Chapter 1: Overcoming the Dialogue Deficit
Dialogue played a special role in reversing the nuclear arms race and ending the Cold War. Some years after the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency, George Shultz, who had been Reagan's secretary of state, asked Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, what the turning point in the Cold War had been.
"Reykjavík," Gorbachev answered unhesitatingly.
He explained that at their meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, he and Ronald Reagan had for the first time entered into genuine dialogue with each other a dialogue that extended far beyond their main agenda (arms control) to cover their values, assumptions, and aspirations for their two nations. Gorbachev credited this dialogue with establishing enough trust and mutual understanding to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race.
In Oslo, Norway, in the year before Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, a delegation of top-level Israelis and Palestinians, previously implacable enemies, held nonstop dialogue sessions over a period of months. Together they hammered out a blueprint for peace in the Middle East that lasted until Rabin's violent death upset the political balance.
These are history-making examples of dialogue. But dialogue is not the exclusive property of those who perform on the world stage. It works at all levels of life in ways large and small:
In San Diego County, a group of American and Mexican businesspeople and community leaders convene regularly under the auspices of San Diego Dialogue, a project of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). These dialogues are so successful that once-intractable border and regional problems are now dealt with almost routinely.
In Silicon Valley, the CEO of a successful high-tech company recently held a weekend retreat with all the engineers in the company to conduct a dialogue on why so many of the most promising young engineers were leaving to go to competitors whose stock option plans were less generous than his own. After an initial stiffness, one after the other of the younger engineers explained that as much as they appreciated the generous stock bonuses, they felt that their ideas were unappreciated and brushed aside and that the employer reserved all of the important decisions to himself. One engineer said, "I know the stock options are supposed to make me feel like an owner, but when I come to work I don't feel like an owner. I feel like a peon, and that's not why I came to this company."
At first the employer (an engineer himself) was defensive in asserting his conviction that the CEO should be the undisputed leader who calls the shots. As the dialogue unfolded, however, he slowly began to qualify his position. Gradually, the session picked up momentum, with many of the young engineers offering ideas for improving the company's products and reducing costs.
By the end of the weekend, the employer had begun to reexamine his assumptions about leadership, and the engineers who worked for him had begun to understand him better. Subsequently, the employer made the effort to adopt a more consultative style of leadership. It never came naturally to him, but he saw the merit of it and was able to meet his coworkers halfway. Gradually, the flight of engineers from the company slowed to a trickle.
In Boston several years ago, under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a number of Boston's public school teachers met over a several-day period with an equal number of professors from Harvard, MIT, and other universities in the Boston area. Together they carried out a sustained dialogue on how to improve public education in the Boston area. It was the first time these university professors (many of them distinguished scientists) and public school teachers had met as equals. Most left the meeting exhilarated and astonished at how much they had learned, how much respect they had developed for each other's point of view, and how much more hopeful they had become about future prospects for Boston's schools.
In a large midwestern food company, an older male executive formed a successful mentoring relationship with a younger woman executive. Both avoided any hint of sexual involvement and even the appearance of impropriety. A bond of real friendship as well as a business relationship united the two executives. Then one day a trivial misunderstanding triggered tension between them. The man wrongly assumed that he had offended his younger colleague's feminist sensibilities. An uncomfortable distance sprang up between them. Finally, however, they succeeded in engaging each other in dialogue. The misunderstanding evaporated as quickly as it had appeared. Now strengthened, the relationship resumed on a tranquil basis.
Every day countless dialogues formal and informal, brief and prolonged, between strangers and between people intimate with each other take place in a variety of settings and circumstances. Many, perhaps most, fail. But those that succeed transform people's relationships to one another, sometimes in ways that seem almost magical.
"The magic of dialogue."
I find the words easy to say now. Years ago they would have sounded exaggerated and unnatural to me. I would not even have known what they meant, let alone believed in them. Now they sound natural, and I fully believe in them.
The magic doesn't work if you substitute a different form of talk for dialogue. The magic of conversation? The magic of discussion? The magic of debate? None of these phrases rings true. But dialogue works its magic because it alone has unique capabilities other forms of talk do not possess.
