Either/Or: Will it Ever End?

September 20, 2009

Republican or Democrat, Protestant or Catholic, right or wrong? That formulation is the basis of most human dialogue. Either I am right or I am wrong. More definitively, you are right or I am right. It can’t possibly be both.

And so it goes; family conflict, church conflict, health care policy, legislative reform. We must choose one position over the other. This false dichotomy has immobilized discourse and limited achievement and innovation. Why is it that debates can only be won or lost? To quote the haunting song from the 70’s, “Is that all there is?”

In the current national agony about “whither civility?”, the possibility of “both/and” has been ignored. Was Serena right or wrong? Was Kanye right or wrong? Who was right, Rep. Wilson or Pres. Obama? The trap we find ourselves in is our assumption that right is expressed through might, or vice versa. We have lost sight of the possibility that right and might are not mandatory corollaries.

Clearly, our culture affirms that being right justifies the exercise of might. In turn, the most mighty are bound to be right. Are we bound to follow this binary path to our destruction as a society?

Absolutely not. Transformative dialogue can shape new realities out of formerly intransigent positions. The essence of collaboration is being “hard on the issues and soft on the people”. investing deeply in the search for solutions to the issues that divide us and working hard to preserve the relationships we share is the definition of collaboration.

We can learn the skills of collaboration which are so obviously countercultural. We can take two great and diametrically opposed ideas and fashion them into an innovative new reality which is not defined by the limitations of either opposed position.

Note the management theories of six sigma and system theory. Two more opposing perspectives on organizational development and management excellence hardly could be conceived. Yet the evidence is mounting that successful business models are finding the way to merge these two strong forces into an exciting new tool for performance, productivity and profitability. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/business/06proto.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=six%20sigma&st=cse

What about health care, MTV awards, out of bounds calls, or “who’s in charge at church”? Can we collaborate even there? Why not give it a try? Our either/or tactics aren’t “advancing the ball.” very far down field.

What have we learned from our defining moments?

September 11, 2009

We all have them.  Those moments you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when it happened.  The “it” may have been the assassination of President Kennedy (for us old folks), the Challenger disaster for some of us and September 11 for all of us.  The world shifted, the foundations were shaken and the world was never the same after moments like that.

Eight years after 9/11, 23 years after the Challenger disaster and 46 years after President Kennedy was assassinated are there lessons we have learned?  For me each of those events reflect our poorly developed ability to deal with conflict.  JFK died because an ideologue decided self-help in the form of a rifle, two bullets  and a scope was the way to settle a score.  Challenger exploded because NASA gave no credence to the vendor that manufactured the O-ring that failed on January 28, 1986 in the unplanned for cold of a Florida winter morning.  The vendor warned of failure, but the warning was ignored, lives were lost unnecessarily and the space program was set back a decade or more while shame and blame were fixed.  9/11 occurred because FBI warnings went unheeded by a whistleblower (Colleen Rowley) and radicals decided that mass murder was the best way to win an argument.  These are all people and system failures.

How are we doing in 2009?  Town Hall muggings and the breakdown of civil behavior in a Joint Session of Congress suggest we have not matured very much.  When violence and irrational outbursts are the means by which we win or lose, why should we expect anything different?

What would our culture be like if we learned to cultivate collaboration and generate respectful conversations of consequence?  Disagreements need not result in violence, calamity and death.  It is possible to dialogue our way into better outcomes.  Do we have the courage to engage?  Can we afford not to?

Let’s check back in another eight, 23 or 46 years and see how we have done.