Moving Beyond Negative Norms

As we mentioned in some of our previous posts, dialogues are regularly plagued with the sorts of oppositional behaviors (finger-pointing, name calling, ridicule) that make constructive solutions to real problems difficult to achieve.  Other factors undermining effective dialogue include wishful thinking, simple dismissal of alternative viewpoints, insistent oversimplification, jockeying for credit, and unwillingness to trust in others.  If we are to make dialogue a part of our self-governance, how do we go about moving beyond these negative norms?

This is no easy task.  What we may require is a sea change in the way we do politics.  What must we do to create a truly inclusive and functional public sphere that leads citizens into dialogue, helps them collaborate to develop the knowledge needed to make good decisions, and then results in those decisions being reflected into policy and action?

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?