Objection Your Honour!

The Judge sits at the bench, wig precariously placed upon her head, gavel in hand ready to call proceedings to order. Counsel for the plaintiff solemnly reads a litany of grievances, the lawyers for the respondent shake their heads and scowl in disbelief.

Meanwhile, in Parliament buildings across the country, you will hear exchanges similar to this:

“I call upon the Minister, the Right Honourable Billy Bloggs….”

“Mister Speaker, once again I’m forced to my feet to refute the ludicrous claims of the honourable gentleman opposite on this matter….”

And so it plays out, day after day. The claims and counter claims, assertions and rebuttals that characterize our systems of law and Government.

The adversarial process is enshrined in our national institutions, indeed it is a key pillar of our Westminster System of Government. One side’s role (the Government, or the plaintiff, or the Crown) is to put forward a set of views. The other side’s role (the Opposition, the respondent, or the defendant) is to refute this and present a contrary point of view.

And where is the truth in all of this? Sadly, the truth is often a casualty; collateral damage in the theatre of debate. We like to believe that issues are decided on evidence, data, according to the facts. But anyone who has listened to Parliamentary debate, or witnessed even a short hearing in legal proceedings, knows that our processes bring a subjective lens to even the most objective truths. Economic data, social statistics, forensic evidence, and witness testimony are subject to endless reinterpretation, challenge, and cross examination. Often with both sides claiming that the very same facts support completely contrary views.

And where do our lawyers and politicians learn these skills? Where did they practice the cut and thrust of verbal conflict? We teach it in debating classes and clubs in schools and universities across the country. If you’ve ever been to a formal debate, you’ll know that points are awarded both for presenting a cogent argument and for undermining and effectively rebutting the alternative point of view.

The adversarial process is so deeply entrenched in our society, it is no wonder that vigorous challenge and robust conflict is seen as an appropriate, even desirable way of getting to decisions and solutions, in even the most senior teams. I’ll present my facts, you present your facts, we each pick holes in the others’ argument, may the best man or woman win (statistically speaking, it is way more likely to be a man, but that’s another blog for another day).

For want of a better model, we perpetuate old, outdated (think Rumpole of the Bailey) ways of addressing our most challenging issues.

Enter Peter Senge and his model for what he calls, the Dialogue approach. How would we approach our interactions if our aim was learning rather than convincing? What might emerge if we valued understanding more than winning? How might we seek the truth if that was our only agenda, and we sought to work with rather than against those who see things differently to us?

In Senge’s model, Dialogue has three main components:

  • ¾     Reflection: Becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning
  • ¾     Advocacy: Making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others
  • ¾     Inquiry: Inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning

Reflection is important throughout the whole process. It ensures you are aware of your own values, assumptions, conclusions and beliefs, and the influence these are having on your actions and the data you are selecting in the outer world.

Questions to guide reflection include:

  • What core beliefs and values that I hold, may influence my thinking on this issue?
  • What unconscious biases or beliefs may be playing a part?
  • Are there facts/evidence I’m not weighing sufficiently because it challenges my point of view?
  • What anxieties, defenses, hard-wired feelings, judgements, and assumptions might trigger me so that I’m not attending to what is going on with others?
  • Why am I so damn sure that I’m right? (what I sometimes call ‘terminal certainty’)

Advocacy is making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others by:

  • Stating your assumptions and the data that led to them
  • Explaining your assumptions
  • Making your reasoning explicit
  • Explaining the context of your point of view; who will be affected, and how they will be affected
  • Publicly testing your conclusions and assumptions by encouraging others to explore your models, assumptions, and data
  • Refraining from defensiveness when your ideas are questioned
  • Revealing where you are least clear on your thinking
  • Listening and staying open


inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning; asking them to make their thinking process visible by:

  • Finding out the data they are operating from
  • Using neutral language; not leading the other person
  • Drawing out their reasoning
  • Explaining your reason for enquiring, and how that relates to your own concerns and interests
  • Comparing your assumptions with others
  • Testing what they are saying by asking for a broader context or examples
  • Checking your understanding of what they have said
  • Listening for the new understanding that may emerge, not for ways of destroying their argument or promoting your own agenda

Dialogue is challenging. It requires high degrees of self-awareness, and sometimes the suspension of life-long habits. It also requires you to demonstrate the elusive quality of mindfulness; being truly present to what you and others are saying, thinking, and feeling, without fusing or merging those thoughts and feelings. It’s hard. In fact, the only thing I know of that is harder than Dialogue, is trying to run effective organisations without the breakthrough thinking, insight, collaboration, and engagement that Dialogue can unleash. 

    Written by Marshall Cowley, Senior Consultant, Dattner Grant


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Modified on 22/12/2015 12:58:20 PM.