Dialogue: Part of “The How That Matters”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a column on the economic crisis titled “Why How Matters.”  After reviewing the “hows” of why our financial markets ended up in disarray, he concluded: “We need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way. That is, people making decisions based on business judgment, experience, prudence, clarity of communications and thinking about how — not just how much”. “Why how matters” in our political life as well. There too, we need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way, and we need judgment, experience, prudence, and a clarity of communications.

The public seems to be ready.  In our recent national elections, candidates that emphasized hope, community and a lessening of fear-based partisan attacks prevailed.  President-Elect Obama emphasized these themes in his acceptance speech when he encouraged us to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long”.  He went on to say that “This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”

McCain reflected a similar sentiment in his concession speech when he urged “all Americans who supported me to join me not just in congratulating [President-Elect Obama], but in offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”

Civil dialogue builds the trust necessary to form the bonds of community and tackle complex issues.  Dialogue encourages us to listen to the thoughts and experiences of others, and helps us to discover new ideas and ask better questions.  With dialogue, we are more likely to think about how our decisions might affect others and identify unintended consequences.  This in turn is likely to lead to wiser decisions.  As Daniel Yankelovich stated in, The Magic of Dialogue, “An ideal use of dialogue is to reconcile conflicting systems of social values”.  Using dialogue to both inform and engage a broad group of citizens is part of the “how” that will allow for change. By listening, sharing, and working together we are more likely to find and promote the public good, and to make sustainable decisions.

What is a wise decision?

Nadler and Chandler, writing in their 2004 book “Smart Questions,” set forth a ‘data to wisdom’ continuum, with “raw data” — information whose validity depends on the methods of collection and context,– being the least valuable information, and “wisdom” being the highest level of information.  From “raw data”, the continuum proceeds through “real information” (raw data placed in context), to “knowledge” (digested information), to “understanding” (insight into how knowledge integrates into the big picture and how it might be used by others) to “wisdom.” Wisdom is defined as “the ability to put understanding to use” or the “transformation of understanding into concrete action”.  Both understanding and wisdom require an integration of information with values and beliefs, and are particularly needed as circumstances change.  Daniel Yankelovich, writing in “The Magic of Dialogue” wrote that “An ideal use of dialogue is to reconcile conflicting systems of social values” and that dialogue can help to “focus on our imaginations on what kind of society we really want.”  As he points out, such dialogues occur in a framework of mutual respect and help build both trust and a sense of community. Our country faces a number of highly complex issues that will require many wise decisions along the way if we are to effectively work our way through them.  Citizens have much to contribute to that wisdom. How can we engage in more effective dialogue as we seek to find our way forward?

Gaining Wisdom

“If the United States is to be a democracy, its citizens must be free. If citizens are to be free, they must be their own judges. If they are to judge well, they must be wise. Citizens may be born free; they are not born wise.”  These words were written by F. Champion Ward, Dean of the College at the University of Chicago, in 1949 as a preface to a  collection of  readings designed to help students better understand “American History and its great arguments”.  The collection was titled “The People Shall Judge”, and like our guides, it was designed to help students engage in discussions — or dialogues — where historical facts and thought could be digested, questioned, and integrated with the experience and thinking of those in the group. It is through this kind of dialogue that we can develop the type of judgments that lead to wise decisions. Dean Ward wrote of the importance of “forming habits of open discussion and independent judgment which will lead to wise decisions and new achievements in the American future.”  He concluded that “Surely, a democracy should invite its citizens to learn and think in this inquiring way. Surely, a democracy whose citizens do so learn and think will be well and freely served.” Where in our current political culture are the opportunities to practice and form these habits? What are the barriers? Where can we as citizens provide new opportunities to sift through, synthesize, and evaluate the often overwhelming amount of information that floods our daily lives, particularly in an election year?  Let us know what you are doing, and what more might be done.

Dialogue … Is An American Value ®

Louis Brandeis, a former US Supreme Court Justice, stated that “In a democracy, public discussion is a political duty.” But what kind of discussion?  What promotes civic capacity?

As the public education reformer John Dewey said “we can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.”  How can our discussions be better informed?  How can we share perspectives and experiences in positive ways?

Our guides can help inform, and help citizens practice, civic dialogue.  You can scroll through these guides on this site or download them as PDFs.

Some of the posts from our early years are set forth below and we will be adding others. You can also review more tips for building dialogue on the Blog for Building Dialogue. We look forward to working with you.