Friday, October 27, 2023

Sensemaking: Debate, dialogue, inquiry

Today’s world, on a good day, often defaults to debate and argument as the primary modes of learning in relationship.  As someone who has found immense value in the practice of inquiry, particularly influenced by Tibetan Buddhist traditions (yogacara and tantra in particular), I'm writing today to name how much I have benefitted from forms of relating that are less seen in our culture. These are forms of engagement that I learned later in life, yet they've profoundly impacted my life. This is an example of the many aspects of life that are simply 'water' for us fish, and we swim without the pause of exploring other paths, as they are not shared.

Debate: The Battle of Ideas

What It Is

Debate seems like a gold standard in the modern West—a battle of ideas. Multiple individuals or parties come together to present their strongest arguments in favor of their ideas while attempting to undercut the opposing side.


Debate offers a multi-faceted understanding of an issue and provides audiences with the opportunity to form their own opinions. It steers clear of character attacks and focuses on the strength of ideas.


However, debate has its limitations. It often emphasizes the strength of the speaker over the strength of the idea, assumes objectivity, assumes discreteness (not integration), and focuses on differences rather than common ground.

Dialogue: The Journey to Shared Understanding

What It Is

Dialogue is an exploratory form of engagement best articulated by David Bohm in his conversations with J. Krishnamurti. It involves no set agenda and aims to develop shared meaning.


Dialogue offers a space where there is nothing to 'win' and nobody to 'beat.' It fosters creativity, assumes subjectivity, and has a depolarizing effect.  It holds an intention to integration of viewpoints that cannot be discovered individually.


Despite its merits, dialogue can be influenced by unequal power dynamics and may require skilled facilitation to prevent 'groupthink' or lack of integrative paths.

Inquiry: The Path to Self-Discovery

What It Is

Inquiry is a form of engagement that centers on reflective self-discovery in community. The discussion serves as a 'shared witnessing' of each individual's grappling with their unconscious inner life, including motivations, patterns, trauma, and beyond. It’s a deeply vulnerable space.


Inquiry offers transformative potential by engaging 'upstream' of rationality towards feelings, sensations, and intentions. It takes deep ownership of one's experience, to the point of deconstructing one’s viewpoints.


However, inquiry may remain abstract and not actionable. It requires extraordinary levels of psychological safety and may placate or push away feelings rather than simply experiencing them. Also, without strong ethical foundations, the path forward from deconstruction can be disharmonious.

Practical Challenges and Approaches in Modern Contexts

In today's world, the practical application of these forms of engagement, especially inquiry, faces several challenges. For instance, the rarity of inquiry as a form of public discourse is due to its requirement for deep vulnerability, making it less suitable for public settings. Moreover, the contextual nature of inquiry makes it difficult to discuss meaningfully outside of the specific situations in which it occurs.

To navigate these challenges in manifesting inquiry-based forms of relating, I've found the following strategies helpful:

Designing for Psychological Safety: Before any conversation, creating causes and conditions that support people being able to share things they’ve never consciously thought, much less heard themselves say – lots of seed planting.  In most cases, the lack of safety is the main driver for why inquiry is not possible.

Self-Discovery as the Core: Approaching each conversation with the mindset that the space is there to support me in discovering more about myself. The manifestation of curiosity is a major driver, both internal and external.

Real-Time Awareness: Paying attention to nervous system activation as it happens. Instead of assuming something needs to be addressed in the 'other,' ask oneself, 'What is this situation illuminating about my unconscious patterns?'

Ownership of Experience: Describing and feeling sensations, feelings, and narratives as one’s own, without attributing them to the 'other.' Allowing for possibility that others need to be 0% different than they are now.

Emergence of Possibilities: Allowing for the emergence of actionable steps or insights from this new context. Whether it's something to say, do, or intend, the possibilities are infinite but can include timeliness and action.

I’ve been experimenting with inquiry-based approaches in leadership domains.  I have seen again and again that in these contexts, as there is ownership, there can be a felt sense of heartbreak – the sensation and realization that the world perceived as ‘out there’ was, all this time, self-created in a significant way.  And from the expansiveness of that insight, emergence of steps forward.

I also increasingly find a challenge in talking/sharing about specifics here.  While I have many stories to name, I also find these spaces sacred and honoring them means not being specific.  That being said, I have seen folks in many conflict-type situations 'flip' into expansive love with the gift they've been given in the form of conflict.  Others who struggle with a perceived decision to make, only to have the decision dissolve.  I've seen this in partnerships, in parenting, in workplaces, in broader relationships - relating becomes a container where, with shared agreement, one brings the ashram mindset.  Of course, the real experience is in the moment moreso than the words - if that's of interest from a leadership dimension, reach out, and we can explore.

The Modern Context

In the age of social media, workplace dynamics, and even friend/family relationships, the structures and agreements we operate within often limit our psychological safety and, by extension, our capacity for self-discovery. We are in a world where being truly vulnerable can result in out-casting, or create difficulties within our governance systems. However, the power to change these structures starts with our social design choices, at every moment, down to the questions we will ask our next conversation partner and the mindspace with which we hold what is shared. And so we do the work of cultivating spaces where such interaction may be possible.


In a world often dominated by attack, argument, and sometimes debate, the transformative potential of dialogue and inquiry is immense in my eyes. While debate serves its purpose in presenting multi-faceted views, it often falls short in fostering true understanding and integration. Dialogue, on the other hand, offers a collaborative space for shared meaning, and inquiry takes this a step further by centering self-discovery as the core of relating. These forms of engagement offer not just alternative ways to interact but also pathways to deeper understanding and self-discovery. If you’re reading this, I assume you’re experimenting in these areas yourself – perhaps some part of this may support your path also. May such practices support a compassionate and wise world!