Charles Pfeffer

Executive Coaching & Leadership Consulting

Dialogue and Inquiry

“While facts can be verified or refuted” and we should do so expeditiously and relentlessly” we must also recognize the possibility that more complex truths are often in the eyes of the beholder. This fact of human cognition doesn’t necessarily imply that relativism is correct or desirable; not all truths are equally valid. But because the particular narrative that one adopts can color and influence the subsequent course of inquiry and debate, we should strive at the outset to entertain as many interpretations of the same set of objective facts as we can, and hope that a more nuanced and internally consistent understanding of the crisis emerges in the fullness of time.” -Andrew Lo, Economist, MIT Sloan School 2011

Philosophers have long recognized that there is no single version of the TRUTH, or at least if there is, human beings do not have any objective place to stand from which to discern it. This has been further confirmed by quantum physics and neuroscience. Nonetheless, we human beings fall into the habit of believing that our own points of view are TRUE, rather than merely one version of truth. Philosophers call this “Contingency”, meaning that our reality is contingent upon the cultural, perceptual and biological filters through which we receive our data.

But this gives us some practical challenges when we want to get things done. If your reality and mine are different and both are contingent, then how do we come to any kind of agreement on purposes, plans and actions? The answer of course is that we do it all the time. People have been coordinating action for millennia with more or less success. Sometime we coordinate action through agreement, sometimes through coercion. With coercion, there is always an alienation cost, the friction that comes from forcing free adults to do what they otherwise don’t want to do. To gain authentic agreement requires a condition of autonomy among all the participants.

So if your truth and my truth are different, and I can’t force you to adopt mine without alienating you, then we’ll need a mechanism for reaching agreement which is authentic for us both. The mechanism that seems to work the best is conversation, however not just any conversation, but dialogue. Dialogue comes from the greek and means,”through meaning”. Through an exchange of meaning, yours and mine, we may influence each other’s understanding of our facts, our cultural filters, even the way that our senses process data. We may even discover, through this process, that our way of seeing is not the only way, and thereby loosen our grip on its rightness. Finally, we may come to respect each other’s commitment to the values that make the issue important, even if we don’t like the solutions the other is proposing.

The stance required to be in an authentic dialogue is one ofInquiry. We know that we are in an inquiry when we are curious about each other’s way of seeing the issues. Not judging the other’s assumptions, but seeking to understand them and trying them on for ourselves. What would the issue look like to me if I held your assumptions? Could I come to the same conclusions as you, if I held them as you do? If you are as interested in discovering and inhabiting my assumptions as I am in doing the same for you, then we cease to be opponents and become study partners. We examine an issue together and find a way to understand it that can be effective for us both. We come to respect the humanity of each other and seek ways to cooperate.

The challenge to doing this effectively is that we can become attached to our own viewpoint as though it were the same thing as our life. We act as though our survival were at stake, when usually that is not the case. Our evolved biological defenses overreact to disagreement and cause us to defend our views rather than hold them lightly. Fortunately, with practice, we can catch ourselves in the act of being defensive and return to a more highly evolved stance of inquiry, so that we can be in dialogue in service of what is important to both of us. All authentic collaboration, conflict resolution and real human progress depends on the simple (but not easy) act of releasing our hold on certainty and granting validity to the point of view of the other.

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