In my early years as an independent coach and consultant I used a variety of frameworks and approaches, but none of them defined my practice. The essential, delineating disciplines came in the form of dialogue practices rooted in the thinking of David Bohm and embodied practices developed by Wendy Palmer. It isn’t happenstance that practices are central to my work – I’ve come to believe that most of our difficulties as leaders (and human beings) arise when we don’t (or can’t) put what we know into practice at crucial moments.
To be at our best when we’re under pressure, the approaches we draw on need to be second nature, deeply embedded in our very bones. This means that we’ve used them again and again. In other words, we’ve put in the practice and become familiar enough with an approach to be able to use it in challenging circumstances. I’ve travelled this path with both dialogue and leadership embodiment practices – and now do my utmost to support others who are on a similar journey.
Dialogue is an ordinary word, and it’s often used interchangeably with other words such as debate and discussion. In my world it has a particular meaning, and William Isaacs summarises it well in his book Dialogue and the art of thinking together:
‘Dialogue is a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channelling it towards something that has never been created before.’
This means that dialogue is a conversation in which we actively engage with difference. If we do this skilfully, we support the emergence of new thinking. In this way, conversation becomes a creative activity.
The reason that dialogue practices seem crucial to me is that leadership is enacted largely through the medium of conversation. Dialogue practices invite us to examine the shape and quality of our conversations and to consider the conditions (or container) that will support the kind of conversation we want to have. We also think about how we’ll begin to plant the seeds for a particular conversation and how we’ll carry ourselves in it.
Fundamentally, participating in dialogue is a way of being and of relating to others, rather than a set of tools and techniques. In dialogue, we attend to structures and patterns alongside subject matter and we willingly engage in the struggle of understanding the minds and hearts of others.
I’ve written a whole book about what I mean by dialogue and may write another. Here I will simply say it is a conversation in which we truly connect with others and explore challenging ground together in order to gain some shared understanding. It is a conversation in which we practise listening, being curious and respectful, and speaking candidly. It is also a conversation in which we suddenly realise that several hours have passed! At its best, it is a collective energetic state akin to being ‘in flow’.
From the very start of my exploration of dialogue practices I saw parallels between my T’ai Chi practice and the ethos of dialogue. In particular I noticed a connection between how I experienced the energy of difference in conversations and what I was learning about conflict through the martial art of T’ai Chi Chuan. However, I didn’t find an effective way to share these insights with others until I encountered the late Wendy Palmer and her Leadership Embodiment work in January 2010. I began training with Wendy and remained her student until her death in December 2022. She continues to be an inspiring presence in my life and work.
Leadership Embodiment practices draw on the principles of Aikido and mindfulness to support us to notice our reactions to adversity and pressure and then to recover our poise in a way that positively changes our relationship to these challenging situations. Using the practices, we gain greater perspective and have more capacity to connect to our human-ness, creativity and integrity. In short, we’re able to meet challenges with greater presence and we make better choices as a result.
I found the practices life-changing on a personal basis. They also profoundly changed the way that I introduced dialogue to others, blending embodied approaches with cognitive frameworks from the very start.
The cornerstone of Leadership Embodiment is a centring practice, a sequence of adjustments to physiology, mind, spirit and energy that shifts our state from one with narrow focus and limited possibilities to one that is open and receptive to others. In accessing a centred state, we’re in tune with our situation and environment and draw on the energies around us to be of service to all involved. It is a state in which we are inspired and inspiring and it can also be described as being in flow or in the zone.
The centred state is in contrast to our everyday self, in which we tend to be on autopilot, using tried and tested approaches because we don’t have enough time to think. In this state we’re also prone to taking things personally and behaving in predictable ways. This is simply part of being human and is good enough for much of what we do. But sometimes, when facing a situation that is both important and delicate, we benefit from having the capacity to go beyond our everyday self and to risk responding in a new way. Leadership Embodiment practices give us the means to do this.