How to expand your views by changing how you converse

How to expand your views by changing how you converse

Earth Water Air Fire
Informational Discussion Conversation Dialogue

One of the most evocative ways to be truly mindful of the different ways of conversing and communicating is by using the archetypes of the four elements (Earth, Water Air and Fire).  The attributes of each elements strongly resonate with the four forms (Informational, Discussion, Conversation and Dialogue) of communicating and help us to visualise the limitations and appropriateness of each mode. When we are conscious and aware of the conversation we are holding in relation to the elements there can be necessary preparation that enables groups to maximise the benefits of each type of communication and have the skills to transition between these. This is mindfulness in action.

This elemental framework can be used as a diagnostic tool, helping to identify entrenched communication patterns, while providing a practical set of exercises and principles upon which these patterns can be shifted towards a style of communicating that is more appropriate to the goal of the particular situation.  When the elemental framework is used consciously by a group, it can provide a powerful tool for regulating dialogue when situations arise in which communication might normally get stuck, move too fast, or leave participants feeling disempowered or frustrated.

 

The Elements of communication

Earth communication corresponds to a completely objective consciousness, where any received content simply becomes a ‘that’, a fact, to be manipulated, dodged, ignored, and so forth. It does not take the other party into account at all, except as another fact to be assimilated. Water communication corresponds to an Imaginative consciousness, in which we form inner pictures of the movements of the other’s speech, but these pictures are still heavily tinged with our own personal associations and assumptions. Air communication corresponds to Inspirative consciousness, in which, through silencing our own expressive tendencies, we create an inner space in which the gesture of the other can speak, in a spiritual sense by breathing into our own soul something of itself. In Fire communication, this process takes on the form of the even more unitive process of Intuition, where it is possible to have the experience that the normal duality separating ‘me’ from ‘you’ is burned away, so that I feel as if something essential of you is living inside.

Earth communication (Informational)

When we think of the element earth we can imagine definite boundaries to the substances; the mountain top is precisely here, the rock occupies just this specific space. We could therefore describe earth elements as definite, shaped, and located. Earth elements also have the tendency to be rigid and resistant to change – that is, to maintain their shape and position.

The Earth mode of communication is dominantly content‐based, comprised of statements of fact which strongly indicate ‘how things are’. The primary goal of Earth communication is to clarify the facts of a situation, to provide information, and to create a shared foundation upon which the further stages of communication develop. As there is little need for any kind of actual back-and-forth when communicating there is a lack of flow.  It may in fact feel like no interaction is occurring at all, or that you have no recourse or ability to respond as information seems to move in one way only.  The language of Earth communications can often take an impersonal form even when everyone knows it is coming from a real person, for example, “A decision has been reached” rather than “We have all come to a decision”, or “Company policy states…” instead of “I would love to help you but I have to adhere to company policy” and so forth.

Earth communication can be extremely efficient, direct, and clear, as well as the least emotionally charged way of communicating. In order to have healthy Earth communication, the task of the speaker is to be straightforward, impartial, complete, and precise. The task of the hearer in Earth communication is to simply recognize the presented facts without reaction or judgment, but with distinction, and to request clarifying information if needed.

Earth communication works best when it follows established channels and when the participants – specifically the receivers – are properly prepared and conscious of the purpose and appropriateness of this mode of communication.

 

Water Communication (Discussion)

Water has no intrinsic form – its form is given entirely by its context. And still being greatly under the influence of gravity, will seek the lowest local position, where it will gather and form itself into an exact complementary shape to its surroundings; it is conforming (it forms‐together). Water also penetrates its surroundings, moving into objects as much as possible (permeation).

Water communication is a back and forth type discussion that takes the form of a debate. It is the way in which the facts work together to create a stream of meaning that forms the basis of Water communication. It is a higher level of communicating than can occur in a purely Earth situation, but as such it creates both new problems and opportunities.

When we are in a Water mode of communication we constantly relate what is said based on our own personal worldviews or meanings. Thus, if not conducted with awareness we risk creating heated discussions. Most conflict that occurs evolves out of the unhealthy Water mode of communicating.  There is no attempt to see things from the other perspective but to convince the other of being right. When a speaker is unaware of such personal aspects creeping into their communication, they risk alienating, offending, or simply losing their audience. If a speaker is conscious of these aspects when communicating, then it becomes much easier to avoid the potential pitfalls, both because the assumptions can be made public to begin with, and because any unwanted ripples can be addressed directly and without the feeling for needing a defence on the part of the speaker. Needless to say, this task is quite a difficult one to accomplish, but can become something with practice.

