The Magic of Dialogue

May 10th, 2016

As soon as I read Lilian’s email I knew we had a problem. We had designed what we believed was a powerful, participative workshop to enable a client team to clarify their purpose and activities. But a recent announcement by their senior executive made our design less workable.

When we began our call, neither Lilian or I knew how would work around this new development. But we had known each other and worked together for years. And I had faith that we would be able to solve this problem together. This faith was based on our history of respecting each other, listening to each other and being able to influence each other.

I was on vacation and had the luxury thinking only about this problem for a day or two. So I began the call by proposing a somewhat wild idea. (Big problems often require wild solutions.) When I asked her what she thought of the idea, she described the part of the idea that she liked (whew, a vote that I wasn’t crazy). Then she pointed to the part that seemed impractical. She then added a structure that would make it more workable. It was my turn to listen deeply to her idea. In the spirit of dialogue; paused, thought and included it, then added another feature I believed would improve on it. She thought about my addition and questioned it. Then expressed a liking for it. We went back and forth for a few more rounds, each time listening to each others’ ideas, then adding a another feature of our own. It was like taking turns building a Lego castle. Before long we had a workshop design that we both like and we both thought would give the team what they needed.

This kind of working dialogue involves two different skills: deep and open minded listening; and free, bold self expression. Each of us had ideas and opinions that arose from our respective experiences and our beliefs. But we could not be so attached to our ideas that we couldn’t alter them, or give them up in the face of a seemingly better idea.

The skill here is to know when to let go of an idea and when to advocate for it. This requires a level of self-awareness that can differentiate between liking an idea because your ego is attached to it and liking an idea because it makes sense, moves the conversation forward or contributes to solving the problem. Skillful dialoguers move back and forth between listening deeply, stating ideas and self-reflecting.

The goal is to create a “third person” who emerges from the minds of two opinionated and open minded individuals. David Bohm, the physicist and popularizer of the dialogue movement calls this phenomenon creating the “group mind”. My experience with these kinds of dialogue has led me to see possibilities for its use in the workplace, in the home, in universities and even in politics. If people trained dialogue and practiced it, could the world actually become a better, more innovative and less contentious place?


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