In this book I identify what is special about dialogue, what gives it its magical properties, and, most important, what strategies individuals and organizations can use to help them conduct the kind of dialogue that best meets their objectives.
Most people have two purposes for doing dialogue: to strengthen personal relationships and to solve problems.
Today, this second purpose is growing in importance: increasingly, we find ourselves facing problems that require more shared understanding with others than in the past.
The need to reach better mutual understanding through dialogue is strong in all sectors of society, but in none more than the business community. The growth of technology, the increase in the number of knowledge workers, and the blurring of boundaries of all kinds are transforming relationships at all levels of business. The traditional top-down style of leadership in a fortress-type company semi-isolated from others is increasingly out of vogue. It is being replaced by what I have come to think of as "relational leadership," where the defining task of leaders is developing webs of relationships with others rather than handing down visions, strategies, and plans as if they were commandments from the mountaintop.
Many forces converge to intensify the need for dialogue in business settings:
- The steady erosion of authority and hierarchy in the workplace in favor of flatter organizations.
- The trend toward forming strategic alliances with organizations that bring different corporate cultures, traditions, structures, and even languages to the new partnerships. Without dialogue, misunderstandings arise almost immediately.
- The need to repair the damage to morale that results from downsizing. Employers who have recently downsized or reengineered their companies confront a mistrusting and resentful workforce precisely when, to remain competitive, they need highly motivated workers.
- The need to stimulate the maximum amount of creativity, innovation, and initiative in coworkers, rather than simply expecting them to show up and obey orders.
- The need to align the entire organization in implementing shared visions and strategies.
- The growing demand by employees for quality-of-life benefits rather than exclusively financial and status incentives.
- The growing importance of developing a strong customer focus, which requires a better understanding of one's customers.
In this book, we will be concerned with dialogue in all walks of life: public and private, personal and impersonal. But I intend to give special attention to the requirements for dialogue in the business sector of our society and, by extension, to organizations that share the same sort of leadership challenges that business faces.
What Is Dialogue?
What is dialogue, and what can it do for us that other ways of talking cannot?
Webster defines the purpose of dialogue as "seeking mutual understanding and harmony." In this book, I hew closely to the dictionary definition, straying from it in only one respect: I put less emphasis on harmony than the dictionary does, because the outcome of dialogue is not always harmony. In fact, as a consequence of dialogue you may come to understand why you disagree so vehemently with someone else; there will be better understanding but not necessarily more harmony.
In philosopher Martin Buber's classic work I and Thou, Buber suggests that in authentic dialogue something far deeper than ordinary conversation goes on. The I-Thou interaction implies a genuine openness of each to the concerns of the other. In such dialogue, "I" do not, while talking with you, selectively tune out views with which I disagree, nor do I busy myself marshaling arguments to rebut you while only half attending to what you have to say, nor do I seek to reinforce my own prejudices. Instead, I fully "take in" your viewpoint, engaging with it in the deepest sense of the term. You do likewise. Each of us internalizes the views of the other to enhance our mutual understanding.
To Buber we owe the stunning insight that, apart from its obvious practical value (most problem solving demands mutual understanding), dialogue expresses an essential aspect of the human spirit. Buber knew that dialogue is a way of being. In Buber's philosophy, life itself is a form of meeting and dialogue is the "ridge" on which we meet. In dialogue, we penetrate behind the polite superficialities and defenses in which we habitually armor ourselves. We listen and respond to one another with an authenticity that forges a bond between us.
In this sense, dialogue is a process of successful relationship building. Buber recognized that by performing the seemingly simple act of responding empathically to others and in turn being heard by them, we transcend the constricting confines of the self. Instead of saying "you or me," you hear yourself saying "you and me." The act of reaching beyond the self to relate to others in dialogue is a profound human yearning. If it were less commonplace, we would realize what a miracle it is.
Dialogue is not, however, an arcane and esoteric form of intellectual exercise that only the few can play. It is a practical, everyday tool accessible to us all. Nor is it a reversion to the participatory ideology of the 1960s with its insistence that everybody get involved in every decision, thus bringing decision making to a virtual halt. It is not, in fact, an instrument of decision making, which always involves considerations of power and interest issues that interfere with dialogue. And it is not a negotiating device that seeks agreement leading to action. In fact, some of dialogue's most striking successes (for example, in our relations with the former Soviet Union) have occurred because dialogue preceded, and was sharply distinguished from, formal negotiations.