For healthy Water communication, the task of the speaker is to mindfully bring to the surface any assumptions, implicit associations, and logical gaps present in their own speech, making sure that each fact is properly connected to the previous and the next. The task of the hearer in Water communication is to become sensitised to the way meaning flows through the speaker’s speech while ‘testing’ that flow against the hearer’s own flow of meaning, so as to gain better insight into the hidden elements of both the speaker’s and hearer’s perspective.

 

Air Communication (Conversation)

Communication at the Air level takes the form of making verses together: conversation.32 What was primarily lacking in Water – the ability to get beyond one’s own personal set of associations, train of thought, assumed meanings, and unquestioned assumptions – becomes a central feature in Air, where it is precisely these aspects which are consciously put ‘on hold’. The hallmark of Air communication is the ability for participants to not simply hear the words spoken by the other for purposes of discussion, but to really listen to them. This means that a listener creates an expanded, empty space within, which is kept free from the Water tendency to relate everything to “me”.

By drying out the rhythmic impulse to associate everything that we hear to our own default assumptions and experiences, we open up the possibility that a completely new set of experiences be made available to us, as if blown on the wind of the other’s words. If the exchange seems to wander and diverge from any specific aim, or lots of tangents are taken that are not then connected back to an original thread, you are probably in an Air conversation.

 

Air questions give themselves up to the possibility of any outcome. When you end a conversation, and feel like you have really connected with someone, expressed yourself, or felt like you saw a new side of thing, but nothing specific was accomplished and no decisions or new steps were taken, then you probably had an Air conversation.

 

Fire (Dialogue)

The highest form of communication can be called dialogue. A skilfully hosted group Dialogue can achieve this sense of oneness and knowing that is beyond the individual.

In Fire dialogue, we can have the feeling that, in truth, we are all connected, and that a higher principle has, as it were, come down to take part in the exchange, filling it with something completely beyond what any individual is capable of bringing, but only because of the work done by the participants.

In this sense, a true dialogue transcends every individual while bringing each individual along a transformative ride. Indeed, having the experience of dialogue is almost always transformative, providing a foundation for an understanding that leads directly to action.

In dialogue, there is as often as much silence as speaking because the meaning of an exchange is no longer bound to the actual words. In Earth, meaning is absolute, independent of the speaker. In Water, meaning arises from the personal trail of connections and associations of the individual, who defends, justifies, and pushes for its acceptance with great attachment. In Air, each individual’s meaning is allowed to live together with all the other’s meanings simultaneously, but is still experienced personally through oscillation between active and passive roles. In Fire, meaning cannot be attributed to any individual, but seems to be spontaneously generated out of the combined will of the group (or pair) as a whole.

Empathy is a verb

One of the most important outcomes from the practice of Dialogue or mindful conversations is to hear each other’s story. When we listen deeply to another person’s story we can longer hold judgement on that person or make assumptions which are informed by our own worldview’s.  When we make space to practice real dialogue we meet each other without our past entering into the relationship. Relationship are living experiences that need continued work. This is why making space for well hosted dialogue is at the core of cultural change within any organization.

When the conversations stop the judgements start injecting themselves into the relationships. To listen deeply to another’s story is the practice of empathy and the creation of emotionally intelligent work places. Empathy much like love is not some religious idea but something we can only experience with practice. My ability to authentically empathise with another disappears when the dialogue stops

Cultural change through Mindful Conversations

Renowned systems thinker and organisational expert Margaret Wheatley[1] suggested that in many cases it is not the structure of the organisations that need to change but the conversations we have within them. Human conversation is the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change – personal, community and organizational change. The behaviours associated with the practices of dialogue are powerful in developing the capacity for deep, authentic conversation in organizations.

Open, frequent and constructive communication is one of the keys to sustainable success in the long term. Yet most organizational communication is broken. It tends to be more one-way than interactive; more talking and less listening; more advocacy and less inquiry; little room for integrating opposing points of view.

Organizations are networks of relationships – and breakdowns in interpersonal interactions and communication are a frequent occurrence in organizations. For instance, when we see resistance to change, one reason is people feel their ideas and concerns were not heard. When people feel their ideas have been heard and considered, often the resistance dissolves, even if their ideas are not incorporated into the final solution.

The behaviours associated with the practice of dialogue are powerful tools for developing the capacity for deep, authentic conversation in organizations.

