- even if the images are verbal images.
Can the pressures of conference discourse engender powerful new metaphors that can
empower new forms of action or that can reframe relationships across religious divides? It
is such metaphors which will travel most effectively through the media around the world.
- Guideline 7: Intractable differences cannot usually be reconciled through a
single insight. Rather they call for a pattern of complementary insights that respect
Intractable differences emerge as a result of profound
differences in understanding -- differences which may be reinforced by cultural,
linguistic and historical factors. The diversity and reflected in such differences is
vital to the richness of human understanding.
Such complexity in approaching a profound experience, acknowledged to be of the utmost
simplicity, is a challenge to the form through which it is represented. A pattern of
complementary forms may prove to be more appropriate to holding together the diversity of
insights honoured by religious traditions in their diversity, or from different
It is through the exploration of such patterns that an appropriate measure of
reconciliation may be progressively achieved. Metaphor provides a flexible tool for this
E. CHALLENGING VISIONS OF DIALOGUE
The challenges of governance do not necessarily call for radical transformation of
institutions. Rather they call for a shift in the way of thinking about what is circulated
through society's information systems as the triggering force for any action and its
At present governance in the international community is haunted by a form of collective
schizophrenia -- a left- brain preoccupation with 'serious' academic models and
administrative programmes, and a right-brain preoccupation with the proclivities of public
opinion avid for 'meaningful' action (even if 'sensational;'). This
quarrel between models and metaphors could be transformed by focusing more effectively on
the metaphoric dimensions already so vital to any sustainable motivation of public
opinion, and to the comprehension of complexity by policy- makers themselves.
The identity of the global community should not be so closely linked to the seemingly
impossible task of maintaining a consensus on particular solutions as appropriate, and
therefore 'correct'. The identity to cultivate should be detached from this
level of short- and medium-term preoccupation. This confusion favours tokenism and
unimplemented resolutions which in turn reinforce cynicism, alienation and loss of
credibility. In these times all simple solutions eventually become problems, just as all
problems are in effect unpleasant solutions.
The creative opportunity is to cultivate instead an understanding of how incompatible
solutions can be woven together as phases over time in a cycle of policies. It is
metaphors -- such as crop rotation -- which make comprehensible and credible such a
complex approach. It is at this level of conservation and generation of metaphors that may
be found a dynamic pattern for global governance appropriate to sustainable development.
1. Mechanical versus biological metaphors
There are many metaphors through which dialogue may be usefully explored. They include
dialogue as: drama, architecture, dance, tournament, music, gardening and the like.
The challenge is to move beyond metaphors for the process as whole to a new
understanding of what forms the basis for the pattern of exchange. What flows in dialogue
may be thought of in industrial terms as with flows of water, steam, air, fuel oil, or
electricity -- in each case through pipes or wires. Much thinking about social
communication uses such metaphors implicitly (***), in such phrases as 'pumping out
information', etc. These mechanical metaphors are very different from biological
metaphors in which 'what flows' contains a transformative element, as with blood
(haemoglobin, white corpuscles), lymph (hormones), glucose, adrenalin***.
A sustainable dialogue depends upon a pattern of systemic linkages or feedback loops.
Using any mechanical metaphor, failures can only be distinguished in terms of broken or
blocked conduits: there may be 'leakages' or 'blockages'. But there
are more subtle failures that can only begin to be understood using biological metaphors,
notably those based on metabolic diseases (*** networking diseases). In these terms, there
is every possibility that most efforts at dialogue are highly susceptible to disease.
Pursuing this metaphor, attention needs to be given to the appropriateness of both
allopathic and homeopathic responses.
2. Periodic table of dialogue elements
A trading community is often analyzed in terms of an 'input/output table', or
matrix, of goods and services. The suggestion here is that it might be possible to
identify a matrix of dialogue elements which are transferred in a sustainable dialogue.
This might even take the form of a 'periodic table' somewhat analogous to the
periodic table of chemical elements characteristic of bio-physical systems.
Exploring this periodic table analogy, the challenge is to be able to distinguish the
nature of the 'columns' and then of the 'rows'. As with the chemical
elements, the difficulty lies in the fact that it is unclear how to distinguish
'elements' from 'compounds' and to identify 'groups' (ie
columns) as opposed to the periodic repetitions (ie 'rows') of such groups. In
the case of dialogue elements, as participants in dialogues we are too closely involved
with such elements in our every social interaction for it to be easy to distinguish and
cluster them. In the dialogue experiments initiated by David Bohm some effort was made to
distinguish elements such as thoughts and 'felts', but the approach taken here
is somewhat different.
