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)


The power of thinking together

Dialogue is an inherently collective activity. It arises in the space between people, not by individuals thinking or operating alone. Instead of focusing our attention solely on individual leaders, we expand our attention to what is happening in their midst. Dialogue weaves between people and creates a rich tapestry of meaning that can only emerge from minds meeting in mutual respect.

By talking and thinking together, a shared pool of understanding emerges. Out of this, new insights, and possibilities for action arise. Dialogue is not, therefore, merely a “talking shop.” True dialogue leads to aligned action across a system. When there has been a true exchange, co-creating the new can happen. Isaacs goes on to say:

“Dialogue is a conversation in which people think together in relationship. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others — possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred…” (p.20)

Dialogue involves people coming into contact with one another. The roots of the word dialogue come from the Greek words dia and logos, where dia means “through” and logos translates as “word”, or “meaning”. In essence, a dialogue is a flow of meaning that moves through a group of people gathered together.

Calling forth the new

Dialogue flows most easily – and creatively – when people speak to what is moving “through” them in the moment. This authentic voicing, combined with deep listening to all the different views that people express, creates an expansive emotional space. In such a “container” or holding environment, difficult, even unpalatable issues surface without relationships rupturing. When our attention includes – and goes beyond – any single view, the field of possibilities widens.

For the new to flow in, people need a different stance. Instead of the more typical behaviours that dominate meetings – asserting an opinion, objecting to an opposing point of view and discarding another’s perspective – we need to be receptive. As David Bohm, an eminent quantum physicist and philosopher, wrote in his book On Dialogue (1996):

“In dialogue … nobody is trying to win… There is a different sort of spirit in it. In a dialogue there is no attempt to gain points, or to make your particular view prevail… It’s a situation called win-win… in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins.” (p. 7)

Or, as I put it in my own book, Life-Changing Conversations (2012):

                 “A true conversation is a co-creation”

When there is a culture of dialogue, breakthrough solutions and new insights emerge as the product of collective intelligence.

What is needed to call dialogue forward?

Creating a culture of dialogue is an act of leadership. It has greatest potential when sponsored by an organisation’s most senior leaders, but anyone at any level of an organisation can contribute.

Although seeding a culture of dialogue is a generative process with as many forms and manifestations as there are people and organisations, three key elements in the process stand out.

Focused intention. Someone needs to hold the desire to activate a culture of dialogue. Drawing a group of people together to create shared meaning and discover new insights provides a powerful energetic foundation for dialogue to take place. An invitation to talk needs to stir people into action.

A charged container. Someone needs to create a meeting space for the dialogue. There are concrete aspects – including the room, light, air, seating and access to nature. There are also more subtle aspects: as people enter the space, they need to feel able to open up and suspend “business–as–usual”. A crucial component is that people feel a sense of safety and trust. They need to believe that bringing themselves authentically to the conversation will be rewarding. When people meet authentically, this “charges” the space with co-creative energy.

Diversity of perspective. “It’s as if we’ve been programmed to be collectively smart,” writes James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds (2004). In order for a group of people to be “wise”, however, certain criteria need to be met. Chief amongst these is that participants have diverse points of view. People need to feel that their uniqueness – and that of all the others – is encouraged.

Moving forwards

When teams improve their dialogue, new possibilities open up. What’s exciting is that there is a whole ‘communications technology’ available that leaders can draw on to help them. Better dialogue leads to better decisions, which in turn leads to enhanced performance and more fulfilled team members. It all starts with turning towards one another and having a more creative conversation.

To download a free ebook on Leading Systemic Dialogue, click here

4 replies
  1. Colin Smith
    Colin Smith says:

    Hi Sarah, this is excellent, thank you.

    I want to spend more time in dialogue and more often that not feel frustrated at the lack of it in organisation, meetings and so on. Everyone wants to talk, to say their piece, to make sure they are ‘on top’. There is little regard for the other, there is only hearing, very little listening, and when they do, it is to formulate their reply. It feels like a battle, right or wrong, I win, you lose.

