When ‘harmony’ is not good enough: James Hoggan

James Hoggan, author of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, on the balance between confrontation and collaboration and the need for dialogue.

The challenge is how to have vigorous yet respectful conversations:

When I was chair of the David Suzuki Foundation I asked Canadian problem solving guru Adam Kahane to speak at our board retreat when it met at the Brew Creek Centre in Whistler.

I invited him because of his work as a facilitator in hot spots around the world.  Like many of the thought leaders I interviewed for my book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, Adam encouraged me to consider the role warlike rhetoric plays in creating gridlock and inaction on environmental problems such as climate change.

I found his methodology for dialogue, called transformative scenario planning, a hopeful alternative to the growing political polarization.

During his talk to our board, Adam got into a brief but heated disagreement with David Suzuki who argued that in some cases dialogue is a waste of time. David spoke about the CEO of a consortium of companies who wanted to discuss international criticism of the Alberta oil sands regarding its environmental performance.

David said he would be willing to engage with the CEO if he would first agree to certain basic principles: that we are all animals and that we need clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy and biodiversity. The CEO declined. Adam challenged Suzuki on this, saying that seeking such an agreement in advance was unreasonable and unproductive.

Adam recently told me this exchange had a big impact on him. “It shook me up a lot.” Initially, he couldn’t make this new idea fit into his frame of collaboration so it stayed with him “as an unresolved tension.” He didn’t dismiss the argument because he holds David in such high esteem.

And gradually this principle seemed more important and altered Adam’s thinking about how to approach advocacy, conflict and dialogue, and this exchange became an important section of his new book, Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust.

Adam writes: “I could now see that engaging and asserting were complementary rather than opposing ways to make progress on complex challenges, and that both were legitimate and necessary.”

If we suppress assertion and advocacy in an effort to engage with an opponent, “we will suffocate the social system we are working with,” and end up with feeble collaboration. He is now convinced that healthy collaboration needs to include “vigorous fighting.”

Rather than focusing on finding harmony when dealing with people who hold radically conflicting opinions, we can embrace both conflict and connection:

“If we stretch beyond our conventional, comfortable, habitual approach to collaboration we can be more successful more often, and don’t have to default to polarization, and worsen the situation.”

He recently told me it’s wrong to think we can only collaborate successfully by first forging harmonious teams that have reached agreement on where they’re going, how to get there, or who needs to do what.

Author Adam Kahane was shaken by a conversation with David Suzuki about activism.

This discussion got me thinking about how my own attitudes have evolved while searching for better ways to deal with antagonists of all kinds, including climate science deniers. Adam’s new book reinforces my experience that changing public opinion and public policy requires both advocacy and collaboration — although I’ve learned that both have their limits.

Advocates tend to overplay their hands and may unintentionally strengthen the resistance they work so hard to overcome. Collaboration on the other hand can create a false equivalence that undermines science when opposing viewpoints are both presented as legitimate, when clearly they are not.

A perfect example of this is the decades’ old debate between genuine climate scientists and climate change deniers working for industry-funded, right-wing think tanks. Any advocacy to counteract alarming environmental problems such as climate change, ocean acidification or species extinction is by its nature difficult and adversarial.

I told Adam it’s hard to collaborate with someone who says climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, because engaging in such a specious argument only drags the conversation down to a ludicrous level. I also said when it comes to climate change, dialogue often fails, but lessons from the civil rights movement give us hope. They tell us that people who meet with resistance can eventually see results if they keep demanding it and never give up.

On the other hand, our social capacity for pluralism will either empower or prevent us from emerging from the climate crisis. Being right on the science is not enough. That’s why this book is so important. We need to develop our ability to work with the enemy, or as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “speak the truth but not to punish.”

via When ‘harmony’ is not good enough | Vancouver Sun

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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