As a first effort, the problem of the 'rows' will be ignored assuming only
that they may be used to capture 'heavier' or more consequential dialogue
elements (realted to the levels discussed above). Their nature will however be prefigured
by the 'column' (or group) characteristics and the dialogue elements effectively
clustered (or 'crammed') into the first 'row'.
(a) Tentative allocation to columns or groups
How many groups might be useful? In the case of the periodic table, with its
organization into shells having different numbers of elements, a simple answer may be
inadequate. But this may be all that is possible in a first iteration. Table 1 is a first
There are also more fundamental questions around whether favoured sets of 5, 7, 8, 9,
10 or 12 groups should be used. Each would draw the dialogue elements into a different
configuration of groups. In the case of the periodic table there is a
'confusion' between 7, 8, 9 and 10 groups.
(b) Possible interpretations
The purpose of a periodic table once developed lies in its ability to raise questions
about the function of particular dialogue elements, whether 'positive' or
'negative'. Should 'chlorine' be excluded from a sustainable dialogue
as being totally undesirable -- or only in combinations such as 'sodium
chloride'? What are the advantages of the 'heavier elements'? How are
'dialogue compounds' to be distinguished from 'dialogue elements'?
Such clarification would then open the way to understanding what makes for
'healthy dialogue'. Is a sustainable dialogue to be understood as based on a
balanced and nutritious diet, with trace elements, roughage and the like? Using insights
from biological systems, does it require both "anabolic' and
'catabolic' cycles to sustain it? How are such cycles and 'metabolic
pathways' to be identified? Is it useful to identify a phenomenon analogous to
'photosynthesis' whereby insights are converted into substantive matter under
certain conditions? Is such a process only achieved by certain types of participant or
attitude? Given the recognition that teams require a well-defined range of participant
attitudes, is it similarly necessary for a dialogue to involve a variety of participant
attitudes -- perhaps richer than that required for a task-oriented team?
Using a musical analogy, how do participants play off each other in a dialogue? What
makes for interesting dialogue in musical terms? How are the melodic themes constantly
reintroduced by particular participants to be integrated into the larger dialogic process.
Is it useful to think of the periodic table of dialogue elements as somewhat analogous to
the keyboard of a musical instrument (or synthesizer) capable of generating a range of
sounds and chords? Could a dialogue be 'set to music' to offer an alternative
insight into what was occurring -- or failing to occur? This shifts the perspective to how
dialogic elements are mixed and combined over time. It is at this level that the dialogue
may be understood as sustainable or not.
3. Practical implications
Dialogue analysis: Identification of the range of dialogue elements suggests the
possibility of real-time analysis of a conference. As with a skilled minute-writer or
note-taker, a suitably trained person could code interventions by participants.
(Verification could be achieved by several such people coding in parallel into a computer
system which would accept only coding confirmed by two or more coders). Each intervention
would then be recorded as a sequence of such elements and would lend itself to a variety
of analyses. A suitable indicator board, possibly based on the above periodic table, could
be used to flash both the elements currently presented and the total elements of each type
for the speaker and the conference. The current condition of the dialogue could possibly
even be related to measures and ratios for a healthy dialogue.
Performance dialogues: The plethora of media talks shows and panels have exposed
people to some ways in which the famous tend to dialogue. As an experiment there is a case
for designing performance dialogues in which those with proven skills in dialogue
interact. The purpose being to push the possibility of entrancing dialogue beyond its
current limits. This could even be done as a form of cooperative game to be evaluated by
Dialogue handicaps: Participation in meetings and dialogues is one of the few
activities for which no training or qualifications are as yet required. In practice,
however, people become known for their abilities in this respect and, circumstances
permitting, are invited or excluded accordingly. By pushing the standards of dialogue to
higher levels, it may become possible to constrain unskilled participants in situations
where their involvement increases the probability of unsustainable dialogue.
F. IMPLICATIONS FOR GLOBAL GOVERNANCE
The importance of dialogue is widely recognized. Here the emphasis has been placed on
new ways of distinguishing essential features of dialogue in order to raise questions
about the ways in which it is vulnerable to dynamics which render it unsustainable.