    As you know it does not have to be that way. I love your description of ‘a conversation with the centre’, that landed and so resonated with me.

    Part of the challenge I feel, is that everyone needs to be on the same page, it is difficult to have one person who wants a dialogue and the rest want a ‘conversation’. I know from my work in listening, that I listen to the speaker, want him or her to ‘go again’ when they seem to have finished, (in the eyes of the rest of the group), so I wait, curious, interested in what may now arise in that silence. When, ‘bam’ the silence is broken, not by the speaker, but by a new speaker, who is not even building on what was said, or asking a question, but taking the conversation off somewhere else. Oh, I think. When I do get to speak, I have to think quickly, use tactics to keep my position, and then I get interrupted and off we go again.

    If this happens a few times, I wonder, “What’s the point”, and more likely to drop out altogether. If they are not interested in my thoughts and more importantly in the deeper thoughts of everyone, including mine, then why bother.

    What amuses me is if I suggest that we send out all the presentations and reports a week in advance, create an agenda which consists of a series of questions (after all Nancy Kline shares that the brain responds best in the presence of a question), thinking is happening in advance. And at the meeting, we invite people to share their new thinking, and we agree that in response to them being precise in their speaking we will all listen deeply, and not interrupted, the response I get is not positive. That is far too much work, how can I expect these busy people to read it beforehand, and we don’t have time to have a meeting like that…..my heart drops a little.

    One day, this will be the way, the move to dialogue will be complete.

    Take care, and here’s to that time.


    • Sarah Rozenthuler
      Sarah Rozenthuler says:

      Dear Colin,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response to my post. I think that improving the quality of listening is the biggest single thing we can do to improve the quality of the dialogue. It’s great to hear how you’re doing this. And, as you say so clearly yourself, dialogue calls for much more than one person being receptive and responsive to others.

      When I sit in a circle of people talking together I sometimes have the image of a marble rolling around in a bowl. The conversation, at least to begin with, goes off in all sorts of directions (as you describe.) No one is building on what another says and the randomness can be disorientating and frustrating. What I find, however, is that with enough time and collective patience, the ‘marble’ will eventually come to rest. If people stay present and attentive, a common thread will slowly start to emerge. This could be a question that engages, a story that inspires or a metaphor that captures the essence of the topic.

      I’ve found that it helps people to understand at the outset that divergent thinking is needed early on and convergent thinking later. Framing dialogue in this way enables people to slow down and deal with some of the inevitable ‘where is this going?!’ dynamic. Hanging in there is worth it – not only does the conversation deepen but we grow too in our ability to ‘sit with’ uncertainty until it changes into something else.

      Wishing you well with all the fine work you do.

      Very best,


      • Colin Smith
        Colin Smith says:

        Thank you Sarah

        Whilst reflecting on your marble metaphor, what came to mind was mindfulness and how the mind works. With individual presence and quiet, the mind settles, we can begin to hear what is arising from deep within us, and stillness pervades. In fact, Tom Peters, he of In Search of Excellence, says, “Listening is Meditation. Clear your mind for the duration.”

        Aligned to what we are sharing, and sparked off by someone else wondering about their impact on meetings, I notice that I can be quiet during meetings (see above for why), and I too wondered what the impact of my being quiet has on others. So in those situations where I am not the host of the meeting, I am now working on raising my thinking early on so that everyone is clear why I am quiet, and how changing the way the meeting is being run, could be more inclusive for everyone, enables deeper thinking, and more involvement and productivity.

        As in life, we all have choices, and deciding to do nothing rather that agree/disagree, is also a choice.

        Take care


        • Sarah Rozenthuler
          Sarah Rozenthuler says:

          Hello Colin,

          Thank you for sharing that wonderful quote from Tom Peters. Bringing our whole-hearted presence to a conversation makes such a difference. And if we can help others to understand that being quiet is another, deeper way to participate, so much the better.

          Dialogue is greatly enriched when we listen to what’s happening inside us as well as to what’s happening in the room.

          Very best,



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