Arguing a case for dialogue

More fruitful than debate Tom Hart and David McAra


Tom and I have been friends for nearly 50 years, since we started as ‘undergraduate apprentices’ at Rolls Royce aero engines during a golden age of industrial training.  My career has been chaotic, touching several fields while Tom progressed more steadily in marketing and sales.  Here I am trying to persuade him that placing more value on dialogue would lead to a better society.  However, many of my ‘self-evident truths’ fail to stand up to his critical scrutiny.  My opening note follows a phone conversation where he  responds to my assertion that dialogue leads to better decisions.  I believe we make some progress toward closer understanding during the exchanges.  

David: I believe there is a very real difference between dialogue and debate.

I am attaching two weighty but exciting (for me) documents.  You don’t have to struggle with them if they aren’t working for you! 🙂  (Schein, 1993; Isaacs, 1993).  (Click on the links for the articles.) 

Otto Scharmer is the leading light of U-Lab, from MIT, like Edgar Schein and William Isaacs.  His video clips may be a more accessible entry point than the weighty articles.

Tom: I’m afraid I’ve got off to a bad start with the William Isaacs article! On p. 24, second column, from ‘lapse into debate…’ he just loads it up with unsubstantiated negatives, creating a straw man to attack. This to me is dishonest and, sadly, typical of certain academics and journalists, trying to create synthetic conflicts so they can sell the article and/or launch ‘a new approach’. It’s an industry, so ‘caveat emptor’ when reading this stuff!

Stafford Beer was at the opposite end of the spectrum.  I’ll carry on though.

Further to above, I’ve skim-read the rest of the article and there’s probably some useful ‘how to’s’, but also more straw men, the most egregious, perhaps, being on p. 26 with Dialogue vs Consensus [building]. These are not opposites but sequential phases, as he admits later.

In the spirit of dialogue, I should also ask which passages of the article you found particularly insightful?

David: I liked this diagram (Isaacs, op cit, p34) contrasting dialogue and debate and the use of etymology to illuminate the distinctions. 

Is ‘mental model’ a phrase you are comfortable with? We have very different ones so we notice different things and have different interpretations of what we do notice.

It’s all very confusing! 

Tom: Re etymology, that can illuminate but the meaning may also have evolved.

Where he says ‘debate’ has a root in “to beat down”, the Oxford English dictionary says: Middle English: via Old French from Latin dis-(expressing reversal) + battere ‘to fight’. This denotes the back and forth argument of a formal proposition.

‘To beat down’ is more destructive – no enlightenment there. This is presumably because he construed battere as batter. Americans!!

Re mental models, I’ve observed a few times that you believe in ‘heaven on earth’ and that that motivates a lot of your enquiry.

I guess the reason I was attracted to Systems Analysis as a career, after studying Sociology, and my liking for Beer, is that I am looking for an understanding of behaviour from systems thinking.

So, once you know about the Gulf Stream, you understand a lot more about the Atlantic. Freud et al, were trying to chart the currents in human behaviour and sociology is trying to do that at the level of society.

David: I’m surprised we seem to meet over such a wide gulf on this. 

Tom: Well, I think we are both sincere in our quest for understanding of society and its constructs. The differences between us militate against groupthink and provide a strong basis for dialogue!

David: Good!  I agree.  So – in your previous comments you have:  ‘dishonest’, ‘peddle’, ‘egregious’.  These are strong words.  He seems to make you angry.  You seem to impute base motives?  Why such a strong reaction? Or do I misread you? 

Tom: Well, I’d like an easy life, enjoying a well-argued piece of writing but then find it’s not and then have to substantiate my view.  And that annoys me.

I increasingly don’t like disputes – the one at my local hospital has been going on for 20 months!!

David: Is it possible that you might be shutting out transformational ideas because they are presented to you only in poorly-argued pieces of writing?  (Why did you mention the hospital now?) 

Another favourite piece of Isaac’s article is ‘Exhibit 3’.  I have used it many times, calling it ‘the cycle of conflict’.  He calls it ‘A conflict map’. It might help at the hospital! 