Presented like this it becomes legitimate to ask questions about the possibility that
many social and environmental problems in some way mirror deficiencies in dialogue
processes. Problems such as environmental pollution, unemployment, impoverishment,
illness, ignorance, malnutrition, injustice, and misrepresentation, are commonly
engendered or encountered in meetings, if only in metaphoric form (***). This in no way
denies the concrete reality of such problems in wider society. But the tendency to
engender such patterns ensures what amounts to a sustainable problematique. The processes
of governance then endeavour to respond to that problematique with the very dialogue
processes which sustain it.
There is much intellectual and emotional investment is the possibility that such
problems could all be resolved if only people could arrive at consensus. In this respect
it is useful to note a divisive debate within the Sante Fe Institute between Murray
Gell-Mann (head of the science board) and George Cowan (the former director). For Gell-
Mann, as co-initiator of the World Resources Institute (Washington DC), human society must
undergo six 'fundamental transitions' within the next decades to achieve
sustainability and avoid global catastrophes. In his view this requires widespread
agreement on principles (Waldrop, p. 351). One might ask what this 'consensus'
could possibly constitute within the nonlinear dynamics of a social system subject to
For Cowan however: 'Somehow the agenda has been put into the form of talking
about a set of transitions from state A, the present, to a state B that's sustainable. The
problem is that there is no such state. You have to assume that the transitions are going
to continue forever and ever...You have to talk about systems that remain continuously
dynamic, and that are embedded in environments that themselves are continuously
dynamic....A term like 'sustainable' does not really capture that.' (Waldrop, pp.
350-356). Genuine sustainability in a living system is maintained by the nonlinear
dynamics of continuing instability. As currently conceived as a desirable stable state,
'sustainability' would remove that instability and thus render the global system
unsustainable. Such stability is death; somehow the world has to adapt itself to a
condition of perpetual novelty.
To what extent does this confusion not reflect that in dealing with human values? The
'equilibrium-centred view' in this case pleads for a universal set of
fundamental unchanging values. The 'dynamic view' argues for slowly evolving
values. And the 'evolutionary view' awaits crises which would evoke a
reconfiguration of values. But a genuinely 'sustainable' pattern of living
values would seemingly depend on a form of value instability -- beyond any simple
equilibrium. Efforts to 'stabilize' that instability may then be precisely what
would render the global system of values unsustainable. These dilemmas are also to be seen
in any dialogue.
The decline in quality of political debate, abusive parliamentary interactions,
marathon speeches of little consequence, one-party vs. multi-party concerns, and rehashing
of sterile policy formulas, are all but symptoms of a malaise that has not been addressed.
There is an incapacity to understand dialogue both as science and as art, using all the
insights which our cultures have made available.
Efforts to respond to dramatic global conditions through current meeting processes are
equivalent to those of the surgeons of centuries past who deplored the frequency with
which their operations killed the patient -- but were arrogantly amused at any implication
that they should wash their hands before the operation. Meeting hygiene requires attention
if healthy policies are to emerge.
TABLE 1: Basis for allocation of dialogue elements to columns/groups of a periodic
- Assertion (Denial)
Observations / Inferences
Inquiry / Question / Doubt / Uncertainty
Evaluation / Monitoring / Assessment / Feedback
Qualification / Reservation
- Care / Empathy / Compassion / Concern
- Information / Facts
Precedents / Historical references
Insights / Learnings
Advice / Counsel / Prescription
- Elegant phrase / Bon mot / Rhetorical elegance
Anecdotes / Stories / Reminiscences
Optimism (Pessimism / Cynicism / Sarcasm)
Considerations / Contextual
Visions / Possibilities / Alternatives / Reframings
Prophecies / Predictions
- Formulation (technical)
Commands / Orders / Instructions
Challenge / Dare
- Normative injunctions / Ought
Affirmations / Expressions of belief / Testimony
Binding commitment (oath swearing)
Invocations / Prayer / Mantra
Imprecations / Cursing / Abuse / 'Dirty jokes'
Praise / Appreciation
Blame / Criticism
Emotions ? / Affects ?
- Support (Opposition)
Compromise / Deal / Bargain
Proposal / Offer
Recognition / Acknowledgements
?. Agreement (Disagreement)
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