Dialogue – in brief

The roots of dialogue lie in native traditions – elder councils of the Iroquois, the Quakers, rural India’s panchayat system – and in more contemporary forms of peer spirit circles and talking circles. Dialogue allows for the creation of flow and meaning through and between people; it is a conversation between equals; it is more than one person’s understanding; it makes the implicit explicit – whether assumptions, values or intentions that control and drive behaviour; and builds collective meaning and community. Dialogue is inherently relational and collaborative. It helps move past the fragmentation that impedes real communication between individuals and different parts of the same organization.[2]

The behaviours and practice of dialogue

There is no prescriptive methodology for engaging in dialogue. Dialogue is a process that evolves as the group practices it. It can’t be forced, no matter how hard a group tries. It may feel forced and awkward at the beginning, however as groups get more facile and practiced in their conversation, they will find themselves “in dialogue”.

Dialogue is the giving and receiving of voice – practices that are simultaneous and continuous responsibilities of each individual in the interaction. It is a framework where participants speak simply, authentically and from the heart, and listen openly, attentively and with respect. Four qualities are significant in the design of dialogue and are both the essence and the process of engaging in dialogue. It is in the practice of these behaviours that dialogue emerges in interaction with others. [3]

Voicing requires the courage to speak your ideas and the courage to hold a silence – to know what is really worthy of being spoken. The key questions: “What needs to be said” and “Who will speak for me if I don’t speak for myself”.

Critical to the success of a Dialogue are the three practices of Listening, Respecting and Suspending, because these help create the space within which an individual can voice their ideas – they allow the receiving of voice.

Listening is attending to the spoken and unspoken aspects of the conversation, the tone, the reactions and feelings – listening with “more than our ears”. It requires letting go of resistance, and silencing the inner chatter of the mind – the “already listening” aspect of many interactions. The key questions: “What is missing” and “How does this feel”.

Respecting is the willingness and ability to honour the other(s), and respecting differences without needing to fix them or bring them to resolution. It requires deep inquiry to understand the other’s intention. The key question: “How does what I see fit into a larger whole?”

Suspending one’s judgment is not to defend or advocate for one’s position but to keep an open mind and inquire into the position of another – the experiences, assumptions and beliefs that contribute to this position. Suspending judgment leads to trust and safety, allowing open, honest and authentic communication.

 

Holding the tension of our difference

Hearing each other’s stories, can create an unexpected bond [between those with opposing worldviews]. When two people discover that parallel experiences led them to contrary conclusions, they are more likely to hold their differences respectfully, knowing that they have experienced similar forms of grief. The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.

How dialogic practices can impact the organization

At the inter-personal level, the practices of dialogue can deepen the quality of conversation between individuals – resulting in higher levels of collaboration, enlisting and influencing others more powerfully, engaging diverse stakeholders in the success of initiatives and incorporating a variety of perspectives into developing solutions in a safe and generative manner.

The practice of dialogue can be invaluable to a team. For instance, high performing teams are characterized by strong communication and a commitment to the success and growth of the team members. Dialogue enables the creation of a safe and trusting culture within the team, which then leads to the open communication and shared learning and growth.

Many companies share similar experiences amongst teams such as a lack of trust, poor listening skills, high levels of judgment and lobbying for individual agendas. Over time, a culture of well facilitated dialogue can results in a more cohesive team where there was a genuine effort to listen to dissenting points of view without reacting, and engage in a process of inquiry to understand the basis for differences in perspective – qualities that helped move the team from being highly dysfunctional to increasing the efficiency of the process and quality of their decisions. [4]

One of the most important aspects of Dialogue is the creation of a safe container which allows the group to be vulnerable and speak honestly. Once this is in place groups quickly create a willingness to engage in deep listening and inquiry, co-creating the organization’s core values and defining their unique place in the marketplace. Issues affecting each element of the organization are often raised and openly talked about in this space; decisions made drawing upon the collective knowledge of the team; and an environment of trust and connection is created.

 

Tapping in Collective Knowledge

At the level of the organization, dialogue’s ability to tap into the knowledge/wisdom of the collective can be a valuable enabler of a learning culture. As the business environment becomes more complex, a single individual simply does not have all the requisite knowledge to succeed. By necessity there must be reliance on collective intelligence. Through conversation, people are able to create, refine and share their knowledge. Dialogue provides a mind-set for real conversations and also contributes to creating an environment of safe risk taking and learning. In management-union relations in the steel mills in the ‘80s, the introduction of dialogue as a way of communicating led to collaboration between management and unions to define ways of changing their business. [5]

 

Introducing and using the practice of dialogue in organizations

Introducing dialogue into an organization is at its simplest, the promotion and practice of the principles described above.  We start off with simple principles to ensure the integrity of each meeting. The principles of being honest and authentic when speaking, being deeply present and attentive when another spoke, being succinct and allowing for silence as well as spontaneous expression[6] as a way of making operational the practices of dialogue.

