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Moving Beyond Debate: Start a Dialogue

Why individual performance may suffer under "relative" incentive packages.
We're often surrounded by polarizing debates. Here's what influential leaders know: Dialogue doesn't seek closure as debates do, but rather discovers new options. An excerpt from Leading Through Conflict by professional mediator Mark Gerzon.

As I worked in more than a hundred organizations or communities over the past decade, I kept track of which form of discourse my clients most often wanted. They did not want more speeches and presentations. They did not want more debates between two know-­it-­alls, each of whom was sure they were right and the other person was wrong. They did not want yet another "exchange of views" that skirted difficult issues and papered over problems. What they yearned for was deep, honest, inclusive, and respectful dialogue.

Dialogue is designed for situations in which people have fundamentally different frames of reference (also called worldviews, belief systems, mindsets, or "mental models"). "Ordinary conversation presupposes shared frameworks," says Daniel Yankelovich, who has been a pioneer in analyzing public opinion for the past quarter century.1 Dialogue makes just the opposite assumption: It assumes that the participants have different frameworks. The purpose of dialogue is to create communication across the border that separates them. It is a way of conversing that:

  • Enables a wider range of feelings to be expressed than in debate.

  • Inspires more honesty and forthrightness than other methods.

  • Avoids superficial, forced compromises.

  • Generates learning, new options, and innovations.

  • Increases the likelihood that everyone will be "heard."

  • Seeks the deeper truth in each perspective.2

Simply put, dialogue fosters the trust that is essential to leading through conflict. Its purpose is not to be nice. Its purpose is to be effective. When it comes to conflict, it is far more effective to build trust than to deplete it. Every tool we have used so far has helped to lay a stronger foundation for trust building.

  • We committed ourselves to seeing the whole conflict (integral vision).

  • We analyzed its elements and the larger system (or systems) of which it is a part (systems thinking).

  • We made sure that we are fully present to both the outer reality and our inner experience of it (presence).

  • We began to ask some initial questions to deepen our knowledge of the situation (inquiry).

  • And we surveyed alternative ways of communicating in order to determine which of them will be most useful (conscious conversation).

Our goal now is to build the trust necessary to create alliances between adversaries (bridging) so that they can catalyze new approaches to, and potentially breakthroughs in, the conflict (innovation).

To achieve our goal, this sixth tool, dialogue, must now come into play because when effectively applied, it taps into a power source that is rarely accessed by the other forms of discourse. This source of power is our assumptions—in other words, our unexamined beliefs, preconceptions, biases, and stereotypes about each other and about the conflict itself. Much of the energy for transforming conflict is buried in the soil of our assumptions. Because dialogue unearths assumptions and brings them into the light, it can release and harness this vital energy. With hard work and perseverance, this fertilized soil can produce the harvest of transformation.

For our purposes, I like the highly action-­oriented definition of trust developed by Julio Olalla, a master coach from Chile and founder of the Newfield Group, who has trained thousands of coaches on three continents. "Trust," concludes Olalla, "is the precondition for coordinated action." This definition is particularly useful because it is not about what makes trust possible but what trust makes possible. It is about the relationship of trust to innovative results.3

"I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument." —Thomas Jefferson

Not surprisingly, trust is now being recognized as one of the foundations of individual and organizational learning. If, as Peter Drucker generalizes, "organizations are no longer built on force but on trust," then developing leaders who build it rather than deplete it would seem to be a high priority.4 Judging from current statistics, however, our leaders today are not building trust. According to Gallup's annual assessment of public trust in major institutions, trust fell to new lows in 2005. Trust in newspapers and television (28 percent), trust in the presidency (44 percent) and the Supreme Court (41 percent), trust in big business and Congress (both 22 percent)—recent drops in these already low figures suggest that leaders are behaving in ways that undermine their institutions' credibility.5

The result is a culture in which conflicts erupt much more easily and are less likely to be transformed into opportunity. As educator Anne C. Lewis notes, "without trust, other activities will be imperiled."6 Mediator Alan Gold, a veteran of difficult labor negotiations, puts it even more strongly. "The key word is 'trust,'" he says. "Without it, you're dead. Without it, stay home!"7

Some kinds of agreements and breakthroughs can be achieved when trust is low. But they are much harder to achieve, and to maintain, than when trust is high. As we enter more deeply into the conflict and seek to transform it, fear is our adversary because it inhibits creativity. Trust is the Mediator's ally because it dramatically increases creativity, which leads to bridging and innovation (the final two tools of the Mediator . . .). In low-­conflict settings, where everyone is making similar assumptions and has similar goals, the standard decision making styles of the Manager often work satisfactorily. But in high-­conflict settings, where those involved operate on diverging assumptions and have very different interests, dialogue is often required.

Typical, polarized debate (which is rampant in both corporate and civic life) does not raise the level of trust; conversely, genuine dialogue (which is rare) often does. To understand why, scan table 9-1.8

Notice how debate is a powerful strategy for advocating a fixed position, while dialogue is far better for inquiry, building relationships, and creating innovations. As Thomas Jefferson observed, "I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument."9

For the vast majority of us, debate is familiar because we live in the debate cultures (or what linguist Deborah Tannen calls "argument cultures").10 If we want language to lead toward healthier, stronger communities and more vibrant, effective organizations, we need language that promotes progress—not the language that maintains the status quo. We need language that lifts us toward higher levels of discourse, not language that turns civic and corporate life into a verbal battlefield. While debate is useful for making decisions and taking votes, dialogue is the key to renewal. The power of debate is that two polarized voices are free to speak. But the power of dialogue is that these voices can actually be heard.

