“Rather than focusing only on what is false or who or what is at fault, wisdom involves focusing on whoever and whatever is true, whole, wholesome, valid, and right.” — Forrest Landry
This blog is the third and final part of a series on the culture war. In part one, I gave an overview of the cultural landscape and offered a narrative of how we arrived at the present situation. I also proposed a set of mental models and behaviours the reader might consider adopting to navigate this increasingly tribal and polarised moment.
In part two, I expanded on a particular idea from part one called the “Grey Pill’ while resetting it within the context of overcoming the ingrained human desire to seek out certainty and how one might instead willingly embrace nuanced uncertainty to avoid becoming stuck in ideological traps.
In this third blog, I introduce a new offline conversation model that may enable more generative dialogue for people who earnestly wish to build bridges across opposing ideological positions and identify new ways of moving forward collectively on culturally divisive issues.
What is a generative conversation?
A generative conversation is a dialogue (usually face to face) among people interested in learning and exchanging ideas about a subject they’ve pre-agreed to discuss. An effective generative conversation has people sharing perspectives, questions and ideas that produce a shared understanding and help identify a sense of direction or conclusion.
The Compassionate System Leadership website provides the following definition: generative conversations are “conversations that generate shared meaning and lead to action. They involve an authentic exchange of sharing and inquiry, leading to the emergence of new knowledge or understanding that could not have been created individually.”
The model I’m introducing in this blog is called “The ‘5P’ Model (For Generative Conversations Across Cultural Divides)”, named as such for no real reason other than because the operative word at each stage begins with the letter ‘P’. The model is designed in accordance with the Stephen R Covey principle to ‘seek first to understand, then to be understood.’
The accompanying infographic summarises the model’s five stages.
Let’s now step through the stages and consider the different elements contained within each one.
1. What cultural PROBLEMS should we challenge to enable more effective generative conversations?
The first order aims of The ‘5P’ Model is to dampen the cognitive bias, premature certainty and groupthink that so often act as barriers to productive dialogue on ‘hot button’ subjects at this time, such as vaccines, BLM, wokeism, Brexit, gender, etc. While also promoting higher-order thinking leading to increased cross-participant understanding and synergistic outputs on the subjects discussed.
If the model successfully generates the stated first-order outputs, the desired second-order impacts are to lessen the tendencies towards polarisation and tribalism in the culture at large.
2. What PRINCIPLES can we apply to encourage generative conversations?
Kindness, compassion, generosity, sincerity, care, integrity, friendliness, consideration… These are all principles that give rise to constructive generative conversations, as are others. However, for The ‘5P’ Model, I suggest the following principles should act as our primary guidelines.
Our first commitment is to good-faith dialogue. Generative conversations can only happen in good faith. If someone is lying or deceitful or has a hidden agenda, then the exchange is not in good faith.
Next is a commitment to the principle of charity, which suggests we should try to understand ideas before criticising them. Our arguments should aim at finding the truth, not winning the ‘fight’. This means we should be charitable to other participants by trying to find as much sense in their thinking as we can.
Lastly, we must commit to intellectual humility as a guide to our intellectual conduct. Intellectual humility involves recognising and owning our intellectual limitations in the service of pursuing deeper knowledge, truth and understanding.
We might start by asking ourselves why are we participating in the conversation? Hopefully, the answer will be an earnest desire to compare ideas, learn with others, and experience authentic connection while striving for higher-order thinking. If you are participating only to double down on your own biases, further narrative warfare, seem smart, or be ‘right’, then this is not the conversation modality for you. A generative conversation will only bear fruit if we align with the purpose of the discussion and our true motives.
From there, we should be honest to ourselves and others about our biases and ideological positions and admit to the epistemic frameworks and value structures from which we are operating. In doing so, we abandon the pretence to neutrality and open the door to honest engagement.
Rule Omega is a term coined by philosopher, Jordan Hall, and Existential Risk Analyst, Daniel Schmachtenberger. It is a principle that states every message contains some signal and some noise and that we can train ourselves to distinguish truth from nonsense. We may, for instance, disagree with the vast majority of what a participant is saying but that doesn’t mean there isn’t at least some signal in what is being said. If we train ourselves to listen well enough, we might hear a kernel of truth and discern an insight we hadn’t yet considered.