Tom: It’s interesting that the ‘good guys’ in the case studies, were the facilitators (priests), who possessed ‘the knowledge’ and so could produce ‘big paper’ representations of Exhibit 3, for the enlightenment of the participants (congregation).

I can see why this appeals to you!

‘Our experience… suggests that there is a new horizon opening up for the field of management and organisational learning.’

“When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun.”

I’m developing a similar reflex!

David: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver.”??????????????????!

Tom: Yes, that’s right.

David: “Re mental models,  I’ve observed a few times that you believe in ‘heaven on earth’ and that motivates a lot of your enquiry.”  

I know it’s only a figure of speech but I wonder what you’ve actually observed or probably, to be more accurate, heard, that has led you to think you know what I believe and what motivates me.  Is it possibly a bit, ‘reductio ad absurdum’?  Hard to take someone seriously when they believe something so ridiculous! 

I infer from this that the way I speak from my mental model sounds totally incredible to you (and of course, to many others with less patience). But what if the ideas I’m moved by have some unseen validity for you and all that stands between them and your own enquiry is my lack of competence in communicating them?  

If I can get you to doubt whether ‘believing in heaven on earth’ is a satisfactory way to characterise my world view, then perhaps you will be able to understand my position more fully and so help me to present it in a way which doesn’t sound ridiculous.  This will also help me to re-examine and adjust my own position.  

Otherwise, all we hear is ‘an attack of the same old kind’ (Exhibit 3) and we remain stuck.  

Tom: Well, firstly, I have got more out of Schein than Isaac and, since he bases his article on Isaac, I will revisit that, to see if I find it more acceptable!

Re figure 1 of Schein, shouldn’t the left limb then feed into the top of the right limb, being, essentially, a ‘getting on the same conceptual page’ exercise?

Re heaven on earth (hoe), I think it may come down to a view which you, and these group dynamics specialists, appear to hold, that difficulties are principally caused by a lack of understanding, and if that can be cleared away by improved processes, there will be no obstacle to mankind’s joint endeavours leading to a better life.

I am more of a Marxist, in seeing a fundamental schism caused by our different relationships (e.g. ownership) to the means of production. So, with the mill, an external threat created the incentive for management and workers to join forces, in contrast to the zero sum game they were previously engaged in.

So ‘hoe’ is not ridiculous, it’s just a different perception of the dynamics involved and our dialogue is surfacing our different assumptions about these dynamics.

One advantage of an email exchange (grounded in us already knowing and trusting each other) is that it is giving me time to engage with the texts, which have quite distinct meanings, e.g dialogue. Also, our bite-size exchanges allow me time to reflect, which I don’t get with real-time conversation. This should lead to a more considered view.

One of the advantages of formal debates is that they publish the motion, allowing both protagonists and audience time to engage with the subject and prepare positions on it. They are then better prepared to consider the arguments for and against. It’s notable that, as well as misrepresenting ‘battere’, Isaac and Schein ignore the first part of the etymology.

David: Jolly good.  Steady as we are then, Tom. 

What is the first part of the etymology being ignored?  

Tom: It was ‘dis’, the element of back and forth.

David: “difficulties are TO A LARGE EXTENT [principally] caused by a lack of understanding, and if that can be cleared away by improved processes, there will be [no] FEWER obstacleS to mankind’s joint endeavours leading to a better life.”

This is more like it, Tom, with my minor edits.  We will become better equipped to address the tricky issues of power and ownership.  We are looking at the same thing through different frames. Neither has a complete picture.  

Tom: Thanks, David. Agreed! You should, perhaps, précis my Marxist position, as you see it, for my edits!

Do you agree my point about the left leg of that diagram then feeding into the right leg?

David: Looking back at our conversation, I see I missed a couple of your responses on 25 July.  

My favourite part is where Schein writes about ‘Suspension’ on pages 32 and 33, almost poetic.  For me, recognising that moment of choice, where I become aware of my reflex response and decide to hold it back for a moment, to reflect on my own motive for jumping into the conversation, makes all the difference.  I was about to lapse into language that would have you reaching for your Browning … I may be too late anyway!

