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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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.”