Beyond Critical Thinking: Constructive Conversations

by Didier Marlier on Friday May 7th, 2021

Mankind offers a unique track record in failing its encounters with History. In the 20th century only, Russia freed itself from the Czars, just to go back under another yoke. We lost approximately 20 million lives in World War I and, incapable to spare shame and punishment towards the defeated parties, we were faced 26 years later with another deflagration, costing 50 to 60 millions lives, just to rush into the “Cold War”… We reconstructed the Economy after the crisis of 1929/30, 1987 and 2008 (to name a few) just as wobbly as before. We held the promising U.N. Rio 92 Conference on Environment and Development and… did very little about our promises and engagements. We saw Brazil liberate itself, in a non-violent manner, from dictatorship just to democratically elect a partisan of dictatorship, 35 years later. We fell the Berlin wall, witnessed the end of USSR, just to chose in a hurry another “best enemy” through Islam, spent 20 years in Afghanistan and leave it without having resolved its issues, in the same way as we did in Libya or Iraq… And these are just a few! Sadly, we seem unable to seize opportunities that fate offers to grab and the World continues its journey towards destruction, inequality, wars, polarization and hunger.

After Covid-19 which may just have been the first “wavelet” of a series of tsunamis, what other catastrophes will we provoke and fail to respond to?

  • Hunger? Almost as soon as the depth and extent of the Covid emerged, the United Nations’ Program for Alimentation sent a strong signal about potentially disastrous hunger taking place not only in Africa but, possibly in other unusual places. No one listened and people start to die in Zimbabwe, Zambia and another 14 countries of Africa.
  • Inequality? Do we seriously think that people who saved our lives by risking theirs and their families’ during the various confinements (cashiers in food shops, taxi drivers, health professionals, police etc.) will continue to be blind to the obscene gap between their end of month pay-check and those of professional sportspeople, show-business stars and… some of us in the business world?
  • Economy? Will taxpayers gladly sign white checks of trillions to their political leaders so that we may rebuild the same polluting, unsustainable, antisocial economy or will they demand that financial support to some services and industries be accompanied by constraining environmental and social rules?
  • Ideological? Is there still a nation that can pretend to be “freedom fighters” and have a moral say on the others after what we have seen in the recent past (and before)?
  • Environmental? When that tsunami will unleash, it is not confinement that will save us this time…

Are we doomed to fail reconstructing a better Economy, each time that we are challenged by a new disruption (financial, technological, political, natural, medical etc.)?

Nick McRoberts and I are busy launching a YouTube Channel and writing a book on “Disruptive Leadership”. We intend to study and identify the radically new behaviours and attributes of those who intend to redesign the Economy, Politics, Sports and Arts in a different way than they were before. And we have reasons to hope.

One of the profound changes we see emerge from a vocal minority (for the time being) of leaders and citizens has to do with a radical mindset change:

  • From arguing to understanding
  • From convincing to listening
  • From answering to questioning
  • From being certain to being curious
  • From fighting my corner to being a problem-solver

In his new book, “2034”, US Admiral, James Stavridis, explains his concerns about a soon to come war between his country and China. But amongst the dark clouds of this scary perspective, he sees one opportunity to change the course of his announced catastrophe: “We need to identify domains for cooperation! One surely could be Climate. Another could be from economic nature; another one could be how to prepare ourselves against the next pandemic.”  This is not coming from “a dove” but from the Admiral, ex-Commander in Chief for the N.A.T.O. in Europe.

Four years ago, Nick McRoberts got enthused by “Critical Thinking” and started to teach it. I confess to have been less than excited by this topic at the beginning. For me, Critical Thinking was mainly a way to analyse rationally and, objectively, find a way to counter an opponent’s argument or to discount fake news, rumours and opinions, presented as truths. But, following some of Nick’s classes, I started to realize that Critical Thinking is far more than a technique: it is a mindset! It is much more constructive than “pausing to reload” (i.e. letting the other express their view while scrutinizing for inconsistencies and readying a counterattack): It is about being critical of the way I listen and seek to understand my counterpart!

“Conversation” etymologically comes from the Latin ”conversare” and means “to live with”. If one hopes to live with someone, in a sustainable manner, having a constructive attitude is one of the keys.

Reading back all the books and articles on negotiation we went through, during my M.B.A. years at IMD, I realize that, should I summary them, there are three steps to follow in order to hold a constructive conversation:

  • Park your certainties, convictions and preconceived ideas and listen with curiosity, open-mindedness and empathy at what your partner says. Seek to understand why they say/think what they say/think.
  • Once you have demonstrated respect and understanding, share your own concerns, thoughts, hopes and ideas.
  • Then, behave as partners with the aim of, creatively, working out a solution respecting both parties needs and concerns.

The reason why I write less articles is the new book we are starting with. We see that Critical Thinking and Constructive Conversations emerge as new ways of thinking and behaving and wanted to encourage you to start applying in your professional environment.

As a closing, this moving song from Sting, which illustrates so well the spirit of this article:

 

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