Having 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.
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