A Missing Skill
Until recently, most people made the assumption that no particular skill is required to do dialogue. They assumed that dialogue is just another form of conversation and that we surely know how to carry out conversations without requiring a special discipline. Therefore, there was little need felt for assistance in doing dialogue. But in the past decade, a growing literature has demonstrated that there is something unique about dialogue when it is done well.
Dialogue turns out to be a highly specialized form of discussion that imposes a rigorous discipline on the participants. If they fail to observe the discipline, they still derive the benefits of ordinary discussion, but they lose the benefits of successful dialogue. On the other hand, when dialogue is done skillfully, the results can be extraordinary: long-standing stereotypes dissolved, mistrust overcome, mutual understanding achieved, visions shaped and grounded in shared purpose, people previously at odds with one another aligned on objectives and strategies, new common ground discovered, new perspectives and insights gained, new levels of creativity stimulated, and bonds of community strengthened.
I do not want to overstate the benefits of dialogue. Though I believe it sometimes has almost magical properties, it is not a panacea for all the problems that ail us. Faith in the ability of talk to solve problems is very American and, to some cynics, a sign of our cultural naïveté. It is certainly easy to poke fun at serious-minded and well-meaning attempts at dialogues that miscarry. And many efforts at dialogue do, unfortunately, miscarry.
Dialogue can fail for a variety of reasons. At times, violence, hate, and mistrust can prove stronger than the motivation to find common ground (as shown by, for example, Serbs and Albanians, Turks and Armenians, Arabs and Israelis). Or differences in interests can pose massive obstacles to dialogue. But the most frequent reason that dialogue fails is simply that it is not done well. Doing dialogue takes special skills that most Americans do not yet possess.
This is because in the past there was less need for dialogue and therefore less pressure to develop the special skills it requires. Those in positions of authority executives, teachers, parents usually told others beneath them what to do without bothering to engage them in extensive dialogue. Much less emphasis was placed on mutual understanding. In schools, teachers exercised their authority without necessarily understanding their students' psyches or the wishes of their students' parents. In the workplace, employers and employees weren't expected to understand each other as one human being to another. The employer was the boss. If you wanted to keep your job, you followed orders and did what you were told. In smaller workplaces, personal relationships did, of course, develop, and people who worked closely together often did come to understand each other quite well. But the culture did not demand such mutual understanding. It certainly did not demand that bosses develop an in-depth understanding of their employees' attitudes, motivations, and sensibilities.
In traditional hierarchical arrangements, those at the top of the pecking order can afford to be casual about how well they understand those at lower levels. But when people are more equal, they are obliged to make a greater effort to understand each other. If no one is the undisputed boss anymore, and if all insist on having their views respected, it follows that people must understand each other. You don't really have a voice if those making the decisions aren't prepared to listen to you.
Today, cultural and legal changes mean that individuals expect and demand a voice in decisions that affect their lives, and often they have the power to undermine those decisions if they aren't allowed that voice.
Also, our society is becoming increasingly fragmented. These days, individuals and groups divide themselves into separate subcultures, like so many isolated silos on a field. People identify themselves in terms of their own silo (e.g., profession, status, race, ethnicity, political loyalty), and they develop their own special vocabularies, frameworks, values, and convictions, making communication between these subculture silos difficult.
In the past, there was also far less pluralism. Today's diversity means not only that more people participate in decision making but that the new players bring different backgrounds and expectations to the table. Dialogue used to be simpler to do because we shared frameworks. When frameworks are held in common, there is no need to be self-conscious about doing dialogue. No special method is needed to arrive at mutual understanding. You just do it as naturally as you might gossip with a neighbor or carry on any other form of conversation.
