Book Review-Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together – Defensive Routines

Sometimes my book reviews take on a life of their own. While preparing for my review of Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, I started to gather some thoughts on one of the key aspects of dialogues which is the impact of defensive routines. Before I knew it, defensive routines had enough content for its own blog – thus this post. So the review for Dialogue will end up in three parts. We’ll cover two specific topics first then tie it together with the “official” review.

The background here is that I’ve written about dialogue before but not about this particular topic. My post on Discussion and Dialogue for Learning collected my thoughts from The Fifth Discipline and Dialogue Mapping. It’s an interesting topic because few people talk about how to create a dialogue. We all want to believe that we dialogue with one another but the reality is that there are a number of barriers that prevent us from having a true dialogue. Dialogue requires a certain comfort about ourselves and flexibility in our beliefs to allow others to share their perspective – a key factor that Dialogue Mapping surfaces. The book Dialogue – The Art of Thinking Together artfully walks the reader through the nuances of how to create the conditions for a dialogue and what can get in the way. Here we’ll deal with just one factor, defensive routines and how they prevent us from experiencing true dialogue.

As a quick review, dialogue is about revealing the incoherence of our thought. It’s about exposing to us the blind spots that are created by our very limited perspective. By getting more people to speak freely about their perspectives without fear of disrespectful judgment we can see a whole picture – one which is relatively free of the gaps and biases created by our singular view.

Earthquakes and GPS

Before we explore the barriers to dialogue, it’s useful to explore for a moment how many of the things that we take for granted today work and how there are hidden lessons for us as we approach dialogue. For instance, how the location and magnitude of earthquakes is determined. The simple answer is that they use a mechanism called triangulation. By taking the location of known things – such as seismology monitoring centers and their readings, it’s possible to estimate the location of an earthquake with relatively high accuracy. Because we know the exact time that an earth quake is recorded in different locations – as well as the relative intensity, the time for a shockwave from an earthquake to travel through the ground, etc. – we can determine where the earthquake originated.

In our dialogues we’re trying to compare the perspectives of different people and combine them into a single observation of what really has happened or what really is happening. We’re trying to piece together a three dimensional view from a set of two dimensional perspectives. In seismology the more sensors you can combine the more accurate your picture of the earthquake. In dialogue the more people you can get to speak openly the better picture of the topic of discussion you’ll get. However, while monitoring earthquakes is an interesting way to talk about how having multiple perspectives can help – there’s an even better way that most of us use much more frequently.

The US department of defense launched 27 satellites with atomic clocks and transmitters onboard. Using the same technique of triangulation as well as the location data of the satellite, it’s possible to accurately locate a receiver in the space on the globe. The system of satellites orbiting the earth are the global positioning system. Many of us use the data stream from these satellites to get from our houses to our appointments every day. The receiver inside our phones and dedicated GPS receiver devices can receive signals from as many as 12 satellites at a time. These signals include a time signal which can be used to determine a relative position from all of the satellites ultimately leading to an understanding of where the receiver is on the face of the earth to within a few feet.

In this case integrating the perspective of the distance from each of the satellites signals are received can tell you where you’re at. Dialogue is like that. Hearing the different perspectives from different people – who are themselves in motion – can lead you to a better understanding of where you are individually or as an organization. It’s possible that we believe that other people’s perspectives are interesting but not important – however, our world shows us that it’s other’s experiences that may be essential to our ability to understand.

Discover the Truth

Best Practices

Dialogue, in general, runs relatively directly in contrast with the idea of best practices – and more importantly that our practice is the best practice. (For more about best practices, see The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.) Because of What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), we believe that our perspective is the only one that matters – which is in a sense correct but misses the larger context that we can’t see everything from our point of view. (See Thinking: Fast, and Slow for more about WYSIATI.) Consider Mt. Rushmore. It’s a massive sculpture carved into a mountain. Most every shot you’ve ever seen of this magnificent sculpture was taken from the visitor’s center at the other side of the valley which Mt. Rushmore towers over. However, when you look at Mt. Rushmore from the air you get a different perspective. The sculpture is still massive – but you realize how much larger the mountain range is than just one mountain or one carving. Take a look at what I mean:

Still we believe generically that we should take best practices and incorporate them into what we do to improve our practice. However, there are several issues with best practices including:

  • Best for whom? – Do the conditions we’re facing match the conditions that the practice was designed for and validated with? If not then is the best practice really best for us?
  • According to whom? — Does the person purveying the best practice have a financial or other interest in saying the practice is best even though it may not be the best or even validated? In short, can we trust that the practice is really best?
  • Is it the practice? – All too often the real cause of the results isn’t captured in what is communicated when a best practice is captured. Unseen and uncommunicated factors can represent substantial barriers to implementing the practice successfully.

The problem from a dialogue perspective is that we’re all the purveyors of our own personal best practices. We believe in the practices which have worked for us. We believe that our way of doing things and perceiving things is the right way to do and perceive them. In this context it makes it hard to see other’s points of view as helpful, useful, necessary for understanding and even potentially better than our own. In order to participate in a true dialogue we have to be willing to be wrong, to let go of our perceptions, and to learn from others. To do that we need to realize that our idea of best practices is contextually driven and not every situation has the same context.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’m a pilot. One of the relatively obvious things that most folks know is that if you’re pitching down or you’re too low the thing to do is to pull back on the yolk. This will change the pitch of the aircraft and ostensibly create altitude. This works in most cases – at least in the short term. However, in some cases the same pulling back of the yolk will lead to a stall which is a catastrophic loss of lift and the aircraft will plummet quickly. The right answer when you’re “low and slow” is to apply power. Depending upon where you’re sitting on the power curve just adding power will cause the aircraft to lift without any change in pitch. However, even if it doesn’t, it’s an important first step when you’re slow.

The enriched context is necessary to choose the right solution. It requires more than knowing that you’re too low. It also requires knowing how fast you’re going. If you’re traveling at a high rate of speed adding power will only exacerbate the problem. Being more specific, knowing how close you are to Vne (the velocity to never exceed) will tell you how much you should pull back on the yolk – near Vne you need to make as subtle of changes as you can to accomplish the goal to minimize stress on the airframe.

With each layer of the problem we’re learning about more information and how a better understanding and perspective of the situation can help you to make the right choices. One person’s best (and obvious) practice of pulling back on the yolk can be disastrous when applied to the wrong situation. Before you are sure that what you believe is right, consider that someone else might have a different and better perspective of the situation – one which might make your belief be incorrect.

Slay the Sacred Cows

There’s an old story about a newlywed couple who are hosting the family for Christmas dinner. The husband, being a good husband wisely, is helping his wife prepare the meal when she chops off the end of the ham and sets it aside. When he asks about it his bride replies that this is just the way that Christmas ham is cooked and that she’s never questioned it. Her mom did it this way, her grandmother did it this way. It’s just tradition. The husband, perhaps les wisely, asks his mother-in-law why you cut the end off of the ham. She turns to her mother and asks the same question when she receives this response. “Because it doesn’t fit in the pan if you don’t.” What had become a tradition – one that no one wanted to question – was simply a matter of necessity for the time. Today the mother-in-law and the new bride may have pans large enough for the whole ham but the grandmother didn’t.

A serious barrier to dialogue is our inability to be real with ourselves. First, we rarely consider what our defining boundaries are. In Beyond Boundaries Cloud and Townsend talk about the difference between defining and temporary boundaries. The quick recap is that defining boundaries once violated change who you are. These boundaries are the definition of your “me-ness”. Temporary boundaries are instead areas that you simply need to be cautious in for a while. We defend our defining boundaries relatively actively.

Rarely do we consider what boundaries we consider to be essential to our “me-ness.” Even when you’re able to identify your believed boundaries we’ve got to be mindful that we may be deceiving ourselves.

Who Am I?