 “It is this process of becoming reflective that makes us realise that the first problem of listening to others is to identify the distortions and biases that filter our own cognitive processes.  `We have to learn to listen to ourselves before we can really understand others, and such internal listening is, of course, especially difficult if one is in the midst of an active, task-oriented discussion.”

But this is crucial because it’s why, NO! You DON’T loop back into discussion, dialectic and debate.  That’s where we (the human race, not just you and I) keep getting stuck. In dialogue, we are exchanging information, responding, making decisions, doing ‘the work’. The information being exchanged is of higher quality (shared more freely, more complete, less ‘spin’). The attention given to it is also of higher quality (listening for understanding rather than searching for weak spots). So better decisions emerge and stronger, more shared commitment backs them up.

My précis of your position has nothing to do with Marx.  This feels a bit harsh but … you seem to live in a world of logic, reason and authority – a bureaucratic world?  (Do words like ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ have any meaning for you?  Or are they ‘religious’?)  The Financial Times is the supreme authority along with a canon (curriculum? faculty?) of approved thinkers.  Surprising ideas are immediately suspect.  Whole categories of non-approved thinking (e.g. the narrative/grand sweep theory of history?  Hobsbawn?  Discredited?) can be identified easily and dismissed without further consideration. 

I wonder if you listened to Michael Sandel this morning?  (The Global Philosopher: Should the rich world pay for climate change?  

I hesitate to ask, only a little, fearing he may not be an ‘approved’ thinker.  I’m not sure I’d describe what he was doing as dialogue but it certainly wasn’t debate and there was nothing ‘priestly’ or expert about his contribution, apart from his skill in the process of his facilitation.  

Tom: Thanks, David. Re your 3rd paragraph, the excerpt from Schein, below, to me suggests that he sees the first leg leading into the 2nd leg, as valid:

‘I would argue that discussion or debate is a valid problem-solving and decision-making process only if one can assume that the group members understand each other well enough to be ‘‘talking the same language.’’ Paradoxically, such a state of sharing categories probably cannot be achieved unless somewhere in the group’s history some form of dialogue has taken place.’

Also, reading the description of the activities in each leg, the left one seems focused on achieving a shared model, as in bold (his emphasis) above. It doesn’t seem equipped to do the tasks in the right leg.

Your précis of my position seems more about how you think I arrive at it, than the position itself. I think you need to cover that as well so we can, hopefully, understand better how we each view the things we discuss.

I would be interested to hear your definitions of soul and spirit. The former. I understand as going beyond the body/mind dichotomy to include the core values we hold (perhaps absorbed with our mother’s milk rather than rational enquiry) – for which one would ultimately be prepared to die. The latter, as denoted by spiritual, is, I understand, about developing one’s relationship with God, which in my (as you observe) Spock-like case, I do not have!

I’ll listen to Sandel and see whether he can go on the approved list! On that, I would maintain I have a critical stance when reading new material, on the lookout for writers /speakers trying to rig the result, such as Isaac with his presentation of the etymology of debate and his negative stereotyping of that activity. Such dishonesty makes me very unhappy!

David: Ah, OK.  My précis of your position, as it appears to me.  Not sure if I am getting closer to what you are looking for but …

You live in an ordered universe where approved modes of thinking can be applied to any situation or phenomenon.  While there are obvious limits to knowledge (known unknowns) you are satisfied that the current paradigm is sufficient.  

The current paradigm says analysis is the path to knowledge.  Examine the parts.  Understand the rules.  Do further research where necessary.  Reason is enough.  (‘Left brain’ is enough, if you are familiar with the left/right hemisphere idea.  ‘Left’ is logic, ‘right’ is patterns.)  

The way I read the paragraph you quote from Schein, it’s a rather grudging acknowledgement that debate isn’t necessarily a complete waste of time.  There are (rare) circumstances in which it can provide some value.  But no way is it the intended, eventual destination.  

