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?

Enabling better dialogue

Firstly, leaders need to attend to not only the tangibles but the intangibles too. To borrow an analogy from David Bohm, when we plant an acorn and it grows into an oak tree, we typically think of the seed as the source of the tree. It is, however, more accurate to see that the total environment gives rise to the tree. The moisture in the air, the nutrients in the soil and the energy from the sun all contribute. The acorn is the ‘aperture’ through which the tree unfolds.

In a similar way, dialogue can be the channel through which fresh innovations are released. For a conversation to become this opening, it helps to be aware not just of how we talk (which could be compared to the seed), but the environment too. Our tone of voice matters, as does the quality of our presence. The more aware and awake we are, the better our dialogue.

If organizations are to be environments through which life-affirming action unfolds, the talking space needs to be expansive. Realizing that a single conversation could open or shut the door on a whole new future helps us to become more conscious of how we talk with one another.

Unlocking resistance

Leaders also need to examine their underlying thinking about the issues on the table. To move from ideas to implementation, resistance needs to be openly discussed.

Working with the leadership team of an international development bank, we explored the underlying issues of operationalizing a challenging strategy of poverty reduction. We discussed two key questions:

  • What’s at risk if we follow this strategy?
  • What’s at risk if we don’t?

Only by surfacing all the concerns in both directions did the team arrive at a route-map that worked for everyone. As the saying goes, ‘What you resist persists.’ It is only by examining the roadblocks that they begin to disappear.

From breakdown to breakthrough

Finally, respect for diversity of perspective matters. The voices of the different parts of the ecosystem all need to be heard. People need to feel safe to express what’s true for them, without fear of the consequences of speaking out. When people with divergent views are listened to, the discussion moves from breakdown to breakthrough. Solutions that strengthen the whole emerge. By developing better dialogue, we are one step closer to creating a more sustainable future for us all.

Are you interested in improving dialogue in your organisation?

There are still a couple of places left on the Leading Systemic Dialogue: Unlock Collective Intelligence programme, 10-11th October 2017, London. Do come and join us! Click here

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the things that make a difference to dialogue. Please leave a comment and I promise to reply.

8 replies
  1. Mohan
    Mohan says:

    I like most would love to see change in our planet. That under 100 people own half the world’s resources seems to point to a well organized system of governance that enables this to continue. This ‘institution’ controls our media and therefore our minds, our food and therefore our bodies leading us to a healthcare system that’s designed to kill us slowly and profitably. Our ‘leaders’ are helpless to do much against such an obscene ‘thing’ which will stop at nothing to control through massive manipulation using all means possible. It’s starting with our children’s education and we seem helpless to stop it. There are systems in place to prevent progress – to create wars, trash our planet, rubbish our brains and enslave humanity. It reaches into every part of our lives and even the so called most powerful man in the world, The US Presidents can’t stop it cause he does not need to know. So yes, what’s needed is a shift in consciousness. In our understanding of the problem. When we can unify and end separation, then maybe we can fix this but till then I’m not sure anything we ‘do’ or ‘say’ can make much impact.

    • Sarah Rozenthuler
      Sarah Rozenthuler says:

      Dear Mohan, A massive shift in consciousness is indeed what’s needed. Ending our sense of separation and seeing our common humanity is at the heart of this. When leaders lead from understanding our interdependency, this will help to change things. Leadership begins within. Thank you for participating here. It’s great to re-connect.

  2. Julian Wontner
    Julian Wontner says:

    That little acorn is the descended sum
    of thousands of oak trees over milleniae,
    for what is tangible and grows must be
    blessed as it struggles for water sustenance
    and life in the sunshine. Time capsulated.
    What do we really know and
    When was the first acorn born……………?

    • Sarah Rozenthuler
      Sarah Rozenthuler says:

      Hi Julian, good to hear your voice here. You’re making me think about how our capacity to talk has has evolved over millennia. I think it’s time for us to develop further our ability to have a conversation. I’ve seen leadership teams make quantum leaps in their dialogue by having some simple tools and a change of mindset. Exciting times!

  3. peter owen
    peter owen says:

    The point about the vital impact a single conversation can have is most valuable. I think when meeting someone we should hold this in mind and plan our ‘entry’ into a conversation very carefully, so as to ensure a truly valid outcome arises from the dialogue.

    • Sarah Rozenthuler
      Sarah Rozenthuler says:

      Hi Peter, I agree that preparation is key for a conversation. There’s also a balance to be struck between preparation and ‘improvisation.’ A true conversation is a co-creation. We can never really know how a conversation will go until we’re in the midst of it! Thanks for your support here.


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