Skeptics take note: Do not dismiss dialogue as nothing more than wishy-­washy, feel-­good camaraderie. It is about addressing conflict in order to achieve concrete results. Whatever business strategy or community vision one may adopt, it won't work if nobody follows through. With remarkable frequency, organizations in conflict seek more dialogue because they won't achieve lasting results without it. An organization or community can develop the clearest, most inspiring plans. But if those involved do not feel heard and engaged, and if their concerns are not taken into account through genuine dialogue, those plans will not be well executed. As Larry Bossidy warns in his hardheaded book on corporate leadership (Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done), an organization cannot set realistic goals and achieve them without exploring the assumptions on which they are based. In the private sector, dialogue is being applied more and more often because senior executives realize their success depends on it. When companies learn this tool (and others) of the Mediator, their effectiveness increases. And when they fail to use it, they miss opportunities for renewal and change.

As part of a team training corporate leaders in dialogue, I worked briefly some time ago with a group of senior executives in the tobacco industry. Stories of smokers dying from lung cancer, magnified by advertising campaigns and television documentaries charging the executives with duplicity and callous disregard for human life, had begun to take their toll. Attacked from all sides by public health experts, state attorney generals, spokespersons for youth organizations, and even religious leaders, these executives knew they were under siege. Recognizing that their corporation's bottom line depended on whether or not they dealt constructively with these attacks on their reputation, they sought outside support for learning how to dialogue.

Despite my own misgivings, I accepted this assignment because I wanted to witness firsthand how top executives at a multinational company would deal with the hard reality that their products cause cancer. Overall, I found these executives decent and caring, and I was moved by their sincere effort to understand how their critics viewed them and why their corporation elicited such moral outrage. Their honesty and candor with each other, and their willingness to delve deeply into their critics' arguments, even when painful, was disarming.

Ultimately, however, what I noticed was their acceptance of the boundaries in which they operated. Yes, they listened, learned, absorbed, questioned, and searched for "creative" new approaches to their conflicts with the antismoking forces. But in the end, those executives never stepped outside the boundaries of their corporate roles. As they brainstormed about how to craft their message to young people on their trendy Web site and how to respond to charges that they were targeting poor nations where smokers were still uninformed about tobacco's dangers, they remained within the boundaries of their own assumptions. They simply could not, or would not, question the worldwide marketing, distribution, and sales of a cancer-­causing tobacco product. While they claimed to want "dialogue" they ultimately failed to practice one of its cardinal principles: questioning assumptions.

Dialogue cannot be ordered like a hamburger from room service. It is not something a CEO can dictate, a mayor can mandate, or a teacher can require. Dialogue can only happen to the degree that the participants are willing to engage in the process. Only then can mistrust evolve into trust.

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business School Press from Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities. Copyright 2006 Mark Gerzon; all rights reserved.

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Mark Gerzon has worked as a facilitator and leadership trainer for the United Nations, the U.S. House of Representatives, and a wide range of corporate and civic organizations around the world.

Table 9-1: Debate versus dialogue

by Mark Gerzon

Debate Dialogue
  • Assuming that there is a right answer, and that you have it
  • Assuming that many people have pieces of the answer
  • Combative: participants attempt to prove the other side wrong
  • Collaborative: participants work together toward common understanding
  • About winning
  • About exploring common ground
  • Listening to find flaws and make counter-arguments
  • Listening to understand, find meaning and agreement
  • Defending our own assumptions as truth
  • Revealing our assumptions for reevaluation
  • Seeing two sides of an issue
  • Seeing all sides of an issue
  • Defending one's own views against those of others
  • Admitting that others' thinking can improve one's own.
  • Searching for flaws and weaknesses in others' positions
  • Searching for strengths and value in others' positions
  • By creating a winner and a loser, discouraging further discussion
  • Keeping the topic even after the discussion formally ends
  • Seeking a conclusion or vote that ratifies your position
  • Discovering new options, not seeking closure

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business School Press from Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities. Copyright 2006 Mark Gerzon; all rights reserved.


1. Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).

2. Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution (Somerset, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), 138 139.

3. For more about Olalla's work on trust, go to http://www.newfieldaus.com.au/.

4. Peter Drucker, "Managing Oneself," Harvard Business Review, January 2005, 100 (originally published in 1999).

5. "Gallup: Public Confidence in Newspapers, TV News Falls to All Time Low," Editor and Publisher, June 10, 2005.

6. Anne C. Lewis, "From Universal Access to Universal Proficiency: Five Experts, in a Roundtable Q&A, on the Demands of New Leadership for Old Values," School Administrator, September 2003. Other sources on trust that either confirm or elaborate on this point include Anthony S. Bryk and Barbara Schneider, Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002); A. K. Mishra, "Organizational Responses to Crisis: The Centrality of Trust," in Trust in Organizations, eds. R. M. Kramer and T. R. Tyler (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 261 287; A. B. Seligman, The Problem of Trust (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); and M. Tschannen­Moran and W. Hoy, "Trust in Schools: A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis," Journal of Educational Administration Quarterly 36, no. 4 (1998): 334 352.

7. Alan Gold, "Conflict in Today's Economic Climate" (Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, 1981), cited in Richard Salem, "Trust in Mediation;" http://www.beyondintractability.com.

8. Table 9-1 was developed by my company, Mediators Limited, and synthesized and adapted from the models of Educators for Social Responsibility, the Public Conversations Project, National Study Circles Resources, ChoicePoint Consulting, the Integral Institute, and several other sources. I am grateful to them for their contributions and their advice.

9. Cited in William Isaacs, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (New York: Random House, 1999), 17.

10. Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Random House, 1998).