But we can no longer "just do it." Reaching mutual understanding through dialogue doesn't come naturally to us anymore. We cannot re-create the past conditions for doing dialogue any more than we can re-create the small-town communities of an earlier era. In small pockets of the culture, effortless dialogue among people who think alike still does exist for example, between spouses in closely knit marriages or among longtime colleagues who know each other's minds and habits of thought so well that a glance, a shrug, a word is all that is needed to bring them onto the same wavelength. But the cohesiveness of people who have grown into a shared worldview through a long-enduring relationship is increasingly rare. It is becoming a thing of the past.
The special effort and discipline required to do dialogue skillfully in today's world are not widely recognized. When I told a friend I was writing a book on how to do dialogue, he was incredulous. "A whole book!" he exclaimed. "What's so difficult about doing dialogue? It's as simple as chewing gum. You can't write a book about how to chew gum!"
My friend's assertion that dialogue is as simple as chewing gum is dead wrong. Chewing gum is simple: it is both easy to understand and easy to do. Dialogue is neither easy to understand nor easy to do. It is, in fact, difficult to do well, and it isn't done well very often. If it were easy, dialogue would be flourishing in our society. But in fact, genuine dialogue between people who work together or share common concerns is exceedingly rare. At the present stage of our history, the ability to conduct dialogue is a marginal skill that only a tiny handful of people do well, a large number of organizations do poorly, and most people don't do at all because they do not recognize the need for it.
Here, to illustrate the point, are two examples. In the first, dialogue, had it been used, would have achieved an important institutional objective.
An Ivy League University
Several years ago, I conducted a study for one of the nation's most prestigious Ivy League universities on its future plans and strategies. Most of the faculty, alumni, and top administrators regard this university as one of our nation's great treasures. All expressed unstinting admiration for its president. But in my interviews with the deans of the university, one criticism kept recurring: all deplored the absence of a clear vision of the university's future.
I asked the president about the absence of a vision for the future. He stared at me quizzically for a long time. Then, without saying a word, he reached into his desk, pulled out a packet of papers, and handed them to me. Later, making my way through the packet, I found a series of the president's articles and speeches, all published in one or another of the university's many publications. Taken together, they expressed one of the most eloquent, coherent, and compelling visions I have ever encountered.
I then went back to the deans who had fretted most about the absence of a vision for the future of the university, and I asked them if they disagreed with the president's statements or found them wanting in other ways. They all reacted in roughly the same way. As one of them said, "Oh yes, I remember reading these when they first appeared. They are very good. I don't know why I forgot they existed."
The president's closest colleagues, the deans who manage all of the important parts of the university, had been expected to learn about his vision of the future from reading articles he had written rather than from the give-and-take of dialogue among equals that is needed to shape a shared vision of the future.
The president is an impressive thinker whose personal vision of the university's future proved to be farsighted, eloquently expressed, and passionately argued. While his statements were being formulated, the deans did not complain (very loudly) about the lack of dialogue. But the intensity of their feelings about being excluded from dialogue in the vision-shaping process was exquisitely reflected in their act of collective forgetfulness. Because they were excluded, the institution was left with an inoperable vision, one literally hidden away in a drawer. It was not a living, breathing, inspiring vision because the people who were responsible for implementing it were unaware of its very existence.
In the second example, dialogue is ideally suited to resolve an issue that is causing the company's CEO sleepless nights, but he is unaware of this resource.
A Biotech Company
The people most important to the future of many high-tech companies are not always found in the upper echelons of managers and vice presidents. Some of the younger, more gifted people at lower levels may not even be good managers, but they may be superb technologists with a masterly grasp of the company's work. The CEO of a dynamic biotech company in California calls them "knowledge practitioners." He says that they are the indispensable people in his company, and he freely admits that the hierarchy of his organization does not accurately reflect their talent. He is stymied by one of the most rigid rules of traditional hierarchies: you must not pay someone at a lower level more than you pay his or her manager. To do so is to violate the concept of advancement within a hierarchy: as you get promoted, your pay and status are supposed to increase relative to those left behind.
Giving gifted employees incentives that will retain their loyalty as well as their commitment to the work without demoralizing their superiors is far from easy. It is not solely a matter of money. For many knowledge practitioners, money is less important than it is for employees of traditional companies. In addition to money, what matters to many gifted techies are such mixed benefits as personal recognition, the quality of the K-12 education available for their children, flexible transportation arrangements, the right sorts of opportunities for their spouses, a sense of ownership and belonging in the company, and a stimulating place to work.