To successfully apply Rule Omega requires attunement and the spirit of generosity to others. Especially people who hold opposing opinions to our own, usually those outside our information bubble or ideological group. As a principle, Rule Omega can only be applied to someone willing to work with others in good faith; it wouldn’t, for example, be applied to a conman in the street. Rule Omega signifies a commitment to venturing into places that make us feel uncomfortable and a willingness to uncover the partial ‘truths’ other participants hold.
3. How can we PREPARE ourselves to engage in generative conversations?
To prepare ourselves for embodied engagement in the conversation, we might consider utilising the following techniques. The intention at this stage is to create an optimal state of openness and curiosity and ready ourselves for full and authentic interaction with others during the practice stage. The technique used at this point will be dependent on the subject addressed. In some cases, we might use more than one.
3–2–1 Shadow Process
The ‘shadow’ is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, describing aspects of the personality we choose to repress and reject. We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t like (or believe society won’t accept), so we push them down into our unconscious psyches. This collection of repressed aspects of our identity that Jung referred to as our ‘shadow self’.
The problem is that we are not necessarily aware of these parts of our personality that we reject. Our minds pretend they do not exist. However, although denied, we don’t get rid of them. They become part of our unconscious. Trouble arises in our lives when we fail to see them, manifesting in behaviours such as rage, envy, greed, selfishness, desire, etc.
‘Shadow work’ is to engage with and integrate these hidden aspects of ourselves into our conscious minds. Exploring our shadow side gives us tremendous opportunities for growth and development. We see ourselves more clearly as we integrate our shadow sides and come to terms with our darker halves. We become more grounded, human and whole.
When we accept our own darker parts, it is easier to accept the shadow in others. As a result, other people’s behaviour doesn’t trigger us as easily. Communication with others becomes much more accessible and organic. In seeing others and ourselves as we are, we’ll have a more transparent lens with which to view the world. When we’re self-aware, we can assess our environments more accurately. We’ll see others and evaluate situations with greater clarity, compassion and understanding.
There are several shadow work techniques we can use. The most beneficial technique I’ve personally tried, and, as such, I advocate using in The ‘5P’ Model, is the ‘3–2–1 Process’ designed by the teacher of Integral Spirituality and Zen, Diane Musho Hamilton. The 3–2–1 Process is a simple and productive method for working with the shadow and is described in detail here on the Integral Life website.
Another technique we can use to enter the desired state for effective generative discussion is Mindfulness Meditation, which, as the name suggests, combines meditation and mindfulness practices.
This technique is used to help us to focus entirely on ‘the now’. It enables us to acknowledge and accept our thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgment, as our minds, bodies and speech come into alignment with the environment. Mindfulness Meditation is a practice that creates a state of total presence, without reactivity and reduces the potential of being overwhelmed by a situation.
There are many different Mindfulness Meditation techniques one can adopt. The Very Well Mind website presents a straightforward guide.
Pioneering trauma researcher Dr Stephen Porges created Polyvagal Theory. It explains how the nervous system responds to threats and the need for psychological safety. The theory has become hugely influential in the world of counselling and therapy.
Polyvagal Theory looks at the function of the Vagus nerve, the longest in the body, which goes to all the major organs and links to the brain and also the muscles of the face and voice. It moderates feelings of trust and safety and shows how that connects to our social engagement system and therefore transmits to and from others.
Curiosity and openness are essential components of a generative conversation intended to cover new ground or change minds. Polyvagal Theory shows how, if we are not feeling safe, we cannot take in further information — it is impossible to be curious and defensive at the same time.
Vagal Breathing allows us to ‘hack’ our physiology to overcome our threat response and create the state of curiosity and openness we’re seeking. The technique is simple and only needs a few minutes of practice to get the full benefits.
4. What PRACTICES can we deploy to forge generative conversations?
The practices I suggest we might deploy for the interactive stage of the model I’ve chosen with the spirit of nonviolent communication (NVC) in mind. NVC is an approach to dialogue that focuses on practical strategies for deep listening designed to meet the needs of all parties involved. As per stage 3, the practice we deploy at this point will depend on the subject addressed. Again, in some cases, we may use more than one.