When you ask most folks who they are they’ll answer with their name. That may be their identifier – but it doesn’t really explain who they are. If you press a bit further and ask “But who are you?” the immediate response is often their job. You’ll hear that they’re a plumber or an architect. If you pry still deeper you may hear about their education – perhaps they have a PhD. However, this isn’t who someone is. (See Who Am I? for some science on how people are motivated and who they are.)

Ultimately both of these answers are about what the person has done. A person isn’t the sum of their experiences – as this makes us little more than a container for experiences. More than the sum of our experiences we’re a collection of value systems. We have a set of values that we hold some of which we hold more dearly than others. Consider someone who wants to be a successful business person and a respected family man. When these two value systems are put in conflict – as they often will be – how does someone navigate these waters? Will they choose to work extra, travel more, and get the promotion or will they take a less successful career path in order to coach their son’s football team?

The real challenge as it pertains to dialogue isn’t the choice between work and home – or primary motivators as discussed in Who Am I?. The real challenge is the hidden values that we carry that we can’t articulate and that few of us have ever probed deeply. How do you know if a dialogue should feel threatening to who you are if you don’t really know who you are yourself? How could you know what your defining boundaries are if you’ve never explored them?

During a dialogue people sometimes become wrapped up in their position so much that their position begins to define who they are. If I am voting for the red widget and someone says that they don’t like the red widget as much as the blue one, a person can – and often does – feel personally attacked. While there was no value statement on the person the fact that someone disagreed with them can feel like a negative statement about the person.

Enabling dialogue means that everyone must maintain the distinction between what they believe and who they are. A person doesn’t cease to exist or become less if one of their ideas is found to not be the best answer.


Even if you’re willing to explore your defining boundaries it may not be that they’ll be so easy to find. If I think I’m a trusting person but won’t loan my things to others, is my value real? What about if I feel like I’m a giving person but I don’t give to charity or support causes that I believe in? What about the alcoholic who believes that they can control their drinking?

In the triad of books from the Arbinger Institute (Bonds That Make You Free, Anatomy of Peace, and Leadership and Self-Deception) there was a discussion about “boxes” that tend to distort our ability to see the world. However, I believe these boxes also have the power to distort our ability to see ourselves. We want to see our noble selves – and only our noble selves. Our ego defends itself from looking at the ugliness that exists within us. I recently acquired a copy of the book The Ego and Its Defenses. It is just 572 pages of the mechanisms that we used to protect our ego. While it’s relatively easy to read, it’s definitely an academic/professional book with language that is at times very clinical. However, it catalogs 22 major and 26 minor defenses of the ego. It’s key to understand that the presence of one of these ego defenses doesn’t indicate a problem. We all have these ego defenses. They’re what allow us to get out of the bed in the morning and function. However, it’s equally important to recognize that these mechanisms are unconsciously guiding and directing us to prevent our fragile ego from becoming overwhelmed with reality.

Much like the enneagram (see Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery) The Ego and Its Defenses focuses on the way that the defense is used since the defense itself is both natural and can be healthy when used in the right contexts. The question isn’t whether we self-deceive. The question is primarily whether those defenses are healthy and required or whether they’re over- or under- expressed. There’s no question that the ego will defend itself as you seek to more accurately see yourself for both the good and the bad. It’s comfortable to see ourselves as better than we really are because then we don’t have to take a good long look in the mirror at the parts of us which we should improve.

As a result when a dialogue (or conversation) turns to an area where we did a poor job or where we feel less than sufficient we’ll automatically start to become defensive. We don’t need anyone to tell us we did a bad job, we already know it. At least we know it enough to realize there’s some painful, intolerable truth that we may need to avoid.


The power that sacred cows has over us is based on the fact that they’re undiscussable. When you can’t talk about something you can’t directly address it. Something that may be very small looks very large because of the shadow it casts. In many families, but not mine, the topic of sex is taboo. It’s not appropriate for a family to discuss sex. However, if you look at this from an epidemiology point of view, teen pregnancy reached epidemic proportions and the US had a teen pregnancy rate four times that of other western societies. Thankfully there’s been a 52% decline in pregnancy rates from 1991 to 2012. One of the factors that emerged as the cause for the high rates of teen pregnancy in the research was a low level of family closeness. This is expressed multiple ways by different researchers. For instance, what How Children Succeed would call licking and grooming is included as a part of this. However, it’s more than feeling like you’re supported. That’s part one. If you aren’t supported then you can’t talk to your parents.