Dialogue among the various levels of management is an ideal method for working out the right kind of informal work contracts (balancing money and other benefits) for these new sorts of employees, who represent the wave of the future.
Our American culture has developed many impressive skills. In some arenas, our know-how knows no bounds. We are remarkable in our ability to find technical fixes to problems. We know how to organize ourselves to do everything from lobbying for a traffic light on a dangerous street corner to fighting several wars simultaneously in remote parts of the globe. Our entrepreneurial skills are the wonder and envy of the world. We know a lot about complex accounting, legislating laws, regulating industries, conducting scientific research, disseminating information, developing technologies, training professionals.
It is these and other gifts that make us so dynamic as a civilization. But among our most serious weaknesses is a surprising amateurishness in doing dialogue.
As skill in doing dialogue grows more widespread, I believe that the public will become as familiar with it as it now is with basketball and situation comedies. We need not all become experts at doing dialogue, but we ought to know the real thing when we see it, and we ought to be comfortable with it as leaders, citizens, executives, parents, lovers, professionals, and consumers.
My Personal Encounter with Dialogue
I am a practitioner of a fairly new profession that tracks social, political, and economic trends and measures shifts in people's values and beliefs. Why is a social scientist like myself writing a book on dialogue? Why is an outsider from an allied but different field seeking to make a distinctive contribution to people's understanding and practice of dialogue?
I believe the answers to these questions reveal something essential about the special nature of dialogue. It is not a coincidence that new insights about dialogue have come from people from a wide diversity of backgrounds and professions.
David Bohm, a theoretical physicist, is one of dialogue's most original thinkers. To his own surprise, he learned that world-class physicists develop their most creative ideas not in solitary thought (as the popular stereotype suggests) but through dialogue with one another. Martin Buber came to understand dialogue from his perspective as a scholar of Hebrew mysticism. His conception of the full dignity of the I-Thou relationship between individuals draws its inspiration from the dialogic relationship of people to God. Peter Senge and William Isaacs, two MIT scholars whose work I cite later in this book, are management gurus. They have discovered the distinctive contribution that dialogue makes to the success of business teams. Harold Saunders was a professional diplomat before he began to devote himself full-time to dialogue. Through personal experience, Saunders has seen dialogue succeed where diplomacy failed in finding common ground among longtime enemies (e.g., Arabs and Israelis, Russians and Afghans). Mikhail Bakhtin, an influential Russian social thinker and literary critic, has strikingly original insights into the role of dialogue in literature.
A physicist, a Hebrew philosopher, a Russian intellectual, a diplomat, two management theorists it would be difficult to find a more diverse group of professionals. All of them have discovered something special about dialogue, and in each instance the discovery grew directly out of work in their own fields.
The same is true of my interest in dialogue. It, too, grew out of work in my own field. In conducting surveys to measure public attitudes and opinions, I stumbled upon a discovery about dialogue that greatly impressed me. It forced me to recognize that the way in which the public arrives at its most serious judgments runs counter to the conventional viewpoint. Convention holds that we gain our knowledge and understanding of issues primarily through factual information. Indeed, the American political tradition has long maintained that an informed public is indispensable to the successful functioning of democracy. Thomas Jefferson held this conviction. The contemporary press holds it as an article of faith.
But is it really valid?
After decades of wrestling with this question, I have come to the conclusion that such faith is unjustified. The premise that the health of our democracy depends on a well-informed public is one of those unexamined pieties that professionals mouth without ever observing close-up how people really make the judgments on which our society does depend.
The United States is a prime example of a successfully functioning democracy. But it is not a prime example of a well-informed citizenry. I know this from my forty-plus years of experience in the field of public opinion research, and it is not exactly startling news to anybody who studies public opinion. It is certainly well known to the press the chief drumbeaters for the importance of factual information. Indeed, the press delights in reporting poll findings that show how ignorant of the facts the public generally is (e.g., huge majorities of the public who can't name the chief justice of the Supreme Court or tell a Tutsi from a Hutu). Yet, on issues of fundamental importance to the future of our democracy, the public frequently arrives at judgments that are sound, considered, and sometimes profound. If an ill-informed public can reach sound judgments, some factor other than absorbing and analyzing factual information must be at work.
