Leaders in dialogue

What 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.

Many meetings fall flat at the outset. Leaders typically pay little attention to creating an environment where a team can not only talk together but think together. Without attending to the more subtle aspects of a conversation, a meeting can quickly be dismissed as yet another ‘talking shop.’ How can teams move beyond exchanging views but nothing really changing?

Creating a ‘container’

For people in the room to be energized and engaged, it helps to create a ‘container’ for a different kind of conversation. 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.

This is a real departure from business-as-usual where team members sit stiffly around a table, one or two dominate the conversation or a deck of Powerpoint slides takes centre stage. Unhelpful rules of engagement – people defending their positions from opposing trenches, macho posturing, puerile point-scoring – need to be interrupted and disrupted. Without a container, the conversation is unlikely to drop into a deeper space where real insights emerge.

A container is created when people begin to talk more openly and, more importantly, listen to one another. As people voice their half-baked ideas and discover new meanings, their energies gather together. The field starts to hum with authenticity, awareness and acceptance. It is this transformative shift in the atmosphere that creates the openness where a flow of new ideas can move through the room.

Unlocking collective intelligence

With a strong container, our creativity goes to the next level. A team is able to arrive at new ideas that no one could have come up with by thinking alone. As the quality of the container expands, so does the conversation.

It also helps to improve dialogue if leaders have an understanding of how to unlock collective intelligence. Dialogue moves through a particular sequence of conversational ‘fields’, each one expanding the previous. Understanding this rhythm helps a team to settle into talking and thinking together.

Drawing on the work of Otto Scharmer (as articulated by William Isaacs in his 1999 book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together) the flow of dialogue unfolds as follows:

Field I – Politeness/Talking nice

People say what they think they’re expected to say. Talking is superficial and clichéd responses are common. When difficult topics emerge or the energy gets too much, people withdraw rather than confront one another.

Field II – ‘Breakdown’/Talking tough

Politeness starts to give way to people saying what they’re really thinking. Differences of opinion come in as people express what’s actually on their minds. As conflict starts to surface, if the container is not able to hold the tension, people go back into politeness.

Field III – Inquiry/Talking reflectively

If the container is strong enough, people take a step back and explore their own and others’ thinking. They respect others’ perspectives even though they might not agree with them. There is a willingness to suspend judgment and certainty, creating a reflective rather than reactive conversation.

Field IV – Flow/Talking together

People start to think together in truly creative ways. As the dialogue deepens, new insights start to emerge. Participants expand on each other’s contributions. There might almost be the sense of the group speaking with one voice as a flow of collective intelligence moves through the room.

Talking about hot topics

Some teams stay in the loop between the first two fields – politeness and breakdown. However, for a team to talk meaningfully about big issues, they need to break out of unhelpful, repetitive patterns.

To break the pattern of courteous but superficial exchange, people need to voice truths that might be uncomfortable to hear. With a ‘container’ in place, the conversation is less likely to fracture or swing back into politeness. By attending to the environment, a dialogue can move into a deeper place.

Questions for reflection

1.    In which field of conversation is the ‘centre of gravity’ for your team, department or part of the system? Are you mostly in ‘Politeness’, ‘Breakdown, ‘Inquiry’ or ‘Flow’?

2.    How well do you manage turn-taking in conversations? How might you deal with anyone who’s particularly dominant or quiet?

3.    How could you create the container for a different kind of conversation about a ‘hot topic’ in your organization within the next month?

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