Intractable to Adaptive: Shaping Adaptable Civil Discourse One Conversation at a Time

In today’s world, we navigate widely different perspectives in many areas of our life. For example just consider politics, social perspectives, and economics. If nothing really is intractable, as the HSD tagline says, how can we step into conversations to find ways to move together, in spite of our differences?

Civility is not, not saying negative or harsh things. It is not the absence of critical analysis. It is the manner in which we are sharing this territorial freedom of political discussion. If our discourse is yelled and screamed and interrupted and patronized, that’s uncivil. —Richard Dreyfuss

I was watching television the other evening, and someone talked about the level of incivility she has observed in so many places around the globe. She said it had become an intractable problem. That sparked my interest, given that our tagline in the Human Systems Dynamics Institute is, “Nothing is Intractable.” So I started thinking about what HSD might offer us to think about how to approach some of these difficult conversations. And of course, my first response was: Adaptive Action.

Adaptive Action is a three-step iterative cycle of inquiry, reflection, and action. It is a simple process, but it’s not always easy. Inside the HSD Institute, we use the steps of the cycle to frame our teaching, establish agendas, guide our individual and shared decision making and action planning. It requires little to no preparation to step into it, and we have many HSD-based tools we can use to inform each step along the cycle. Using Adaptive Action and HSD tools has helped us think about difficult conversations for a long time. We use different tools and approaches, based on the challenge we face, but there are some that we rely on more than others.

The first thing I remind myself about is that standing in inquiry sets the conditions for the most productive Adaptive Action cycles. Inquiry is not just about asking questions; it really is about a mindset. It is about living in reflective practice that keeps me aware and present in the most difficult conversations. Basically. inquiry, as we define it, includes four practices.

Each of these, alone, could take a full blog post to explore, and there are additional resources to explore on our website.  My focus today, is to look at how we can use Adaptive Action and a few HSD-based tools to support our inquiry across major differences to create civil discourse about them.

So, in our experience, standing in inquiry is the foundation for using Adaptive Action in difficult conversations. Each step of the cycle, then, can shape a path through seemingly intractable challenges. HSD-informed tools can help you build that path.

►    WHAT? This is the time for looking at what exists, for seeing patterns of thought, conversation, and action that shape the two sides of the conversation. How are the two sides similar, and how are they different? What’s the history, and what aspirations come into the conversation?

A tool we use for this stage of the conversation is the Pattern Spotters. This comes to us from soft systems technology and is simply a list of sentence stems that call attention to the patterns around you. Our favorites are:

  • In general, I . . .
  • On the one hand, I  . . .  On the other hand . . .
  • I was surprised by . . .
  • I wonder . . .

You don’t have to use them like a set protocol. You can just say what you see and invite others to do the same. But using these types of prompts reminds us to look beyond the surface and see what else we might find.

►    SO WHAT? In this step, we work to make sense of the patterns we see. So what are the implications? So what may have formed those patterns? So what are possible/likely outcomes if nothing changes? So what options do we see for change?

We have many tools we can use in this part of the cycle, and one we often use is Interdependent Pairs. It invites conversation about the competing forces or needs that hold us in different positions. For instance, as a working mother I was tugged by different needs and expectations. On the one hand, I wanted “me time” to relax and enjoy my friends. At the same time I was drawn also to my delight in being with my kids and watching them grow up. I had obligations at home to keep the household running, even as I took care of my obligations as a district-level administer in a large school district. Another force that was at work on me was a desire to further my career and education through graduate school, and yet some part of me also wanted to step away from academe and develop my skills as a poet and fiction writer. Those opposing forces were often at war, asking me to find the balance between and among them all. Here’s how we would reflect those opposing forces in a visual way.

Using this tool helps to identify the compelling ideas that inform individual beliefs and action. It also provides an opportunity to talk about how and when it’s possible to come together in shared exploration to build a productive relationship—even in the midst of massive differences.

►    NOW WHAT? This is the action phase of the cycle. After seeing and understanding the patterns that characterize our differences, this helps us identify what can be done (together or independently) to move the challenge to a next level. Now what can we do to continue this conversation? Now what can we do to move today’s insights into a tomorrow’s action? Now what do we need to learn more about? Now what can we do to invite others into the conversation?

A tool that’s helpful to me in this kind of conversation is one we call Designing Exchanges. It talks about how to share messages most effectively, depending on the content of the message, the proximity of the receiver, the desired outcome of the sharing, and the directional (one-way or two-way) nature of the engagement. It’s a set of ideas that run in the back of my mind whenever I am creating an important message (i.e., even as I am creating this blog post!).

►    Next WHAT? I move forward, observing the impact of my NOW WHAT? action. Remembering what I learned in the first cycle, moving to make sense of what I am now seeing.

As I said earlier, this process is a simple, iterative cycle of inquiry and action, but it is not easy. it can take courage and tenacity to stand in that space between what I believe and what someone else may believe. And as long as I think it’s a problem to be solved, I miss the point. It may be problematic, and it may never be completely resolved. I can, however, find a path that will move me—and perhaps others—forward in understanding and action toward less toxic, more civil, discourse.

A few tips and traps occurred to me while I was writing this. Consider them if you find yourself getting stuck:

  • Remember inquiry. It means that you come to these conversations to create understanding, not to proselytize. You enter these conversations to listen, not control. You come to these conversations to remain present to another person’s view and understanding of life. Stay curious. Invite exploration. Reflect on your own reactions. Watch out for the assumptions you carry.
  • Make it a natural conversation. Relax and use the stages of Adaptive Action in more or less formal ways. The three steps can be front-and-center as the organizing framework, or it can be transparent in the conversation, with your questions and insights providing the mileposts. The same is true of the tools. Each of the ones I used here can be drawn on the back of a napkin, so the formality of the definition or the web-available document can be shared but is not mandatory. 
  • You may or may not come to a satisfactory meeting of the minds. What you do have, however, are additional insights into those differences. Your NOW WHAT? may not lead to groundbreaking revelations and changes of heart. It may be as simple as asking yourself, “Ok then, what’s my next conversation about this going to look like?” and start moving into that next WHAT?.
  • This is your work to do, not work you can do for someone else. You cannot control what other people think, say, or do. Even when you stay in inquiry, use the tools, and move through the cycle, you may not come to a resolution that solves the intractable nature of your differences.
  • If all else fails, take care of yourself and walk away. Sometimes you may meet someone whose history and perspective are such that they cannot or will not engage in what you consider to be healthy conversation. Sometimes you may find that the differences are too wide, the ideology too challenging. When that happens, walk away. For your NOW WHAT?, take what you have learned and move to the next conversation. Know that you can continue to look for other avenues to build a path for understanding and civility.
  • No one is perfect. There will be times when you can’t stay in inquiry. There will be times when you just don’t have the energy to engage. There will be times when it will feel like no one is listening. That’s when we have to breathe deeply and continue. In each moment you can choose, and these and other HSD tools and perspectives can help you choose to move forward.

Try some of these ideas and be in touch! Let us know how it goes for you. 


Join a global network of learning about HSD!
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.