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Adam Kahane

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"Cracking Through the Egg Shell” (Argentina Dialogue)

Excerpted from Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities, pages 95-105
by Adam Kahane

I had the opportunity to witness generative dialogue in the shambles of Argentina. In December 2001, after three years of deepening recession and rising unemployment, Argentines marched, rioted, looted, and brought down their elected government. The country had five presidents in two weeks. When I started making trips to Argentina in the months that followed, things were going from bad to worse: the currency crashed, the country defaulted, banks closed, professionals emigrated. Suddenly, in a country that had had the highest standard of living in Latin America, one-half of the population was living in poverty, one-quarter in destitution, and children were dying of hunger.

Almost nobody believed that Argentines could solve their own problems. Month after month, political leaders failed to agree on an emergency reform program. Politicians hesitated to walk in the streets because people so despised them. One popular slogan was “They Must All Go!” International commentators wrote the country off. The conventional wisdom among both locals and foreigners was that Argentines were too closed, partisan, confrontational, and egotistical to sit down together and agree on what to do. I heard many quips: “The best business in the world is to buy Argentines for what they’re worth and sell them for what they think they’re worth.” “In Argentina, consensus means that you agree with me.” I was told over and over: “Argentines are incapable of dialogue.” The only solutions I heard people mention were ones imposed from outside or above: a new, strong, dynamic president—like Peron; an economic regime imposed by the International Monetary Fund; a military government.

In January 2002, at the height of this fatalism and messianism, some Argentines decided to try a new, more open approach. A small group of citizens, with the support of the government, the Catholic Church, and the United Nations Development Programme, launched a process they called “Argentine Dialogue.” They brought together hundreds of leaders from all parts of society in a series of roundtables, to talk about the crisis, to make proposals, and to act.

One of these roundtables focused on the issue of justice. Argentina’s judicial system was so inefficient, inaccessible, politicized, and corrupt that in many cases disputes couldn’t be resolved, nor contracts or laws enforced, nor human rights abuses contested. The problems in the justice system exemplified and were a central part of the accumulated problems in the larger Argentine system. Solutions for justice were critical to long-term solutions for the country.

Activists had been fighting for decades to reform the system, but had never been able to get agreement among a critical mass of the system’s leaders. Now six of these activists thought that the Argentine Dialogue provided them with an opportunity. “The crisis in our country is so severe,” one of them, Santiago Gallichio, said to me, “that people are willing to try to do things in a different way. We are in an open moment.”

When these activists invited me to work with them, I thought carefully about the stance I should take in doing this work. I decided to hold a position of unwavering optimism: to believe in the capacity of Argentines to resolve their problems through “the miraculous option.” I gave an interview to La Nación, the country’s newspaper of record: “The options for Argentina are violence or dialogue. You can wait for someone to impose a solution from on high, or you can sit together and work through a solution yourselves.”

In September 2002, we held a three-day workshop in a countryside hotel with fifty leaders of the justice system: judges, lawyers, citizens’ rights advocates, government officials, court workers, businesspeople, law professors, legal journalists, politicians. Although many of them knew each other from previous formal encounters in courtrooms or classrooms, this workshop was organized differently. No papers were presented and no resolutions passed. Instead they talked, in small groups and in plenary, about the justice system, what it had inherited from its past, what was certain and uncertain about its future, their vision of the future they wanted, and what points of leverage would shift the system towards that vision.

After dinner on the second day, the team members sat in a circle of comfortable chairs. The meeting room was now lit with candles and stocked with wine and whisky. One of my cofacilitators, Paraguayan Jorge Talavera, invited each person to tell a personal story that might shed light on why they had chosen to participate in this work. We heard twenty stories, all of them from the heart. In four of the first stories, the storyteller or someone in their family had almost died—choking, cancer, a coma—and then miraculously had come back to life. Many of the stories dealt with terrible injustices suffered by the storyteller or a member of their family and how they had vowed to fight for a better system of justice. Two men sitting next to one another spoke of fathers imprisoned for political reasons—by opposing political factions. Finally, one man, who all day had been pacing and fidgeting on the edge of the group, cleared his throat and launched into a long love poem. It was a stunning conclusion to a moving evening.

On the final morning of the workshop, the group’s conversations and ideas came together quickly. Team members announced initiatives that they wanted to spearhead, and groups formed around these leaders to make plans. In the months after the workshop, they executed these plans, convened again and made new plans, and executed these as well. They were on their way towards creating a new reality.

Over the course of these three days, a diverse and fragmented group of fifty leaders who were part of a complex, stuck problem made dramatic progress in unsticking it. They all arrived with their own perspectives and projects, disconnected and in many cases at odds with those of others. Many of them were despairing and resigned to a future that was spiraling downwards. By the time they left, they had built a broad and aligned coalition for change, with new and reoriented projects and teams, grounded in a shared sense of their situation and what they needed to do about it. Most of them left hopeful and engaged in building the future up again. In reclaiming and thereby shifting the future of the justice system, they were contributing to shifting the future of the country.

