Dialogue – a conversation with a centre, not sides

(inspired by the book ‘Dialogue’ by William Isaacs)

I have just come away from three days of hosting a participatory leadership training with the European Commission in Brussels. This is the 10th such seminar we have held, and the field is growing stronger each time. From conversation with members of the hosting team during and after the event, it has become clear that  participants would benefit from some explicit teaching around dialogue. So I’ve been revisiting William Isaac’s excellent book on the subject (it’s even better this time round!) and wish to share my first take on the teaching with you here.

Participatory Leadership practices are all about dialogue. In many contexts – especially professional ones – what we know of conversation equals debate and discussion. A basic skill we need to develop is how to recognise the difference between debate and discussion on the one hand, and dialogue on the other. This is so that we can recognise which one we are engaged in at any moment and learn how to switch between them in order to use which ever form serves best for our purposes.

The art of thinking together

Fundamentally, the difference lies in the choice between thinking alone and thinking together. In our society, we are much more used to thinking alone, and this draws us into discussion and debate, where we find ourselves defending our views and sustaining our positions against opposing views and positions.

The art of thinking together

While discussion is a powerful mode of exchange, it has its limitations because it focuses on:

  • either/or thinking
  • closure and completion
  • controlling the outcome

Discussion can easily move into debate, whose root means “to beat down”. This often creates frustration and bad feeling among people who need to work together.

Dialogue is based on the assumption that in every situation there is an underlying wholeness. Not only is there is room for all perspectives, but unless all perspectives are expressed, held and honoured, that wholeness cannot fully emerge and be seen.

Defend or suspend

Learning to dialogue is about learning to make conscious choices, and so it is a path of personal development. We can transform any conversation into a dialogue by choosing to suspend rather than defend.

Suspending means listening without resistance (we dis-identify from our own starting position). This leads to reflective dialogue, where we can explore underlying causes, rules and assumptions, to get to deeper questions and framing of problems. From here, it is possible to enter generative dialogue, where together we can invent unprecedented possibilities and new insights. A collective flow emerges which is energising and enlightening. We are inquiring together into what matters.

Four basic skills

Dialogue requires four basic skills: listening, respecting, suspending and voicing. A little unpacking shows that these simple words contain an enormous harvest of wisdom and depth.


What does it take to really listen?

  • Developing an inner silence. It is hard to listen when our minds are full of our own inner dialogue. Learning to listen is learning to be present. We must learn to notice what we are feeling now.
  • Recognising that much of our reaction to others comes from memory – it is stored reaction, not fresh response. In this case we are not really listening, we are simply “downloading” from memory of what we already know.
  • Learning to distinguish between the inferences we make about experience and the experience itself. Stick with the facts, don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Following the disturbance – when we are emotionally triggered by something we hear, we tend to close down and act out. Instead of looking for evidence that confirms my point of view, I can listen for the source of the difficulty – in myself and in others.
  • Listening while noticing resistance – this helps us to become conscious of the ways in which we project our opinions about others onto them, and distort what is said without realising it.


What does respect look like in practice and how do we learn it?

  • Honouring boundaries –Treat the person next to you as a teacher – what do they have to teach you that you do not know? Look for what is highest and best in the other and treat them as a mystery that you can never fully comprehend.
  • Assuming coherence – look for the whole. The new physics proposes that human beings are intimately part of the overall fabric of life. However, we are conditioned to see only parts, and to assume that the parts comprise the whole. The holistic view suggests that the whole precedes the parts.
  • Respecting polarisations – to enable dialogue, we must learn to respect the polarisations that arise without attempting to fix them!
  • Supporting the people who challenge – different view points must be integrated, or disturbances will continue. Dialogue requires willingness to hold the space open for inquiry.
  • Learning to hold tension – when a group can hold the tension that arises without reacting to it, its capacity for dialogue rises to a whole new level.


What becomes possible when we suspend our certainties?

  • Dialogue is possible only among people who can be surprised by what they say. Recognise and embrace what you do not already know.
  • The first step is to disclose: we make available (to ourselves and others) the contents of our consciousness so we can see what’s going on.
  • The next step is to become aware of the processes that generate our thought. Observing our thought processes, we transform them.
  • Suspension asks us to refrain from fixing, correcting and problem-solving in favour of inquiring into what we observe.
  • At the core of inquiry is the question. A really good question creates a tension in us that we must learn to tolerate – suspend the search for answers and see what emerges.


What happens when we speak what is true for us?

  • Simply ask: what needs to be expressed now? What do I sense is trying to come through here?
  • Finding our authentic voice requires willingness to speak in the circle without knowing what we will say.
  • Let there be silence – make space to let the meaning bloom.
  • Speak to and from the centre, recognising that it is not only about interpersonal relationships, but that there is something larger at stake.

As I ponder the implications of these four skills, I realise that mastering them would be basic to becoming a fully-fledged adult in an enlightened society. May it one day come to pass.

About iyeshe

Woman returning to the wild. Cunning linguist, mother of twins, witch, host, harvester, spaceholder for the dawning Aquarian age, evolutionary wooden-spoon wielder, self-mitigating carbon footprint, wannabe holon in the forthcoming collective buddha...
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