My research shows that the public's judgments are rarely the result of careful analysis of factual information. The public reaches its judgments through a different process than experts claim for themselves. Experts assert that their views are grounded on information, experience, and analysis. The public must be doing something different. The public is generally poorly informed, doesn't do much analysis, and on most policy issues has little direct experience.
The public, I have learned over the years, forms its judgments mainly through interactions with other people, through dialogue and discussion. People weigh what they hear from others against their own convictions. They compare notes with one another, they assess the views of others in terms of what makes sense to them, and, above all, they consult their feelings and their values. The public doesn't distinguish sharply between facts and values, as journalists and social scientists do. Indeed, dialogue draws heavily on feelings and values. Of course, information is important. But information stripped of feelings is not the royal road to public judgment; dialogue, rich in feelings and values, is.
Here we have one of the keys to why public judgment may be sound and mature, even wise, though ill informed. I have long suspected that something is seriously amiss in our conventional paradigm of knowledge, with its razor-sharp distinctions between "objective" facts and "subjective" values. In reaching its judgments through dialogue, the public is harking back to prescientific ways of knowing. These may actually have greater validity for the important questions of living together than current theories of knowledge do. (We will return to this theme later.)
It takes an extraordinary length of time for the public to arrive at considered and settled judgments. It took decades for Americans to decide that a committed internationalism, for all its drawbacks, was better for our nation than isolationism. It took decades for Americans to value freedom of the press so highly that they support the First Amendment even when they hate what they hear. It took decades for Americans to conclude that it was acceptable for women to work outside the home even if they did not have to do so for economic reasons. It took decades for Americans to decide that a woman, a Catholic, a Jew, or an African American would be acceptable as president of the United States. It took years for Americans to accept the victims of the AIDS virus as people worthy of help. It is taking years for Americans to come to judgment about the role of government in social legislation. (With the right kinds of dialogue and discussions, the process of arriving at considered judgments on complex issues can be dramatically accelerated.)
A very different kind of personal experience powerfully reinforced the lessons I learned about how the public arrives at its most important judgments. In recent years I have served on a number of boards of business corporations and not-for-profit organizations about twenty in all. Such boards typically comprise a dozen or so members and are a superb mechanism for conducting dialogue. They meet regularly. They share common objectives. Their members are people from a wide variety of backgrounds who bring a diversity of experience to the governance and policies of their institutions.
Some of the boards I joined did not stimulate dialogue. The board of trustees of Brown University proved to be too large for intimate dialogue. CBS's board of directors conducted its meetings in a brisk manner that discouraged dialogue. Other boards, however, actively encouraged dialogue among their members. US West, one of the former Baby Bell companies, created an atmosphere in the early years of its existence that greatly encouraged dialogue among its directors. At the Kettering Foundation, the bulk of each trustees' meeting is devoted to dialogue between board and staff members on an issue of serious concern to the nation and to Kettering's programs. The board of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) always hurries to get its formal business out of the way so that its highly diverse members can engage in dialogue. Many of my examples of dialogue in the chapters that follow are drawn from my experience with these kinds of business and not-for-profit boards.
Serving on them gave me an insight into the striking similarity between their methods of arriving at judgments and the public's methods. Certainly, boards of directors representing formal organizations have better access to information and use it more systematically than the public does. But in the crunch, on the issues that really count, where the future of the institution is at stake (the kinds of issues with which boards are supposed to concern themselves), it is dialogue rather than factual analysis that most engages board members and shapes their judgments.
One brief example: ETS develops and administers standardized SAT and other tests that colleges and universities use for deciding who will be admitted and who rejected. In our society, these are high-stakes decisions that affect the lives of millions of Americans. A fundamental issue that ETS must confront is whether to continue to focus mainly on standardized tests (one size fits all) or to develop more customized individual assessments that will do justice to the wide variety of skills and forms of intelligence that young people bring to their studies.