I was impressed with what the group accomplished and with the intelligence and openheartedness with which they accomplished it. I did not say very much during the workshop—Talavera and a team of Argentine facilitators led most of the sessions —and I enjoyed sitting and listening and appreciating the beauty of the unfolding. The Mont Fleur meetings had probably also been characterized by such a beautiful, generative unfolding, but at the time I hadn’t been experienced or open enough to see it. In Argentina, I was committed to helping the group make progress in their work, and yet able to be present and relaxed through the meeting’s usual ups and downs.

National leaders who were not at the workshop noticed that this particular approach to reforming the justice system had accomplished something different and important, which offered encouragement and lessons for other dialogic reform efforts. The day after the workshop, the lead editorial in La Nación proclaimed:

When on January 14, 2002, citizens from different socioeconomic, political, and ideological backgrounds sat at the Argentine Dialogue table, many regarded this attempt with that unhealthy skepticism of those that believe that the Argentines have an innate and unredeemable lack of capacity. . . . Despite all this, the willingness of citizens to dialogue kept confidence alive and . . . showed that it was possible to build consensus, hardly perceptible at some sectoral tables but oozing with hope in the case of the one focusing on the reform of the justice system. An experiment never before tried in our country has just started up that will show others willing to dialogue how to do so.

This success was achieved through a shift in the way the team members talked and listened. They came to the meeting prepared—as befitted a group of lawyers and judges—to make their arguments and to judge the arguments of others. At the beginning they were nervous and cautious, not so much listening as waiting for their turn to pontificate, to deliver their official, already-thought-through speeches. As they relaxed and got caught up in the excitement of the work and the engaging process, they started listening more openly and speaking more spontaneously and frankly.

In the closing session of the meeting, one team member reflected on what had happened:

A physical feeling that we often have here in Argentina is that we are submerged under water like divers. Each one of us has our own idea, an idea which we have to convey through gestures, and the others don’t quite understand what the idea is. I think that this meeting surfaced those ideas like floating blocks, towards which the divers swam up. When we reached the surface, we took off our divers’ suits, and started to voice our ideas and to turn them into agreements.

On the final morning, the team made their action plans quickly and fluidly, completing each other’s sentences. During the session of final comments, they spoke as one. “We overcame the ‘Tango Effect,’” one judge said in the closing session, “that dramatic, nostalgic, fatalistic Argentine way of saying, ‘We cannot make it.’”

Three days of dialogue did not, of course, accomplish the reform of the justice system. What it did was shift an old, degenerating system suffering from the apartheid syndrome onto a new, more open, regenerating path—as had been foreshadowed in the second evening’s stories of death and resurrection. One team member said we were engaged in a process of “reforestation.” We were planting seedlings of a new ecology, which now needed protecting and nurturing. With time, these seedlings could replace the old ecology.

The workshop participants demonstrated that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Argentines are capable of dialogue and of working together. Underneath the shift in the way they talked and listened was a shift in the way they positioned themselves in relation to the judicial system. At the beginning they were observers of the system, standing outside of it, complaining and blaming others—the government, the Supreme Court, each other—for its terrible state. By the end they were committed, creative actors. One of them said in the closing session:

I am pleased that somehow I am doing something so that the youth, the capable people, do not leave my country. When I get back home I can tell my children, “Look, it is possible, you just have to sit down and work, each from your own place, in order to rebuild our country.” Once again we feel proud to say, “I am staying because I am sure that it is going to be the best thing I can do for my future and that of my community.”

This key shift from observer to actor, from reactor to creator, was particularly meaningful against the backdrop of Argentine messianism. Rather than watch and wait and pray for a new president or boss or benefactor who would create a better future for them, they chose to start the work themselves. At the end of 2002, Christina Calvo, one of the Catholic Church’s lay leaders of the Argentine Dialogue, made this same point with a religious image. She sent out a Christmas card with this message:

I remember that during the height of the crisis early in December 2001, many of us were upset that our beautiful Christmas was being ruined. But Jesus did not change the time in which he was called upon to be born. In the middle of persecutions, inequalities, and empires, his life marked the beginning of a new epoch. May we have the force to imitate him!

A problem that is generatively complex cannot be solved with a prepackaged solution from the past. A solution has to be worked out as the situation unfolds, through a creative, emergent, generative process. This Argentine workshop was part of such a process: it produced results that were not anticipated or proposed at the outset.

The team achieved this generativity through a conversation that went through three phases. First, it diverged, when they raised a lot of different ideas about what was going on in the justice system. Then it emerged, when they developed new ideas and also a sense of what this all meant and what they had to do. And then it converged, when they decided on their initiatives and plans.

