The Deeper Q: Capacities For Rational Thought, and Generative Dialogue

On the active and thoughtful listserv of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, a friend of mine posted a link to an opinion piece on the 538 Blog. The thread of correspondence that followed on the listserv was mostly about the Blog post’s assertions regarding biases in both major American political parties.

But what struck me in the post were the implications for respectful and generative civil dialogue, and the ability of people to then negotiate shared purpose and coordinated action. That, after all, is what social groups do. This flows and follows from what I call “The Two Qs” – the things I believe each of us is trying to answer every moment of our lives.

And so, in response to the exchange on the listserv, I wrote this:

I have been thinking and writing about the dynamics of respectful civil dialogue for a few years now.  I was first noticing and inquiring about the Brexit vote.  Then the American campaign and subsequent events have held my attention (likely too much) over the past couple of years.

My first concern is with the assumption in the lead sentence of the piece that was shared:

“The defining divide in American politics is probably between Republicans and Democrats.”

Hold the response to the inference of probability for the moment.

What I ask, and think about these days, are what capacities or competencies do people need, in order to be in respectful, generative dialogue; able to negotiate consensus and coordinate action together towards a shared objective?

This, in turn, follows from what I call “The Two Qs” – what are the two questions every human is trying to answer at every moment of our lives?  My answer is “What does this mean?” and “What will I/we do about it?”

Over the past few years, my thinking about the capacities needed for being in civil dialogue has changed.  We have seen the significantly diminished ability of language, whether written or spoken, to inform and influence others.  This clearly relates to how we define “information” and “facts.”  I also used to think that shared experience could catalyze shared meaning and the opportunity for dialogue.  Maybe the collective wide eyes and applause at a fabulous performance or fireworks show.  Can that still serve as a basis for dialogue about the social, economic, and political problems challenging us today?  I think not.  Even the shared experience of catastrophic experiences like 9/11 or mass shootings are no longer able to catalyze shared meaning and generative dialogue.

So. . . What IS happening, and what can be done to cross the divide?

To be in civil and generative dialogue, I think we need courage, curiosity, caring.  The ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn.  The willingness to accept credible facts and data and science, and have these inform our beliefs and intentions.  The ability to listen deeply, and withhold judgment until we truly understand the other.

Today, critical numbers of citizens no longer have these capacities.  Margaret Wheatley foresaw this many years ago, and wrote about it in her 2012 book “So Far From Home.”  The same internet that puts the knowledge and community of the world in our hand, also equally distributes and amplifies ignorance, falsehood, and fear.  We see the consequences throughout the world today.

Those who do not know and understand, become vulnerable to fear of “other.”  The fear is easily amplified and manipulated by those who would seek power and control over them, into bias and hate.  There is an old saying about leaving a bad relationship, that I think applies to changing this pattern of behavior.  “How long do you stay in a bad relationship?  Until the pain of staying is greater than the fear of going.  And not a moment sooner.”

And so. . .

For me, the defining divide today is between those able and willing to change through inquiry, fact, learning, and understanding, and those unable and/or unwilling to do so.  There are Repubs and Dems on both sides of this divide.  A key question, I think, is about the distribution of the inability.  It would appear today that there is a significant assymetry of this distribution between the two major parties.

Is a restoration of dialogue across this divide possible?  I don’t know anymore.  Honestly, my hope of a peaceful restoration through a powerful New Narrative of shared values and intentions has diminished.  The best tactic I know at the moment is to clearly and simply state what matters to us.   To start at the simplest and most basic level.  And hope that a more complex and generative dialogue will emerge once again.

Thanks, all, for the sharing, and for the inspiration to write and share these thoughts.


Bruce Waltuck, MA, Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity

Yes, it really says that on the diploma

No, I didn’t get it inside a matchbook cover

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