Friday, April 14

Mapping Dialogue

This document was for me, the major gift of a two week visit to the Kufunda Learning Village in Zimbabwe. You can download the document from here

"An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future." - Jostein Gaarder

Here's an excerpt from the Introduction:

The modern world loves answers. We like to solve problems quickly. We like to know what to do. We don't want to "reinvent the wheel". We don't want to "waste our time". And when we have the answers or have a wheel invented we like to pass on the information to others. We do this through the media, through training programmes where teachers pass on answers to students, or through conferences where experts speak on panels while hundreds listen (or pretend to listen) in the audience. This approach may be useful for some situations, but is problematic for a number of reasons, particularly when working on social and human challenges in the 21st century.

Firstly, we live in a world of increasing complexity, where answers have a short life-span. Adam Kahane in his recent book "Solving Tough Problems" (2004) points out that tough problems are characterised by three types of complexity. Dynamic complexity means that cause and effect are distant in space and time. To address this type of complexity you need a systemic approach to the problem and the solution. Social complexity means that there are many different and usually conflicting points of view and assumptions about the issue, and the problem isn't owned by a single entity. This demands a participative approach. Finally, generative complexity means that the old solutions are no longer working, and the problem is constantly changing and unpredictable, which requires a creative approach. Not all problems are dynamically, socially, and generatively complex, but most if not all of the major social issues South Africa as a country is currently trying to work through are. Hiv/AIDS, black economic empowerment, democratic transition, globalisation, unemployment, and crime are all perfect examples.

Secondly, it seems to us that people have an inherent desire to want to solve their own problems. When universal, formulaic responses are imported or imposed from the outside, they meet resistance and often fail. This is partly because they are not exactly appropriate in the given context, but just as much because there is a lack of ownership from people who haven't participated or been consulted in the decision-making. Human beings have a living, deep impetus for freedom and self-determination, and given appropriate circumstances, people are usually more resourceful than expected in terms of finding their own answers.

They buy in to, and own, solutions they have been a part of creating. The success of implementing interventions on social issues often depends more on ownership and motivation of those involved than on the cleverness of the idea.

Even if only for these two reasons, we need to be adept at asking questions, and at talking and listening to each other. These are age-old competencies. For millennia, people in villages across Africa have worked through collective challenges, creating solutions through conversation. But it is not only when the group is faced with problems that dialogue comes in. Life in an African community is an ongoing conversation.

Why is this art of talking declining? Many of us seem to have forgotten how to engage in, and be present to, such conversations. In these times of busy-ness, information overload, electronic communications, scientific rationality, and organisational complexity, we are forgetting how to talk to each other. Fortunately, as a response to this trend, a number of methods for facilitating dialogue have been emerging globally, in particular over the past 20 years.

This collection profiles 10 such methods in depth and a number of others more briefly. The approaches are diverse in many ways. Some are designed for small groups of 20 people, some can accommodate up to 1200 or even 5000 in dialogue at the same time. Some focus on exploring and resolving conflict and differences, while others emphasise looking first to what is working and agreed upon. Some are explicitly dialogues between groups while others require each participant to be there only as themselves and individuals.

Yet across all these dialogue methods are some clear common patterns. They focus on enabling open communication, honest speaking, and genuine listening. They allow people to take responsibility for their own learning and ideas. They create a safe space or container for people to surface their assumptions, to question their previous judgments and worldviews, and to change the way they think. They generate new ideas or solutions that are beyond what anyone had thought of before. They create a different level of understanding of people and problems. They allow for more contextual and holistic ways of seeing. They lead to "a-ha" experiences.

Each of the profiled approaches has a life story behind it. Many of these stories begin with a person who posed a question. "How do the questions we ask shape our reality?" "Given that the coffee breaks seem to be the most useful part of the conference anyway, what if the whole conference was designed similar to a coffee break?" "What is being lost when we just take majority decisions and don't hear what the minority has to say?" "How do we create a networked conversation, modeled on how people naturally communicate?" "Why are we recreating the same conference rituals when they are passifying us and limiting our creativity?" "Why are we not managing to bring in the collective intelligence of hundreds of people but rather choosing over and over to just listen to a few expert voices?"

These inquisitive characters proceeded to experiment with new ways of organising conversations. They drew inspiration from indigenous cultures, lively caf├ęs, international peace processes, and personal experiences of trial and error. The result is the potpourri of possibilities described in the following pages.

You can download the document from here

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