The Integrative Debate…

After reading Chris Wejr’s latest, The Problem With Black & White Statements in Education, I was reminded of the following posted originally at KARE Givers. We really do have to remember to go hard on improving ideas, and easy on the people who should be collaboratively creating




One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.

Project 365 #74: 150313 Showing The Rope by comedy_nose, on Flickr

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by  comedy_nose 

I think we perceive the value and purpose of debate all wrong. Our tendency to take a polarized view (aka disagreement) between two sides of a concept and argue opposite sides until one “wins” the debate is perhaps less effective in today’s world than it has been in the simpler, more black and white world of the past (at least from our perspective… I’m sure the world to contemporaries in history was every bit as complex to them as ours is to us today.)

In virtually every element of our human lives, decisions need to be made… politics, business, education, family, relationships… humans have been blessed with the ability to think rationally, (or perhaps cursed depending on your perspective.) This being said, so much energy and emotional investment is dedicated to the decision itself, that the nuances of the idea or concept being argued often get lost in the shuffle. This is not good. We get hung up on ‘winning’ our precious debate, and ultimately deny our rational thinking abilities in favor of power and control over our opponent in the debate. Nothing good comes from this phenomena in relation to the advancement of the idea or concept we should be focusing less subjectively on.

Opinions are opinions and should be stated as such; we’re all entitled to them. A wise person will never argue opinions. Conversely, facts are also facts, and when stated with support, can be argued very effectively. Not all facts are opinions, and not all opinions are facts, but some of both are the other… this is where it gets convoluted. It’s the grey area between opinions and facts that breeds dissension in a debate resulting in an adversarial environment; one that seldom leads to a good decision.

This post may seem inherently ironic. Here I am suggesting that iconoclastic thinking is hazardous if we intend to move ideas forward diplomatically and thoughtfully because it assumes that traditional or popular ideas or institutions are all bad, and I’m positing in a rather iconoclastic way that traditional polarized debate is all bad, and we should radically change the way we come to decisions. I’m actually not, though. What I propose is a

model of debate and decision-making that involves dissonance to be sure, but also a presupposition that it is the dissonance within the argument that must be resolved, not defeated.

Dissonance is a word that connotes the unresolved or inharmonious. What if both sides of a debate focused on the resolution of the dissonant concept not by attempting to strengthen their respective positions, but rather by choosing to make their effort strengthening the positions of their opponent? I’m talking about an integrative process whereby each side of the debate looks at the positions of the other side, and  ultimately chooses to discuss each stance that would be acceptable to their side; what they could live with… a process where the dissonant nature of the argument would start to move toward the middle as opposed to the outer reaches. Unlike a battle that one side must win, and one must lose, this model suggests that it is the concept or idea that’s being discussed that must win the day, or perhaps be discarded for a better one.

These are some

of the thoughts I had while reading Roger Martin. For more on what he calls integrative thinking, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking.


  1. Thanks Sean for this thoughtful post: it appeal to the ‘higher angels of my nature’ and resonates with the more productive conversations I’ve had in a learning community invested in continuous improvement.

    That said, I’m also mindful of Dan Okrent’s warning, recently tweeted by Alfie Kohn, that “the pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.” I’ve also had some experiences where our effort to identify a middle ground or to tune our dissonant voices to a middle frequency has inadvertently limited more progress, resolution, initiative, or growth than we might have intended.

    Incredibly provocative questions in any case! Thank you.

    April 10, 2013
    • Appreciate your comments Chris.
      “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true…” what an interesting statement. I would ask Dan and Alfie if they believe perhaps that something can become even more “true.” This is how I see the “middle frequency.”

      I think we have a tendency to see the middle as compromise, which I agree can lead us further from the contextual truth, and perhaps there is absolute truth out there too. In any case, I see a move to the middle as a refinement process that presupposes folks on either side are willing to accept that their “truths” can be made more true through a process of challenge and debate that focuses on seeing the other side more clearly and analytically so our truths can be reflected upon more effectively and objectively.

      I wonder what Socrates would say:) I agree, incredibly provocative questions.

      April 10, 2013
  2. […] After reading Chris Wejr's latest, The Problem With Black & White Statements in Education, I was reminded of the following posted originally at KARE Givers. We really do have to remember to go …  […]

    April 12, 2013

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