Using dissent as a driver


These days it’s difficult to get away from the Twittermania, but I will refrain from doing so on this post and go against the stream, perhaps indirectly proving the point of dissent as a driver.

So what about dissent? Why do I want to talk about this? It started all with some simple ideas about interpersonal communication. In an old post about emergence and complexity I mentioned that I disagreed with the approach of a colleague of mine who seems to seek arguments with the people that don’t agree with his points of view.  He argues that it makes discussions and work all the more interesting. I assume he says so because it would help explore arguments more deeply and because if everyone agrees there is no need to look for more insights.

I agree with this – but only partly. There are a few interesting angles to this:

a)      Yes it can be interesting to seek arguments and work with people that disagree with you, because you then need to articulate (and make sense of) your own logic a lot more strongly. In fact, making a digression, I think that many French people have inherited this tradition of verbal jousting and this perhaps explains partly why the French are considered arrogant by many others. There are some facilitation methods based on arguments and dissent (e.g. the ritual dissent introduced on Dave Snowden’s website, or event the six-thinking-hat – see a description on mindtools.com)

b)      It is all the more important to seek arguments with people if there is a tension that prevents from progressing. Sometimes a good fight is the best start of a solution as it deflates tensions held up to the chest and opens issues for discussion – in other words, avoiding conflict can sometimes block the situation and leave all parties unsatisfied, and in those circumstances there’s nothing like a good conflict.

c)       It is also interesting to work with those that don’t believe in your work because it is of little value to preach to converts and because it is in the interaction between various publics – at the edges of silos – that real innovation happens.

Where to strike the balance between productive and pointless arguing?

Where to strike the balance between productive and pointless arguing?

Yet I see other sides to it:

a)      On the one hand there are other ways to gather insights: in a typical face-to-face KM4DEV discussion, I see a lot of respect for each other’s point of view and although people may not agree with one another, they hardly ever argue with one another. Instead, they end up plugging ideas on top of each other, exploring the issue together, each from their angle and using their own experience and expertise. Another digression here: seating arrangements can have a definite impact on the kind of discussion: having chairs facing each other conducts to more arguments; having chairs side by side facing something else conducts to more ‘plug-up’ exploratory dialogues. See this fascinating article on seating arrangements: http://www.jstor.org/pss/974403 (login required for full reading).

b)      Cherishing arguments as a de facto discussion perspective is likely to generate arguments for the sake of it and irritate people around. It is a self-reinforcing mechanism that can also curb trust, which is one of the beds of learning…

Perhaps more than seeking arguments, what matters is simply seeking a variety of points of views, perspectives, walks of life – creating a balanced team of very different individuals that can help each other in complex tasks. And perhaps quite simply this is the idea behind dissent as a potential driver.

If this is really the case, it’s good news for IKM-Emergent and the quest for multiple knowledges, as well as for multi-stakeholder process such as learning alliances.

And just to end on almost another digression: as I like to provide some more reading on the topics I blog about, I sometimes also look for additional info and this time, while writing this post, I came across this article about how to write strong arguments and this one on how to disagree. In fact, both articles are pretty much the same except the former introduces the text in a visual way (and makes it a lot stronger)… Here’s a nice link to a promised post on visualisation techniques…

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4 thoughts on “Using dissent as a driver

  1. Kolleen,

    Interesting to hear your story about Tibetan monks – I’ll check this out, it could be a very inspiring source of thoughts. As for your perspective of engaging in dialogue with an open mind and a ‘liquid’ brain – ready to flow in various directions – I couldn’t agree more, and I believe it is this kind of interactions marked with curiosity and respect that I cherish so much in the KM4Dev events.

    But there’s also a question of the intention and tone that one puts into questioning and arguing. Perhaps, much like communication goes a lot more through tone and body language than text, similarly the tone and body language used in ‘learning interactions’ could enhance or instead crush the potential for learning because it inspires or instead irritates… What do you think?

  2. On the cultural question – Recently I was reading about how critical learning to debate is for Tibetan monks (possibly other Buddhist monks as well). Although monks share a religious tradition and one might assume that the monastic life is quite straightforward — to be able to debate — to make your case effectively and to be able to deconstruct your opponents view and expose it to the light is highly valued. This is think is a true spot of wisdom.

    To be sure, this is because the debate seems to be part of a process of discovering truth not necessarily proving one person is right and I think that with this attitude — with a genuinely open mind debate can not only be productive it can be enjoying and stretch the knowledge of everyone involved. Too often however, people are certain that things ‘just are’ the way they assert they are and they set about proving that.

    Argue with the assumption that you might be wrong and/or you might learn something and I think that it is one of the most useful ‘enlightening’ things you can do.

  3. Yes, possibly learning styles have an additional influence here but still most people are engaged in discussions and learn from those – do you think there is an innate argumentative learning style?
    This almost has more to do with your approach to communication rather than your approach to learning… And yes it would be interesting to find out about various national (and other) preferences for arguments or dialogue.

  4. I think it has a lot to do with learning styles.. some people learn that way, others learn by reading/preparing a presentation/reading a tutorial guide. I wonder what would be the cultural preferences in various national cultures?

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