I’m always searching for persuasive ways to convey the potential of dialogue practices in changing our everyday conversations. While I know, as an experience, the distinctive feel of a conversation shaped by the principles and practices of dialogue, I find it difficult to put into words.
Others struggle too. Clients say they handle their important conversations differently – and yet can’t articulate what has changed. As I listen to their narratives, I glimpse what might be going on. I notice that they’re paying greater attention to three things:
- the ‘form’ of conversations in terms of their shape and quality;
- how they carry themselves into their conversations; and
- the context of a conversation and their personal intentions within it, both of which inform what is relevant.
Over time and with application, thinking differently about conversations and the way we prepare for them becomes a habit. The habit accretes slowly, and each increment is imperceptible. But the compound effect is profound. It’s a change in practice, giving rise to a different experience. It’s not about applying a technique.
Three movements support this change in practice.
Firstly, in dialogue practice we turn away from a notion that ‘content is king’ in conversations and towards an orientation of consciously preparing the ground for conversation. Making this shift naturally leads us away from actively orchestrating or managing a conversation (which can stifle candid expression of differences) and towards a process of building collective capacity to handle diverse perspectives, making it possible for new thinking to arise.
In the territory of dialogue, all voices are received and held in parity, and with respect and curiosity. This requires a movement away from running a meeting, and towards fostering conditions for innovation, collaboration, transformation and other aspects of an imagined better future.
Together, these movements create a landscape that can be difficult to navigate: dialogue is non-linear and we don’t know how our conversation will unfold. The reality of dialogue is that it’s unclear, ambiguous and complex – which can feel gritty and disorientating. This can perturb those used to shaping events – we have to set aside the habit of finding the shortest route to a destination in favour of slower exploration, with diversions and occasional cul-de-sacs.
However, upside of such freedom to roam is that it cultivates greater shared understanding of the interdependencies, nuances and human factors inherent in the terrain. It also creates space for greater ownership and accountability, improving the quality of thinking, decisions and actions.
Embracing the potential of dialogue practices requires another movement. We step away from the notion that there’s a technique, tool or approach for making dialogue happen and towards a recognition that a good conversation unfolds when those present embody the very best of themselves, individually and together. This requires a change in the way we relate to ourselves, to others and to a conversation itself.
In his seminal book, Dialogue and the art of thinking together, William Isaacs declares:
‘In dialogue, you yourself are part of the method. You cannot be separated from it. To engage in dialogue is to engage with yourself in a profoundly new way.’
One client explained their experience this way:
‘Working with dialogue practices encouraged me to reclaim parts of myself that had fallen into disuse. I rediscovered how perceptive I am and put this to good use.’
For me, moving towards dialogue is a deep and enduring process of personal development. It brings me into good contact with myself and into good contact with others. This changes the very fabric of our interactions – and good conversation inevitably follows.
- What would inspire you to move towards dialogue and change the shape and quality of your everyday conversations?
- How might you begin to engage with yourself (and others) in a profoundly new way?