What is needed to call dialogue forth?

Group of leaders calling forth dialogueHaving worked with leaders and their teams for over 15 years, a crucial insight I’ve had is that the ability to foster better dialogue is a critical skill. Holding powerful meeting spaces to navigate critical business challenges and find solutions that strengthen the whole system is pivotal to better performance. In this post I share some practical suggestions about how you can create the conditions in your team that will improve problem-solving, decision-making and innovative thinking.

What do we mean by dialogue?

Bill Isaacs, one of the world’s leading authorities on dialogue, and a former colleague, writes in his seminal (1999) book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together:

“Dialogue, as I define it, is a conversation with the centre, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization in into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and correlated power of groups of people.” (p. 19)


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How do we have effective feedback conversations?

An effective feedback conversation between a couple of colleagues‘So much can happen in a single conversation’ a participant reflected at the Leading Systemic Dialogue programme I co-led last week. We were at the end of a full and lively two-days. We’d had some engaging dialogue including about some of the big issues of the day.

A conversation can make (or break) a relationship. It can spark a new idea. It can be the catalyst for change. This is particularly true when it comes to a feedback conversation.

The benefits of well-timed and carefully given feedback are huge. It energizes us, engages us and keeps our motivation running high. The damage caused by poorly-given feedback is also enormous. Someone recently told me the story of some critical feedback she’d received in a roughshod way seven years ago. The sting was still palpable, despite all the positive feedback she’d also been given over the years. She was left questioning her abilities as well as her resilience. How can we handle feedback conversations more effectively so that we get the benefits without the stumbling blocks?

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Talking together about big issues – Unlocking collective intelligence

Circle of leaders in dialogue unlocking collective intelligenceWhat does it take for a group of people to talk about what really matters? How can a group of leaders have more collective intelligence than the individuals present? What practical tools help leadership teams to improve their dialogue? On the eve of our next Leading Systemic Dialogue programme, I’ve been reflecting on these questions.

To agree a new strategy, articulate a compelling vision or create a new product, a deeper quality of dialogue is needed than often occurs in organisations. Creating the conditions where innovations emerge is an art – and science – that is underutilised by many leaders. It is, however, a capacity that can be learned.

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Enabling better dialogue

Group of leaders engaging in better dialogueWorking with global leadership teams, I have seen the big difference it makes when people are able to talk about what really matters. With better dialogue, fresh ideas spark, collective energies align and a new future emerges.

I’ve also seen time and time again how people struggle to talk about the big issues. David Bohm, the quantum physicist, who later in life developed some powerful insights about human interaction, observed:

‘In our modern culture men and women are able to interact with one another in many ways: they can sing, dance and play together with little difficulty. However, their ability to talk together about subjects that matter deeply to them seems invariably to lead to dispute, division and often to violence. In our view this condition points to a deep and pervasive defect in the process of human thought.’

How can we move beyond breakdown?

With the global challenges we face — social inequality, climate change and world hunger — it is a critical moment for cross-sector collaboration. Protecting people from systemic risks such as cyber attacks calls for individuals, teams and organisations to work together. Given how difficult it can be to talk together about tough issues, what can be done?
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A Bridge to the Future

We are living through intense, uneasy and extraordinary times. Darkness seems to be falling wherever we look, and yet there are pinpricks of light too. Never has the potential for humanity to address urgent and global issues — economic inequality, societal polarisation and environmental dangers — been greater. And never has the risk of systemic failure — whether from cyberattacks, stand-offs between nations, or the catastrophic consequences of climate change — been higher. We are poised right on the edge of destiny-changing times.

What will it take for our collective and individual lives to cascade down a path of shared prosperity rather than increasing inequality? How can we make a successful transition to a truly global society where each person has a sense of belonging and right place? How can individuals, nations and organisations have a larger sense of their role in the world without becoming imperialistic or narcissistic? Read more

A new season of great conversations

This photo of a suspension footbridge leading straight ahead through a forest to a glowing dawn illustrates the theme of purpose-led leadership taking us to a better future.I trust this finds you well and thriving as the new season comes in.

There is a real sense of a ‘new term’ starting so I wish you every success with your own new directions.