The circling process allows participants to offer their own perspectives without interruption. Circling has a wide variety of purposes: conflict resolution, healing, support, decision making, information exchange and relationship development. Circling offers an alternative to traditional meeting processes that often rely on hierarchy, win-lose positioning and argumentation.
There are several different formats we might adopt for circling sessions. For The ‘5P’ Model, I’ve opted in favour of the sequential format, which allows one person to speaks at a time, and the opportunity to speak moves in one direction around the circle. Each person waits to speak until their turn, and no one may interrupt.
Sequential circling is structured around subjects or questions raised by the circle moderator. Because it strictly forbids back-and-forth argument, the sequential format offers a great deal of decorum. Individuals who want to respond to something that has been said must be patient and wait until it is their turn to speak. Sequential circling encourages people to listen more and talk less.
William MacAskill, one of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement, states that traditional political debates aim to defend a particular point of view rather than to figure out what the truth is. MacAskill says it is a combative rather than collaborative interaction, and rhetoric tends to take precedence over evidence and logic.
To hold more generative debates, MacAskill suggests we might instead try ‘anti-debates’, where participants discuss a subject, stating their views at the outset. The benefit of anti-debates is that participants are given the opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their knowledge, humility and the maturity to admit when they are wrong in a way that does not lose face. Participants are scored by a judge or panel of judges on a set of criteria determined to be epistemically valuable, such as:
- The quality and breadth of arguments given;
- An understanding of the opposite point of view (and avoidance of ‘straw man’);
- An appropriate degree of belief given the level of evidence at hand;
- A willingness to change our minds in face of a contrary argument.
Peter Limberg of The Stoa has outlined what an anti-debate might look like in practice, detailing some key ingredients alongside MacAskill’s proposed judging criteria:
- A pre-debate commitment to readiness to change opinion. All participants would have to verbally articulate a commitment to a good-faith debate;
- A demonstration of understanding the other side’s argument before providing disagreements. There should be a clear and agreed-upon “sign-off” mechanism, e.g. some acknowledgement that the speaker’s argument has been understood;
- A no-interruption rule. All participants have a chance to articulate their positions and disagreements without verbal intrusion;
- A debate design that rewards points for reevaluation and admissions of uncertainty;
- A design where ‘victory’ is collaborative: Participants win or lose together if they shift their opinions toward or away from each other.
5. What generative PAYOFFS would determine if the conversations are successful?
To determine if the conversations are successful, we can consider the following outcomes: the degree of coherence and emergence achieved.
To determine the degree to which coherence has been achieved, participants will be tasked with demonstrating how well they can inhabit another participant’s position. This ‘steelmanning’ process means communicating back what we have come to understand their position to be. We will attempt to argue the position as strongly as possible to see if we have understood correctly. This process helps to advance our understanding and perspective-taking capacities.
To assess the degree of emergence, we will look to demonstrate that a move towards synthesis and higher-order thinking has been achieved. The thesis of one position and the antithesis of another are both not true. They contain partial truths but are not completely true. Synthesis means to move toward greater integration of truth across positions, but not necessarily to arrive immediately at the whole truth. Synthesis is an ongoing process. Although we may achieve a higher order of understanding during these conversations, we will still have fewer pieces of information than the total reality about the issue discussed. Therefore, as demonstrated by the arrow on the right in the infographic linking stage five to stage one, we will continue building the synthesis with further conversations. And so on we go. Here is an example of the type of emergence we would be striving for on the Holmgreen permaculture website.
The ultimate goal of The ‘5P’ Model is for it to become a driver for people to understand each other and the world better and re-instantiate the possibility of participatory coordination while downregulating the degree of tribalism and polarisation in the culture at large.
I do not claim to hold any particular expertise in this area. While designed out of a genuine desire for improved sensemaking and better collective understanding, this model and previous blogs also function as exercises in organising my own thinking. That being said, the propositions I outline in this blog derive from my personal experience using each of the different techniques. Experience I’ve gained running corporate events, participating in self-development retreats, political activism and obsessive study.