Can you explain what dialogue is about and why it is so valuable as a meaning maker?
Firstly, it's important to differentiate the meaning of dialogue itself. When people hear the word dialogue, we tend to have a different association of what that might be. It could be a dialogue in a screenplay, a conversation, it could be a workshop.
At Serenity in Leadership we use Bohm Dialogue, which is a practice and a process developed by David Bohm, a quantum physicist. He believed that many of the crises that we face are a result of fragmentation – we have become fragmented as societies and have lost sight of a cohesive whole.
For Bohm, meaning is the cement that holds society together. He was curious about how our thinking creates our reality. For him the practice of dialogue for a group is to follow the flow of meaning, and by sharing meaning, create new thinking together. What makes something meaningful? And how does this meaning differ across organisations, cultures and societies? Dialogue is a space that allows people to connect with what is meaningful and important to them. It also allows people to uncover assumptions and biases, and potentially change their thinking as a result of deeply listening to new perspectives and the experiences of others.
As a society, we have become accustomed to look at the symptoms of our problems, rather than the cause. We can feel stuck because to think deeper and share our own experiences can provoke a feeling of fear in some people. Dialogue is key in removing the band aid and getting down to the root cause of the challenges we face.
To truly understand the value of dialogue it is important to look at other ways we can converse and how this differs to the Bohm dialogue practice.
- Monologue - talking at people, such as TED talks or when a boss wants to deliver a message - it can be either inspiring or boring/authoritarian depending on the speaker!
- Debate - a style of communication that may once have had rules and protocols that ensured respect for both parties, but now mostly increases polarisation and reinforces the need to be ‘right’, above all else.
- Discussion - whilst discussion can be lively and engaging at times, we tend to navigate within the boundaries of politeness and the status quo.
Dialogue is the one space we can consciously go into with the intention to be open, curious and non-judgemental. It's not enough to hope people will naturally be open and willing to listen. We can’t guarantee that – we have to be intentional with the way that we communicate.
What is it that drew you to dialogue?
A philosophy teacher told me about David Bohm’s book while I was studying my master’s degree and said it would blow my mind – and it did.
After reading the book, I drew out principals and used them to frame workshops I was running at the time around values. People resonated deeply with these principles, I think because dialogue provides a non-judgemental space, in an increasingly judgemental world. There was also something slightly magical about it – the notion that we are going to test the definition of what it means to be human.
There are many approaches to Bohm Dialogue, with purists taking a ‘no agenda’ approach. Whilst I enjoy ‘no agenda’ dialogues, my method would be considered ‘applied dialogue’ as I believe we live in urgent times that call for a more direct approach in what we bring people together to talk about. This is why I developed a method that includes mindfulness and simple framing exercises to allow people to deepen their thinking, increase their awareness and feel present. I am all about finding ways to get people to a dialogue state (a meaning-making state) quicker. With Serenity in Leadership, we do this by bringing Dialogue into organisations as well as hosting our online facilitated dialogue events.
How can we as leaders get better at dialogue? How can organisations get better at dialogue?
Leaders have to, first and foremost, be curious and courageous. Dialogue is a being space (feeling) as opposed to a doing space, and so it tends to take a lot of people outside of their comfort zones. I believe that for dialogue to work in organisations, it has to be sponsored and led by someone who has the power to convene so that they can take the time out of their schedule to bring people together.
I then think it's about understanding what you want to gain from the dialogue practice. There is a distinction between being listened to, and being heard. While dialogue isn't about the doing, leadership needs to be intelligent enough to capture what is being said so they can apply it, thereafter. If they don’t move from being into doing, they run the risk of creating a great sense of frustration and even mistrust amongst those in the dialogue.
Dialogue cannot be stand-alone – it is part of a process that embraces the values of inclusiveness, listening, and of being brave enough to hear what is being said.
What is a misconception about dialogue that you can clear up?
1) Dialogue is a waste of time.
This is the challenge, not just with dialogue but with facilitation in organisations, too. There are a lot of meetings that are a complete waste of time and this is largely due to lack of agenda and knowing your meeting’s purpose. This then can give dialogue a bad reputation if you don't create the right conditions for dialogue to flourish. Dialogue is fundamental in enabling people to be (feel) in a space in order to be able to do (act), after. You have to trust the process!
2) Dialogue is just chat.
It is a big challenge getting people to understand what we mean by dialogue. It is not a monologue, a conversation, a discussion or a workshop. It is a tool for creating meaning, new perspectives and thinking, and ultimately change. It takes commitment, a willingness to ‘not know’ everything and the understanding that lasting change takes time and needs to be inclusive.
Ultimately dialogue is about transformational change and creating the conditions in which that change can occur.
Click here for more information about our past and upcoming online facilitated dialogue events.
This piece was written by Jessica Ball.