Over recent years, my own leadership work has started to take a more defined shape. To help build a bridge to a better future for us all, I am working with leaders, teams and organisations in the following three ways:

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Purpose-Led Leadership: The Three Adventures

Co-authored with Edward L. Rowland

Tapping into Purpose

Image of a circle of parachuters holding hands against a backdrop of a cloudy sky“It’s at the juncture where organizational purpose and individual calling start to resonate with and reinforce each other that truly extraordinary things happen.” Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

This post explores how we can tap more fully into personal purpose and organizational purpose, so that they align with and resource each other. When we bring these powerful and compelling impulses together, we create inspiring organizations where people love to work and attract customers who are energized by what’s on offer. Purpose-led leadership is the new frontier in where progressive organisations are going.

During these times of turbulent change, many of us want to discover our true work in this troubled world of ours. Having the courage to follow this deeper impulse is the key that unlocks the door to our deeper fulfillment and creativity – renewed engagement with our work and career and a stronger sense of satisfaction with our lives.

Research shows – very simply – that people who follow a calling in their work have better life outcomes than those who don’t. A recent study underwrites the psychological and physical benefits of following our passion even more clearly. Writing in the most recent edition of the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society, Alex Fradera concludes, “Ignoring a calling hurts you.” Read more

Cultures of Purpose: Developing Systemic Leadership

By Sarah Rozenthuler & Edward L. Rowland
Originally published on LinkedIn, Oct 14, 2015

“Leadership is discovering the company’s destiny and having the courage to follow it… Companies that endure have a noble purpose” Joe Jaworski

spider-web-net-grid-silk-drops-dew-morning-dawnCo-creating purposeful organisations is a new frontier in organisational development. This post taps into the growing body of evidence about the financial, social and psychological benefits of creating “cultures of purpose.” It explores how leaders can attune their organisation to a rapidly shifting global marketplace and catalyse purposeful action by developing four core capacities of “systemic leadership.” Read more

To have a conversation, create a container

This post explores how we can create the conditions for generative dialogue so that together we achieve more than we could alone. A “container” for a conversation provides a “holding” atmosphere in which the things that matter most can be discussed.

As a fan of the British writer Virginia Woolf, I recently went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to see an exhibition about her life and work. Virginia Woolf, a novelist, publisher, essayist and critic, was a leading light of the London literary scene during the first half of the twentieth century. Insights from her life and writings throw some light on how conversation can become a powerful tool for change both in organisations and at home.

The influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, which also included John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forester, has significantly shaped modern attitudes towards literature, economics and aesthetics. The Bloomsbury Set was not, however, a group in any formal sense. They were united by a belief in the value of the arts and a passion for talking together. As the commentary at the exhibition put it:

“Bloomsbury had no manifesto or party line. It was chiefly bound together by a love of conversation. This might include argument, analysis, gossip or debate, but it was a means by which its members deepened understanding of each other, and themselves, and the world around them.”

The power of conversation

Given the potential of conversation to transform our understanding of each other and the world around us, the question is: How do we make the most of being in dialogue together? How can create the conditions so that we shift our mindset? What is needed so that conversation deepens our relationships and generates fresh understandings?

There are, I believe, some clues in Virginia Woolf’s observations about women and writing. In A Room of One’s Own, she highlights how women writers didn’t begin to appear in any significant way until the early nineteenth century. Why, Woolf reflects, were the four famous names – George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen – all compelled to write novels? Two of these women were not, by nature, novelists. Emily Bronte should have written poetic plays. George Eliot’s capacious mind should have turned itself to history or geography, not just fiction.

Virginia Woolf notes how the creative outpourings of these women were shaped by the physical conditions of their lives. Their novels were shorter than the books of the men writing at the same time. They were framed so that they did not need long hours of steady and interrupted work. Significantly, a woman writing in the nineteenth century would have to have written in the common sitting room; she had no separate study to which to retire. Virginia Woolf is famous for saying that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”

A woman writing at that time would also have been constantly interrupted. It would have been easier for her to write prose than to write poetry or a play, as less concentration is required. Jane Austen had to be careful that servants, visitors or anyone beyond her own family did not suspect her occupation. When the hinge of the door to the sitting room creaked, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting paper.

Why creating a “container” matters

To generate creative output, physical conditions matter. In the workplace, if our meetings are interrupted, we are unlikely to do our best thinking. If our conversations are broken as we check emails on our smartphones, valuable insights are unlikely to emerge. If we try to talk with a colleague about something important squeezed in between other meetings, we are less likely to get an extraordinary outcome.

