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Sustainable Dialogue as a Necessary Template

for sustainable global community

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Paper for the conference of the Academy of Management conference on
'Organization Dimensions of Global Change: No Limits to Cooperation'
(Case 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 software houses.

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 ecology movement.

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.

Unsustainable dialogue

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:

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.


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:

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:

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 comprehension.

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 dialogue.

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 'lowest'.

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 is viable.

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 ensure sustainability?

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 contributions.

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, March 1995).

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 remains questionable.

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 any dialogue?

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.


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 include:

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 experience.

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:

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 Johnson (**).

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 dependence.

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:

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 process?

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 following.

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 collective exploration.


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 integration.

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 step.

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'? Etc.

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 an audience.

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.


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 paradigm shifts.

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 table (tentative)

  1. Assertion (Denial)

    Observations / Inferences

    Inquiry / Question / Doubt / Uncertainty

    Evaluation / Monitoring / Assessment / Feedback

    Qualification / Reservation

  2. Care / Empathy / Compassion / Concern

    Social identification


  3. Information / Facts

    Precedents / Historical references


    Insights / Learnings

    Advice / Counsel / Prescription

  4. Elegant phrase / Bon mot / Rhetorical elegance


    Anecdotes / Stories / Reminiscences

    Optimism (Pessimism / Cynicism / Sarcasm)

    Considerations / Contextual

    Visions / Possibilities / Alternatives / Reframings

    Prophecies / Predictions

    Figurative imagery

  5. Formulation (technical)

    Commands / Orders / Instructions



    Challenge / Dare

  6. 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 ?

  7. Support (Opposition)

    Compromise / Deal / Bargain

    Proposal / Offer

  8. Judgement

    Recognition / Acknowledgements

    Acceptance (Rejection)

  9. Silence

?. Agreement (Disagreement)



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