More Dialogues, Fewer Debates: Addressing Complex Problems

The issues we face today can be considered ‘wicked complex problems’. They are complex because they involve multiple defensible values and many stakeholders. They are wicked because it is difficult to reach a conclusion where everybody wins. So, how we discuss these issues, as well as the mentality and assumptions we bring to such discussions, will determine whether we will be more divided than before and whether our society will be better off.

It is first and foremost important to distinguish between debates, discussions and dialogues. It is common for us to interchange these words lightly thinking they all mean the same thing. For one, to debate a point is to be fixated on our own conclusions and attempt to argue our way to convince others that we are right. This is adversarial and it is unlikely that we can unravel complex problems when we come to the table with fixated points of view.

Having a discussion on the other hand, is somewhat more relaxed. It is done with a degree of open-mindedness which enables further exploration of the issue at hand. A discussion does not require us to challenge our own points of views and assumptions.

However, to have a dialogue requires some discipline, tremendous focus and constant reflection during the dialogue itself. To have a dialogue is when all parties come to the table ready to explore every aspects of the issue, including one another’s assumptions critically. In a dialogue, nothing is unchallenged. Therefore, to have a dialogue requires everyone to commit and be loyal to the pursuit of truth even if the outcome is something they personally do not agree with.

So, it is important for us to explore the state of our discussions in ANU, especially among us students.

To explore this, we did a very interesting exercise during our tutorial in the Vice-Chancellor Course: Unravelling Complexity. The tutorial group was broken up into four main stakeholder groups in the Cuts to University Funding discussion: the student body, the staff, the Chancellery and the University Council. We were given ten minutes to come up with a common agenda and twenty minutes to negotiate with the other stakeholder groups in a plenary session.

The outcome of the group discussion was a valuable reflection of the state of discussion that I find is prevalent at the ANU today, or at least what is perceived to be the prevalent state.The students representing the University Council and Chancellery insisted strongly on cutting staff and tutorials. The staff body decided to go on strike and the student body surprisingly decided to address the issue by writing position papers. It resulted in a dysfunctional university where teachers refused to teach, staff losttheir livelihoods and students suffered a degradation of their university experience. No one considered that aspart of the same University, we succeed or lose together.

Upon reflection, the very extreme outcome from the activity reflects the fact that we are likely to approach any topic with a pre-formed opinion and a solidified conclusion. This precludes any form of meaningful exploration of any particular issue.You can try going around campus to discuss environment issues, government policies or even refugee issues and it won’t take long before the discussion descends into arguments along political ideological lines.

This is a dangerous trend. Tremendously complex issues are simplified to binaries of right and wrong, which blinds us to reality and possible solutions. Take, for example, the refugee issue: there are humanitarian and human rights considerations and then there are considerations of sovereignty, national and border security; there are obligations and interests under a myriad of international agreements to consider,as well as the various treaty bodies, judicial considerations and interpretations for each treaties. It surprises me at times when students discuss this issue with fervent conviction. I sometimes wonder if they have understood and dealt with all these issues in a deeply reflective way in order to come to the justified conviction that they hold.

As such, ourtendency to adopt a point of view, conclude that it is right and that any opposition isusually misplaced or adopted by heartless and elitist individuals, will do nothing but injustice to the complexity of the issues at hand. It will further divide our community, which automatically compromises our ability to come together to solve a problem with many stakeholders.

We must be mindful of this issue in every one of our conversations. We must constantly be vigilant of what we are saying, why we are saying it, whether it helps to further the exploration of an issue and the movement towards its solution or conclusion. We must also be aware that dialogue is better than debate and a dialogue is one in which our own assumptions are examined and scrutinised in light of the assumptions of the other parties. Only in such a way can we be confident that we are moving forward with the issue in a way that brings our community together. For me, when it comes to complex issues involving nations and peoples, I think it is good to have differing opinions and to disagree with each other. However, such disagreements or arguments should lead to greater statesmanship for the people. It should not lead to divisiveness because when it does, statesmanship is compromised to the detriment of the people. If we can pull this off in ANU during our formative years in university, we might one day solve the problems of the world!