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  • by Shari Melto


No really important issue, certainly not global warming, comes with two neat, opposed sides. So why do we polarize everything and approach it as if it were a fight? What are the implications of runaway debate for thoughtful public discourse? And how can we shift toward collaborative dialogue?

In her book, The Argument Culture, Deborah Tannen makes a compelling case that America's addiction to debate is getting in the way of effective problem-solving. "Many problems are actually caused by framing the question as a dichotomy" (p.21), and this approach "limits our imagination when we consider what we can do about situations we would like to understand or change." (p.24)

Even the best of us are easily hooked into futile arguments on both trivial and important issues. As we get angrier and less rational by the minute, we realize that we are caught in a "doom loop." At that moment, however, our goal is not to listen and understand but to win the argument at any cost. We know, down deep, that nothing good can come from the interaction—information will be distorted and trust badly damaged—yet we can't seem to stop ourselves.

The media, especially television, has conditioned us to see even public debate as "entertainment." While it may be entertaining to watch two sportscasters duke it out over last night's game, debate is often downright dangerous when we look to elected officials for informed decision-making. Tannen warns that democracy can get derailed in a polarized debate. "Citizens do not get the information they need to make meaningful use of their right to vote." (p.25)

We're obviously losing ground on global warming by debating every issue. Since we're not likely to find truth in the oversimplified extremes, how can we navigate the complex middle? The best answer may be through dialogue among diverse voices—in Tannen's words, by "exploring, expanding, discussing, investigating, and exchanging ideas ..." (p. 8)

That's what a Climate Cafe is all about.


Tannen, Deborah. The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998).


Shari Melto spent more than 20 years with global consulting firms in the fields of talent management and organization development. She was director of learning & development at McKinsey and director of staffing & recruiting at both Booz and Hewitt. With the support of a MacArthur grant, she partnered with arts boards in Chicago to strengthen their organizations. Shari believes that we have a moral obligation to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for our children and our earth—and working with GOMI provides a unique opportunity to do both.

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