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1992

Varieties of Dialogue Arenas and Styles

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This document (and accompanying table) was originally developed from a commentary on varieties of decision-making
(Guiding Metaphors and Configuring Choices, with an accompanying table Varieties of Decision-making Arenas and Styles: Table).
A variant was subsequently developed as Varieties of Disciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity (Table)


One of the dangers in advocating "new thinking" is the easy implication that everything that preceded it should be scrapped as inadequate. It is therefore useful to clarify the arenas in which conventional dialogue remains appropriate in contrast with those arenas where new approaches may prove more useful.

Table I is a tentative exercise in isolating 16 dialogue arenas or contexts. These are grouped into three clusters:

Most dialogue tends to be associated with Group A. The argument here is that there are concerns which are more appropriately dealt with in the second or third clusters. The potential of the third cluster, Group C is largely unexplored -- let alone the fourth, Group D, Arena XVI).

Collapsed dialogue

Part of the difficulty in giving space to "new thinking" is the manner in which the arenas in Table I tend to be "collapsed" or conflated. Several forms of collapse can be noted:

Complementarity of forms of dialogue

The point to be stressed is the complementarity between the different dialogue arenas in Table I. It is as much a mistake to apply complex tools to straight-forward dialogue as it is to apply simple tools to complex dialogue. Each arena reflects a necessarily different dialogue style. Problems are compounded when efforts are made to project the validity of approaches in one arena onto the preoccupations of another. The challenge is to understand this ecology of dialogue styles and the mutual dependence of its parts.

The argument of this paper is that the innovative group (Group B), and especially the transformative group (Groups C and D), are inadequately reflected in current approaches to the more intractable problems at the international level. From this perspective, many of the obstacles to the emergence of more appropriate dialogue results from the failure to make use of dialogue styles associated with these two groups. There is thus an imbalance in the pattern of dialogue. The merit of Table I is to accord space to these groups, without in any way denying the significance of the predominant adaptive group. Table I thus identifies the locus of relevance of "new thinking". There may be merit, in ecofeminist terms, of considering Group A as the dominant patriarchal approach to dialogue, in contrast with a more balanced feminist approach associated with Group B (to be articulated). Table I can be used to avoid the trap of "B is better than C". Indeed Group C can be understood as the mode through which those of A and B are "married", or reconciled.

In practice it is difficult, if not impossible, to rely solely on the dialogue style of a particular arena. Certain issues prove unresolvable leading to a dialogue crisis. Reliance on the approaches to dialogue in a particular arena are then recognized as inadequate to the challenge. The arenas may then be understood as "feeding into" each other. These processes are indicated by the arrows between the cells of Table I. Thus concern with resource optimization (Arena I) in practice leads quickly to preoccupation with issues of human resource management (Arena II), and from there to issues of know-how development (Arena III), with the reverse process then determining new options for resource optimization. A similar chain from resource optimization through economic development (Arena V), and on to issues of sustainable development (Arena VII) has been the preoccupation of the Brundtland Commission. The concern of the UNCED Conference (Rio de Janeiro, 1992) is with articulating the kinds of dialogue appropriate to Arena VII, and their implications back down that chain to Arenas I and V.

The basic argument here is that in the light of Table I, discussions about sustainable development will prove to be merely adaptive ("tinkering") and of limited significance unless they are fed by insights into new forms of transformative patterning (Arena XV) and the appropriately innovative styles of organization and programme to reflect that understanding (Arena XII). However, those who are currently enthralled by the articulation of the concerns of Arena XV, need to register the challenge of the need for more appropriate styles of organization in order that their insights should prove of value in dealing more appropriately with the issues of sustainable development. It is not surprising to note that little of the available expertise on "organizational transformation" (Arena XII) has as yet responded to the challenges of sustainable development -- just as those preoccupied with sustainable development have failed to register the need for any such alternative organizational approaches. As an ecology, this suggests that there is a dangerous breakdown in the "food chain" between species of preoccupation.

"Barriers" between dialogue groups

It is worth considering another kind of distinction between Groups A, B, C and D. There is a sense in which there is a kind of "barrier" in communication associated with access to meaningful dialogue in each group. Thus Group A permits training of various kind, whereby the truth is imparted from one person to another. But training does not work in the arenas of Group B -- there is a training barrier.

The difficulty in Group B is that it is dependent on an encounter with another perspective. Neither perspective expects to be "trained" by the other, whatever attempts may be made to do so. In this sense in Group B, understanding emerges from experience of perspectrives and situations incompatible with any particular framework. The other has to be experienced. The perspective of the other cannot be effecrtively explained or made the subject of training. Any attempt to do so reinforces the illusion of understanding but does not give a sense of the reality of the other perspective. In Group B the unambiguity of words, that is possible with the training approach of Group A, is challenged. Those in dialogue challenge the meaning attached by others to words.

In the case of Group C, even experience is not sufficient. Some form of wisdom must be called upon which makes meaningful the pattern of experience associated with Group B. The integrative perspective associated with this wisdom is inherently difficult to communicate. It may be labelled as "experience", but this does not capture the distinction between experience and wisdom. In Group C, words are a definite limitation. The focus is more on patterns and aesthetics of significance. But dialogue is concerned primarily with the discovery and manipulation of these patterns perceived and detached from those who engage in this process.

Group D of course poses a special challenge. It might be argued that even wisdom is not enough. Being wise in the ways of the world does not necessarily lead to the kind of embodied insight associated with Group D. For the spiritually inclined, Group D might be usefully associated with some form of grace. It might otherwise be associated with innate genius or special talent, which cannot be acquired through normal forms of learning. Above all it is a change in the relationship between the knower and what is known -- as this is experienced in dialogue. It is the dialogue condition in which patterns are both elaborated and embodied. The knower cannot be detached from what is elaborated in the dialogue -- the participants become identified with the dialogue in ways which defy verbal communication.

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