The next phase is being able to actually discuss sex between teenage children and parents. The ability to communicate clearly the moral views of the parents – and teenagers – as well as the ability to be open about the challenges and risks of having sex as a teenager have changed. While the simple act of being more able to discuss the topic isn’t solely responsible for the remarkable drop in teen pregnancy rates – it’s certainly a considerable factor.

Consider another social issue which is an undiscussable topic. Drunk driving remains a serious risk to life both for the driver and for innocent people who become involved through an accident. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reports that the number of people killed by drunken driving has been cut in half in their 30 years of existence. One of the changes during that time is the contract for life created by Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) (now Students Against Destructive Decisions). The contract for life is a commitment on the part of the student to avoid destructive behaviors. However, more interestingly is the commitment of the parent to provide safe transportation home – without an immediate discussion about what happened that they needed to call.

This creates a space of safety to allow them to get the help they need – and simultaneously creates the opportunity to talk about difficult – or undiscussable – topics that need to be discussed.

Sure these are topics that impact parents and aren’t the sort of topics that occur in business, but the framework is the same. Undiscussable topics create problems because they’re undiscussable nature. Perhaps it’s the fact that the staff doesn’t feel supported or they don’t feel safe. They become undiscussable by the fact that management isn’t willing to entertain the possibility that they have more work to do. They have their own defensive routines that create the undiscussability of some topics.

What Are Defensive Routines?

Do you ever notice that you’re getting defensive in a conversation? Maybe you feel your heart rate do a double beat. Or perhaps you feel your ears starting to get just a slight bit warmer. Maybe you can feel your breathing rate change or how your breathing gets more shallow and rapid. Perhaps the cause was an attack lobbed in your general direction or what appeared to be a more sniper rifle-like attack on you. Many times the speaker didn’t intend to attack you. Instead they were trying to make a point or express their views.

The challenge is that what they want to convey is something that threatens your way of thinking. Whether it’s a news article about gay marriage, abortion, religion, or social injustice, it may be enough to get your juices going. Things that – to reuse the euphemism – “Get your juices going” are emotionally triggering. This may – or may not – be your amygdala raising the alarm that something is wrong.

The alarm is about not feeling safe. It’s about somehow the conversation is perceived as being potentially harmful to you. This could be in the very literal and physical sense or in a more generic and intellectual sense. Somehow you feel threatened – even a little – and you end up automatically defending yourself, your beliefs, or your way of life – even if they don’t need to be defended. That is we attach our identities to our affiliations. We become wrapped up in the trappings of being a republican, a democrat, our job, a college graduate, etc. We become so associated with these ideas that when someone attacks them it feels like they’re attacking us and it triggers our need to defend ourselves – even if it’s not ourselves that we’re really defending.

It seems like it’s very difficult to live by “passionate beliefs, loosely held.” We hold beliefs and we assume that those beliefs are us – that if we stopped believing in the things that we believe in that we would somehow cease to exist. However, unlike what most of us have learned from our experiences, it’s often OK to be wrong. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be right all the time. Despite this truth we often believe that we do have to be right. In fact we have deeply rooted psychological immune systems which are designed to protect us from the reality that we’re not perfect (See Emotional Intelligence.)

The difficult part of minimizing defensive routines is to become more detached from the idea. Buddhism teaches that attachment is about over-possessiveness or control. (See Emotional Awareness) If you look at this as a continuum it’s easy to see that the more detached you become the less concerned about control – or defense – of something you’ll be. You can remain true to your defining boundaries and be willing to evaluate whether they’re the right defining values.

Beyond Defensive Routines

Defensive routines are just one barrier to dialog – and a starting point. In my full review of Dialogue we’ll see some of the other barriers.