The team found the middle, emerging phase unfamiliar and frustrating. As lawyers and judges, they were used to linear problem- solving processes, with ideas presented, debated, and judged in a preset sequence. But I once explained these phases to a Hollywood screenwriter, and he responded, “I recognize that. When a group of us are working on a script, tossing ideas around, what you call ‘emerging’ is what we call ‘cooking.’ New ideas just come up and you don’t know who said them or where they came from.”

The point at which the conversation turned, and the team’s sense of what they had to do emerged, occurred during the evening storytelling session. The participants’ talking and listening opened up dramatically. Santiago Gallichio, flabbergasted, described the evening by saying: “The thin shell of the egg broke and everything spilled out!” The boundary that separates us from others is thin, and simple—although not always easy—to crack through.

That evening the participants listened intently, with empathy and wonder, and they spoke surprisingly personally and emotionally. They listened with and spoke from their hearts. Their stories were the window through which they could see two critical phenomena: each other as fellow humans and actors and, beyond the individuals, what was emerging in the situation as a whole and what it demanded of them. Here were what Scharmer had called reflective and generative dialogue.

The stories enabled the participants to understand their individual and group roles as part of the problem and what they needed to do to be part of the solution. These understandings can occur through any kind of open conversation, but they often occur through personal storytelling. When people choose to tell a personal story in such a group, they are revealing something of themselves. They are sharing what matters to them about this problem. Furthermore, because (in Carl Rogers’ paradoxical phrase) “what is most personal is most universal,” these stories also illuminate the source of the group’s shared commitment.

The point at which a team achieves such a creative “click” can, in the context of a crisis like Argentina’s, be dramatic. But in more ordinary circumstances, it can be subtle. I have seen this same click in a group of Canadian civil servants, as they remembered the value of public service that had drawn them to join the government in the first place. I have seen it in a group of American accountants, as they remembered the vital role their profession was supposed to play in ensuring the integrity of financial markets. The common theme in all of these cases is that the participants were able to sense (or remember) what the larger purpose was for their work and why it mattered to them individually and as a group—the sources of their shared commitment.

In order to solve tough problems, we need more than shared new ideas. We also need shared commitment. We need a sense of the whole and what it demands of us.

One year later, at the end of 2003, I went to Argentina again. The economic, political, and social state of the country was recovering. This was due in part to the work of the Argentine Dialogue. Participants had not only brokered specific agreements to address the crisis—for example, an emergency subsidy for impoverished families—but also helped to de-escalate the conflict through the safe spaces it opened up for multi-stakeholder conversations.

I attended a meeting of the members of the justice dialogue team. They were reviewing what had happened in the judicial system in the fifteen months since our first workshop. They were delighted and also flummoxed.

The government was in the process of implementing a sweeping program of judicial reform (including replacing most members of the Supreme Court) that was completely in line with the vision that the team had articulated at that first workshop. And yet the team couldn’t make out, looking back over the intervening months, the exact cause and effect between the workshop and the current reforms. Clearly they had influenced that change in the system—but they had not controlled it. They had provided visible leadership of the judicial reform effort and, at the same time, had simply been a small manifestation of their time’s much larger reform movement. I talked this over with Ramón Brenna, a thoughtful member of the team who had been working on judicial reform for decades. “This group is used to forcing change,” he said. “But in this case we generated change. We are struggling to understand what that means.”

Later I spoke about this distinction at length with my colleague Alain Wouters, with whom I had worked at Shell. He has a solid theoretical and practical understanding of how change occurs in complex systems. While I had been working in Argentina, he had been doing similar, high-stakes, multi-stakeholder work in Burundi. “I think,” he said, “that ‘solving tough problems’ doesn’t accurately describe what we and these teams are doing. When we talk about ‘solving a problem,’ we imply that we stand apart from the problem and can study it objectively and control it mechanically, with cause producing effect, as we would with a broken-down car. But this isn’t a good model of our increasingly complex and interdependent and rapidly changing world. There is not ‘a’ problem out there that we can react to and fix. There is a ‘problem situation’ of which each of us is a part, the way an organ is part of a body. We can’t see the situation objectively: we can just appreciate it subjectively. We affect the situation and it affects us. The best we can do is to engage with it from multiple perspectives, and try, in action-learning mode, to improve it. It’s more like unfolding a marriage than it is like fixing a car.

“But this way of understanding the world,” he continued, “has serious consequences. If we admit that we are part of co-creating the way things are, then we are also co-responsible for the way things are. This is the moral and political challenge implicit in the comment Torbert made to you, that ‘if you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.’ This was the daunting realization that we both had ten years ago in Shell, when we sensed the limitation of writing scenarios of the future as if we and Shell had no impact on how the future would unfold.

“And this way of understanding the world has another implication that is even more deeply challenging. This world is too complex and interdependent and rapidly changing for us to be able to reason through everything that is going on. We can no longer rely only on making sense of the whole of what is going on: we also have to sense it. This requires us to access a deeper, nonrational, more ancient kind of knowing.”

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