You dismiss the steel mill story with two sentences: 

“So, with the mill example, an external competitive threat created the incentive for management and workers to join forces, in contrast to the zero sum game they were previously engaged in.”

Under the external threat, they discovered that they were both parts of the same system and started to look at the system rather than the parts, like the island with the oil field and the harbour.  It took the crisis to let them see they belonged to the same system but that was always true.  The crisis changed their perception, not reality.  

We should also probably try to work our way back to Stafford Beer as we have quite an overlap there, I think.

Tom: Thanks, David. In a masochistic sort of way I am finding these reflections useful!

The steel plant comment is actually based on my world view, which can also be construed as a ‘sweep of history’ analysis: owners and workers perceive themselves in a Marxist zero-sum game (your wages reduce my profit) until forced by technological (mini mills) and competitive forces (capital deployed in new mini mill plants), to devise a more creative solution, breaking down old barriers to achieve a more win-win relationship in the adoption of the new production possibilities (still bounded by the constraints of an adequate return on capital and adequate wages for those still in jobs). Some, nevertheless, lose their jobs.

The main charge against sweep of history historians is that when you only have a hammer, everything becomes a nail, i.e. there is a great temptation to make the facts fit the theory, discarding those that don’t. The preferred approach is to assemble an accurate account of what happened, then try to make sense of it.

I would also like to rehabilitate ‘bureaucracy’. As described by Weber, this is an essential ingredient of our civilization: the opposite of due process being tyranny and/or corruption. Which do you prefer? Lastly, the syndrome against which I take the ‘safety’ off my Browning, is the claim of a new paradigm, which usually involves a hatchet job on an existing approach.

One interesting aspect here is how certain constructs appear across different societies and in the same societies, over time, e.g. money, justice, clothes. To which I would add discussion and debate. So they presumably add value. Perhaps triple loops should be left to elite ice skaters!

David: So … usefulness and enjoyment but some pain.  What is the source of the pain?  

I agree with all this apart from the hatchet job.  Claiming a new paradigm certainly isn’t helpful.  Sorry. Please don’t shoot.  The argument for dialogue is that it is one way to help the protagonists break out of their zero-sum game.  (Plenty of crises don’t have this (or any) benign effect.)  

I find our current topic very absorbing.  As you pointed out, Tom, it is probably one of my main interests in life, the lens through which I examine almost everything I see.  You may not find it as compelling … so tell me when you’ve had enough!

Looking back at my stabs towards a précis of your world view, I see that I anticipated you might find it a bit harsh.  I know you understand it was not my intention to be hurtful.  One of the obstacles to clean dialogue is our tendency to hold back information which might be hurtful.  

I’m grateful for your help in formulating this summary of some important aspects of my worldview:

“difficulties are to a large extent caused by a lack of understanding, and if that can be cleared away by improved processes, there will be fewer obstacles to mankind’s joint endeavours leading to a better life.”

It’s very pithy and useful because it clarifies my view for me, gives me a way to explain it to others and provides clues about why my endeavours to communicate are often fruitless.  

Given that my view sounded harsh to me suggests I shouldn’t be surprised you found the picture unappealing.  Perhaps you might like to edit or paraphrase my précis into something I can recognise which feels positive to you?

Tom: Glad you like our current topic and will have a go at a précis. One objection I had to your version was that it seemed a bit ad hominem: describing me more than my views.

About the interviewee

Tom Hart recently retired from a successful career in marketing and sales with industry heavyweights including Rolls Royce, IBM, BT and Shell.  In this edition, he represents the voice of accepted management thinking.  When he’s finished reading the FT, he enjoys sailing – particularly in the dinghy he has just finished building. He may be contacted at: Tom is a sailor, here piloting his hand built dinghy on its maiden voyage


Isaacs, W.N., 1993. Taking flight: Dialogue, collective thinking, and organizational learning. Organizational dynamics, 22(2), pp.24-39. Schein, E.H., 1993. On dialogue, culture, and organizational learning. Organizational dynamics, 22(2), pp.40-51.

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