What our creativity and our conversation both need is, in short, a “container”. Container comes from the Latin con, meaning “with”, and tener, meaning “to hold”. The essence of a container is, therefore, the sense of being held. Our attention is held, our energies are engaged and our minds are open.

A container has both physical and psychological dimensions. On a tangible level, a conversation that takes place in a circle of chairs with no table in the middle to hide behind can go places that a boardroom discussion typically cannot reach. A meeting in a light-filled room has an expansive atmosphere that a meeting in a windowless room cannot match. A presentation without Powerpoint slides rolling means that eyes don’t glaze over.

On a more subtle level, a container emerges when people feel it’s safe to open up and talk. People are energised when others start to say what’s really on their minds. When there is a palpable sense of the potential, people’s energies gather together. When there is more understanding than criticism, a decidedly different atmosphere appears. Each one of us can bring to the conversation the psychological qualities that co-create a container: authenticity, acceptance and appreciation.

With a strong container, our conversation and our creativity can go to the next level. As an individual, we might find that we can write not just prose, but plays and poetry too. As a team, we might develop a new strategy that no one could have come up with thinking alone. As the quality of our container expands, so does our dialogue.

For reflection

  • How can you create a “container” for yourself? When do you do your best thinking? Where do you feel “all of one piece”? What rhythm or routine can you establish to anchor a “holding” environment for yourself? It could be to go for a coffee to a quiet café or to take time to gather your thoughts before going to a meeting. Pay attention to the conditions that nurture your creativity.
  • What is needed for you to create a container for a group that you are part of? In what way could you change the physical environment so that it becomes more supportive? What resources could you draw on to create conditions that are conducive to conversation? For example, you might remove the table, place chairs in a circle and switch off laptops. Attend to the space in which you meet.
  • How can you shape a conversation that matters in more subtle ways? Before an important meeting, could you speak to individuals to create some connectivity? What questions could you ask people so that they start their thinking process before you even meet? When you do get in the room together, how could you use some appropriate self-disclosure to help others to feel safe and open up? Be aware of how you contribute so that people leave the room feeling excited, energised and engaged.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 28 October 2014.

We need to talk

To live is to be related. Nothing and no one can live in isolation. We are all interdependent, and increasingly so, on this planet of nearly seven billion of us. If, as the population forecasts predict, we double in number to 15 billion by 2100, the need to talk and get along with each other will become even more pressing.

The human challenges we already face, individually and collectively, are unprecedented. War rages on in many corners of the world where individual’s dreams, family life and national stability are blown to pieces. In my travels with work around the world, I’ve been disturbed by how much disintegration and destruction there is, socially, environmentally and politically.

Here in the UK, levels of anxiety and loneliness are reaching an all time high. A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation found 1 in 10 in Britain are lonely. The proportion among the young is higher and rising. Many old people report that the TV is their best friend. A 2012 survey by Macmillan Cancer Support found that the average 18-35 year old has 237 friends on Facebook. When asked, however, how many they could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

We need to talk

The problems of our world are not new. They are, at root, the problems of us in relationship. Or, better said, the problems of us in the absence of relationship. We cannot bomb our way to peace and prosperity. We are deluded if we think that we will achieve long term quiet by blowing airplanes out of skies. We will not solve our problems, whether nation-to-nation, family-to-family or team-to-team, through the indiscriminate use of power, force and technology. Our inability to talk together extends to become a world problem.

How often have you read newspaper headlines saying that peace talks have broken down? Or that a merger has failed as the CEOs have not been able to bridge their differences? Perhaps in your own family, team or organisation, there’s been a breakdown in communication? Our interactions often fall short of their true potential.

The good news, however, is that we can learn to relate and communicate more effectively. Having a productive dialogue is within reach of all of us. Here are a few observations I’ve made about what helps us when we need to talk:

  • Each person who’s present participates.
  • People are encouraged to say what’s true for them.
  • Everyone is listened to.
  • People talk about what really matters.
  • No one tries to control where the conversation goes.
  • People respect each other’s differences.
  • The sense of potential is greater than the need to be right.

A real conversation opens up new possibilities. By talking with one another, we can arrive at an answer we never anticipated, resolve a situation that’s got stuck and decide on a new direction. When we do find a way to talk, we bring hope that another way is possible.

First published on LinkedIn on 20 August 2014.