When you consider the nature of today’s public discourse – with the right screaming at the left and the left shouting at the right – you hear the noise loud and clear, but no one is ever really listening. And if they ARE listening, it isn’t to understand the logic behind an opposing argument; it’s to collect punch lines that bolster one’s own point of view. People listen selectively for ammunition they can repeat at cocktail parties or share in blog posts. I call it ammunition because it rarely serves to strengthen one’s own position; instead, it’s aimed at shooting holes in another’s point of view and, too often, in a fashion that’s intellectually dishonest.
One of my favorites attributes of the Peer Advisory Group is that it is a safe haven for what scholars would describe as “skilled discussion.” It’s a place where people see others as special rather than different. A setting where participants really listen to one another. And more importantly, an environment that embodies Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It’s not the place for debate – where the goal is to be right. Nor is it the place for pure dialogue, because helping members come to a decision is an essential benefit of the interaction. It is where skilled discussion lives and thrives! Here’s the best definition I’ve found for it:
“A way of talking that leads to decisions. Skilled discussions are infused with rigorous critical thinking, mutual respect, weighing of options, and decision making that serves the groups’ vision, values, and goals. A skilled discussion’s goal is to reach decisions. In its Latin roots, decide means to kill choice. Thus, a discussion is aimed at eliminating some ideas from a field of possibilities so that stronger ideas will win. Groups who are skilled at discussing employ many cognitive operations related to critical thinking, but not in any particular sequence.
“In its most ineffective form, to discuss is to hurl ideas at one another. Discussing ideas, in unskilled groups, often takes the form of serial sharing or advocacy. Decisions are attempted through a variety of either voting or consensus techniques. When discussion is unskilled and dialogue is absent, decisions are often poor quality, represent the opinions of the most vocal members or the leader, lack group commitment, and do not stay made” (Garmston & Wellman, 1998).
While the noise of today’s public debate may spike television ratings, it’s a poor excuse for communication in a civilized society. It’s a recipe for gridlock and division. Give me skilled discussion any day. Peer Advisory Groups can’t change the world, but what we learn from them and how we can lead and inspire others to communicate based on that experience, could make a big difference. People who regularly participate in these groups will tell you that for them, it already has.