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Dialogue in Action: Creating Meaning through Words

dialogue in action

Dialogue is a transformative process – a symmetrical form of communication distinct from conversation, discussion and debate.  It is the only interaction where participants act as peers, driven by authentic curiosity and respect rather than power.  Power relationships often inhibit the combination and interweaving of ideas that characterize Dialogue.  Dialogue goes beyond ordinary conversation because it de-emphasizes power, opening a space for people to relate to one another as equals; and through listening, understanding, and learning, create meaning through words.


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Last week we were very fortunate to join The Trium Group, a boutique consulting firm in San Francisco, for their annual team off-site.  About 15 of us met at Westerbeke Ranch in Sonoma, California.  This remote, rustic property first served as a vacation retreat for the Van Hoosear family; and in the late 1960s expanded into the conference center it is today.  The ranch and its owners promote a spirit of growth, tradition and hospitality that is truly unique, creating the perfect atmosphere for our time there.


Coming together with Trium was a special moment for me.  It was an opportunity to re-connect with one of the partners with whom Generon worked over a decade ago and learn together with a firm who holds a similar world view to ours.  Trium’s philosophy is based on the notion that the fundamental drivers of success and change lie in things that are hard to see and manage – things like trust, relationship and mindset.  Their approach is through a systems-view that intentionally connects human dynamics to business issues which dovetails nicely with the U-Process.  Generon also uses a systems-view approach, purposefully connecting human development and business.  It’s no surprise that we discovered immediate synergy with one another and palpable excitement to explore together through Dialogue.


Our meeting room was circular, surrounded by ancient oak trees; I loved it!  And how apropos!  In Dialogue, participants are seated in a circle with an open space in the center.  To have a round meeting room was almost too synchronistic!  The natural setting greatly supported the experience as well.  


We came together on the first day, seated in a circle of chairs set upon natural wood floors accented by colorful oriental rugs.  Although we had an opportunity to speak with nearly half of the Trium team prior to the off-site; this was the first time we were physically meeting one another.  


After a welcome and orientation from one of the Westerbeke Ranch owners, we took some time to check-in and share with one another our excitements and concerns for the retreat.  We then had a session on Dialogue where Joseph shared about his meeting with David Bohm and I gave an overview on Dialogue and how it differs from conversation, discussion and debate.  Joseph and I shared about the U-Process and Organizational Renewal; and after lunch we reviewed the principles and characteristics of Dialogue before putting them into practice.


Using Trium’s iceberg as our model, our Dialogue began by observing current reality — what’s visible, what’s murky and what’s hidden.  The capacity to precisely observe and fully comprehend currently reality is foundational.  This is why Generon’s U-Process states the word “Observe” three times – Observe…Observe…Observe.  We cannot truly change anything unless we can see and accept things as they actually are.  


After our Dialogue on current reality, Joseph shared our perspectives on leadership and the power of discovering and serving one’s Purpose.  As this applies to business, companies with a strong Purpose are clear on why they exist.  Their employees, customers and stakeholders understand not only what the company does; they recognize the core values guiding its work.


German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, “He who has a Why can endure any How.” Purpose inspires the whole of an organization and can fundamentally transform its business – guiding everything from decision-making to strategy to innovation.  It enables meaningful engagement with employees, customers and society.  In short, Purpose drives growth.


∞ ∞ ∞


As we considered the power of Purpose and all that was shared the first day, on Day 2, after a check-in, we completed a journaling exercise to help us identify the sources of challenges, frustrations, joy and energy in our lives and work.  After some time for breakouts, we came back to the circle and entered into Dialogue as a way to think differently about the future of our work and consider together how to fully unleash the energy to evolve it.


This Dialogue on Day 2 was particularly profound.  All of us came truly came together as peers.  As the facilitator for the off-site, I had the gift of the bystander role more often than not, creating opportunities to offer different viewpoints and new frames of reference along with reminders and encouragement about the principles of Dialogue.  From this perspective, I always find it fascinating to observe how Dialogue unfolds, enfolds and then disappears only to unfold again.  It takes a lot of practice to be in Dialogue for an extended length of time.  Yet I was truly inspired by what emerged.


∞ ∞ ∞


David Bohm, the quantum physicist who originally proposed this form of communication, referred to Dialogue as a process that could “create meaning by thinking together” – a process where participants share and create meaning through words.  And this is precisely what happened on Day 2.


Initially we were in deep conversation – bouncing ideas off one another, sharing our views about the future.  This lasted for quite some time.  Then at one point, something shifted.  What I observed is that the group started to link the “Why” – what came up for them in the journaling exercise – to the “How”.  How can we create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts?  This is when the Dialogue began.


It became clear to me that we had become a team that was genuinely thinking together when the group started to combine and interweave ideas in a way that was significant – literally creating meaning through words.  


As the group began linking the “Why” to the “How”, what occurred to us was that the very words we have been using to define the roles and functions within our firms were actually energetically blocking our desired futures.  By changing the words – by altering those “labels” in a way that held meaning – we had a breakthrough.  And from that discovery, we were able to further emerge ideas and make commitments to bring people together in diverse ways, allowing their knowledge and skills to influence each other, exposing them to different ideas and new inspired ways of thinking.

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