From a business point of view, ETS must remain viable competitively. But ETS is chartered as a not-for-profit organization: its commitment is to enhance education, not to maximize its own profits. Its board is a heterogeneous one: some members are educators with little or no business experience, others are high-powered business executives. Some members are concerned primarily with equity in education, committed to making sure that minorities are treated fairly. Others are concerned primarily with excellence, committed to making sure that standards are maintained and improved.
Plenty of information exists about the strengths and limitations of standardized tests. ETS's board takes these facts into account. But the facts do not reveal to the board what its vision for the future should be or the best strategy for achieving it. Only high-quality dialogue among its diverse members and professional staff can yield this kind of understanding and judgment.
Every board of directors, whether of a profit or not-for-profit organization, faces comparable challenges. In my experience, the quality of the judgments these institutions make depends critically on their members' skill in dialogue.
Putting the Need for Dialogue into Perspective
Sometimes words and concepts become fashionable for a brief time words such as "empowerment," "quality circles," and "reengineering" then quickly grow stale from overuse, to be replaced by other words that enjoy their own fifteen minutes of prominence before they too pass into oblivion. There is a danger that "dialogue" may share this fate and find its way into the graveyard of yesterday's platitudes even before it has a fair chance to show what it can contribute.
I do not think this will happen, for a particular reason. The need for dialogue is not a passing fad. My firm's tracking studies of the public, carried out annually since the 1960s, suggest that the need for dialogue is rooted in a fundamental existential condition of our society.
Many of the social bonds that once unified us as a people now appear to be eroding. Average Americans, opinion polls show, suspect that our population is growing apart. Americans sense that civility and respect for one another are losing ground. People feel that their dignity and sense of self-worth are being assaulted in countless ways, small and large.
An image that television has made familiar stays lodged in my mind. When TV programs on science portray our expanding universe, they show a picture of stars zooming further and further away from one another in the infinite expanse of space. This is the image I have of the drift in today's American society: locked into our gated communities, our bigger cars, our smaller families, our professional silos, and our solitary selves, we are growing ever more isolated from one another. Increasingly, Americans worry that the ties that bind us together and unify us as a society are loosening. They fear that we are becoming less closely bonded, more isolated, unglued.
How serious is this problem, and how great a threat does it pose to our culture? To keep the threat in perspective, I do not think we have reached the state of threatened chaos and loss that led the poet William Butler Yeats, in the aftermath of World War I, to write:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Fortunately, something less fundamental is wrong with our culture. I detect no rottenness at the core, no deep decay of the sort that destroyed the great civilizations of the past. The center is holding; our world is not out of control.
These symptoms of a threat to our social cohesiveness can be interpreted in many ways, depending on one's standpoint. As a social scientist, I believe that we are confronting a manageable problem, not a fatal disease.
The problem is a growing "understanding gap." As a result of many trends converging at the same time, we are raising the bar on understanding one another. We demand much more mutual understanding than we ever did in the past. Yet, at the same time that we are expected to understand one another better, circumstances have conspired to place huge obstacles in the path of mutual understanding. We are gradually drifting away from one another. It is a disturbing irony that we expect higher levels of mutual understanding at the very moment in our history when our growing separateness makes such understanding so difficult to achieve.
We are becoming a society where impersonal, economic transactions dominate. In a market economy, impersonal transactions are always important. Our society could not function without them. But increasingly, my firm's surveys of the public show that Americans crave something more satisfying to the spirit. And they know that impersonal transactions cannot substitute for the deeper relationships for which people yearn, relationships based on mutual understanding.
The understanding gap has grown sufficiently threatening that it deserves to be addressed seriously. I believe that a certain kind of dialogue holds the key to creating greater cohesiveness among groups of Americans increasingly separated by differences in values, interests, status, politics, professional backgrounds, ethnicity, language, and convictions.
Fortunately for our civilization, we are living in an era of enormous dynamism, creativity, and innovation. Perhaps more than ever before, Americans are willing to experiment and to adapt to change. Once the understanding gap is understood better than it is today, the energy, creativity, and will needed to close it will pour forth in abundance. When that happens, as it must, the skill needed to master the art of dialogue will become critical.
Copyright © 1999 by Daniel Yankelovich