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Dialectical processes


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...  in which dialectical processes (which craft agreement out of disagreement) are described, and contrasted with adversarial and consensual processes




Much human action is collective, as there are many tasks which are beyond the capacity of individuals.  Collective human action often requires collective decision.  Collective processes are needed for carrying out these decision-making activities.

And these collective decision-making processes come in several flavours. 


Adversarial processes

Most decision processes in common use are adversarial.  In the common jargon, they are win/lose.  One person's gain is another's loss.

You can usually pick them easily, though occasionally they are disguised as something else.  The key players in the activity try to present their case in a way which improves their chance of winning.  They tell only as much of the truth as supports their case.  They may even tell plausible lies.

We know these processes well.  Many family arguments are adversarial.  Debating is an adversarial process: each debater carefully selects information and presents it to argue for a particular position.

In conversation, adversarial approaches are revealed by a focus on disagreements:

A: "Such and such is true."

B: "What about ...?"

At least in the English-speaking world, adversarial processes can be found in politics, law, industrial relations, diplomacy (!) -- often almost to the exclusion of other processes.

In an Australian (or English or US) law court, the prosecution tries to demonstrate that the accused is guilty.  The defence is as determined to prove innocence.  Neither of them could be said to be interested in telling the whole truth, even if they have taken an oath to do so.

Adversarial processes are competitive.  There are winners and losers, usually more losers than winners.  Our economy is competitive.  Much of our education system is competitive.  So are most of our sports, and many other activities.


There is also a variety of adversarial process which is sometimes called compromise.  All parties get some of what they want.  Few, if any, get all of it.  They might be called "partial win / partial win".

Such processes tend to be composed on many smaller decisions, many of which are win/lose.  The people in the process share the wins and losses. 


Soft consensus

Another family of processes has very different qualities.  These processes try to satisfy all parties.  They are commonly known as consensual or win/win.

Sometimes there is enough agreement between people to provide quick outcomes that are good for all.  Consensual processes can then yield easy and satisfying decisions.

For example, an early step of a search conference asks people to define a future ideal: a "vision".  There is often immediate and high agreement -- more than people expect.

In conversation, soft consensus reveals itself in the way common ground is sought:

A: "Such and such is true."

B: "I agree that such and such is true in these circumstances."

But sometimes this form of consensus does not work.  Some decisions can't be made using those consensual processes which focus on agreement.  (I'll call them "soft consensus", to distinguish them from the processes we'll examine next.)


Dialectical processes: hard consensus

A third family of processes is often regarded as part of the consensual family.  The differences are so great, however, that this may be a poor categorisation.  I'll call them dialectic processes.

Certainly, these processes are win/win in intent.  The way they go about achieving the outcomes is in marked contrast to the approaches common in consensual processes.

Consensual processes identify and record agreements that already exist (though they may not previously have been recognised).  Dialectic processes focus on _disagreements_, which they seek to turn into agreements.  Out of the dialectic between opposing views, greater understanding emerges.

In conversation, dialectical processes reveal themselves by a willingness to express disagreement, at the same time striving for agreement:

A: "Such and such is true."

B: "I wouldn't have thought so.  But I'm interested in your
         view.  Tell me more."


The style of dialectic processes, too, is very different.  Within minutes of experiencing a dialectical process you would recognise it as something quite apart from either adversarial processes, or those which use soft consensus.

Dialectical processes display some of the properties of adversarial processes.  There is directness, and a willingness to express disagreement.  However, the disagreement is not used as a bludgeon to win submission from the other person.  It is used as a way of pooling information in the pursuit of better decision-making.

In other respects, dialectical processes can resemble the processes of soft consensus.  There is a pursuit of agreement.  There is respect for people.

It differs from both adversarial and consensual processes in that it avoids the defensive behaviours of fight and flight. 


Creating dialectic

To create dialectic requires appropriate processes.  These may be structured or unstructured.

The structured approach resembles cooperative negotiation or conflict resolution.  People can be encouraged to engage in an exercise in mutual education.  Most important, I think, is the choice of suitable steps which allow all voices and views to be heard, and none to dominate.

Some helpful elements include the following:

  • Build a climate where all participants involve themselves in a cooperative attempts to reach the decisions which best take account of all the available information.
  • Allow people time to decide their position uninfluenced by others, while encouraging them to be willing to change that position.
  • Structure the process so that each person is given the opportunity to present their view.
  • Encourage them to provide information to others without being either adversarial or "persuasive".  I often find it useful to adopt the groundrule "do inform, don't persuade".
  • Provide opportunities to ask questions for clarification (but not for argument) after each presentation of information.
  • Use a cyclic process, alternating information-giving with decision-making.  Encourage tentative decisions so that people don't back themselves (or each other) into a corner.

On other occasions, your own communication style can do much to create an appropriate climate.  I assume that the most useful communication is directed towards two goals:

  • drawing people's attention to the ways in which their style of communication detracts from the desired climate
  • doing this in a way which is both unmistakeably clear and supportive and affirming of the individual.

Such communication typically has three components 1:

  • a clear description of the behaviour which occurred, and its tangible outcomes on the process
  • an interpretation of the behaviour, clearly labelled as the possibly inaccurate opinion of the speaker, and expressed tentatively
  • genuine encouragement for the person or people concerned to offer a different interpretation.

For example:

"John, when Sally offered a suggestion a few minutes ago, you immediately responded 'That won't work.' Since then, Sally has been quiet.  My recollection is that this has happened before.

"If you had said that to me, I'd have felt put down, and I assume that might be how Sally is feeling.  I'd also be genuinely interested to know your perception of what happened." 2

The components need not be presented in this order. 



  1. There are many descriptions of such communication styles.  The one given here is based on that of Viviane Robinson Problem-based methodology: research for the improvement of practice (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1993).  This, in turn, was derived from the work of Chris Argyris, for example Overcoming organisational defenses: facilitating organisational learning (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1990). 
  2. This is just one of the many ways in which this might be said.  It is not my intention to offer it as a detailed recipe.  My hope is that, if you find it useful, you'll use it as a guide to help you find a way that suits your own speech style and language.  If you don't really mean what you say, it may not work.



Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1995-1997.  This document may be copied if it is not included in documents sold at a profit, and this and the following notice are included.

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1997) Dialectical processes   [On line].  Available at




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