Initially there is an awkwardness in these new processes of communication, even holding a silence can be extremely difficult. Over time, as teams became more comfortable with the practices, they are able to move away from advocating for their point of view towards inquiry, and became more at ease with silence as interactions took on a more collaborative and creative quality.

 In conclusion

Dialogue is not a tool or a methodology. For there to be a real culture of dialogue, it has to be an essential part of any approach to organizational transformation – “all problem-solving groups should begin in a dialogue format to facilitate the building of sufficient common ground and mutual trust, and to make it possible to tell what is really going on in one’s mind.” [7] With this context, dialogue must be part of an organization’s drinking water, cultivated as an essential skill for all members of the organization.

Dialogue is not a quick fix nor is the journey easy – it requires risk-taking, patience and a willingness to let go of the familiar and embrace the unfamiliar and new[8]. Over time it can be a catalyst, allowing for generative and creative problem solving. When facilitated well, dialogue fosters the kind of openness and trust that characterize healthy evolving organizations and transformation that can be sustained.

References

[1] M.J. Wheatley. (2002). Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

[2]D. Bohm, D. Factor & P.Garrett: Dialogue: A proposal http://www.muc.de/~heuvel/dialogue/dialogue_proposal.html; L. Elinor & G.Gerard. 1998. Dialogue: Rediscover the transforming power of conversation. New York, Wiley; W. Isaacs. 1999. Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York, Doubleday.

 

[3] L. Elinor & G.Gerard. 1998. Dialogue: Rediscover the transforming power of conversation; W. Isaacs. 1999. Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York, Doubleday.

 

[4] D. Nath. “Building trust and cohesiveness in a leadership team”. Reflections. Society of Organizational Learning. 9:1. 2008

[5] W. Isaacs. 1999. Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York, Doubleday.

[6] J.M. Zimmerman, J. M. and V. Coyle. 1996. The way of council, Ojai, CA, Bramble Books

[7]E.H. Schein. 1988. Process consultation: Its role in organization development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

[8] J.P. Hale. 1995. “The theory and practice of dialogue in organizations”. http://www.workteams.unt.edu/reports/jphale.htm

 

Dialogue and Spirituality

Dialogue and Spirituality in the work place

“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play: his labour and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly know which is which. He simply pursues his own vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both” 

Francois Auguste Rene Chateaubriand

Most of us are aware that the institutions that direct and express our lives – politics, health, law, education, and religion- are no longer adequate to the challenges we face and feel in modern society. They are no longer able to sufficiently help or nourish our lives and are often in need of radical redesign to fulfil their stated purpose in this unsettling period of changing consciousness.

Transformative leaders understand that they cannot address their organisation’ exterior issues without addressing its inner problems. Over many generations Scientists, mystics and philosophers described the wholeness of the universe where nothing exists in isolation or that no thing exists or acts independently of the whole. However today an illusion of separateness between mind and spirit and action is the primary operating image or self-understanding for many people and organisations. Nobel Laureate neuroscientist Roger Sperry states that the overemphasis on technology and the kind of scientific thinking that excludes the human soul has contributed to a neglect of our ultimate values, beliefs, motivations and meanings. We cannot civilise the outer world without civilising the inner world. Many organisations such as outdoor gear company Patagonia in the USA have successfully embraced the spiritual in the workplace and have been reaping the results for a couple of decades. They are a highly successful, resilient and creative company with strong environmental ethics.  It is no surprise that Patagonia has hundreds of applications for any job that becomes available.

There is increasing recognition amongst organisational leaders, highlighted by the numerous courses now offered in Conscious and Mindful leadership, that we are  becoming very aware of the importance of the spiritual dimension at work. What is emerging is the quest to discover, remember, or create significant purpose, and meaning in our work. Those reeling from stress and burn out from an over engagement are now searching inward for courage, strength, wisdom, motivation and energy.

Renowned systems thinker and organisational expert Margaret Wheatley suggested that in many cases it is not the structure of the organisations that need to change but the conversations we have within them. Dialogue is not only a powerful technology for redesign or organisational change but also offers a transformed way of relating and experiencing the world. Well facilitated Dialogue naturally builds an empathetic environment for participants to fully experience the inner dimension of Spirit and help connect the group with their inner spiritual nature that directs, empowers and provides new energy and meaning activity. Spirituality has to do with making sense of our world, and knowing how creatively live within it. Group dialogue creates the space and the foundations for spirituality through its attitude to openness, skills of listening ability to connect with life through others and mostly importantly enabling the unknown to find form.

An aware participatory leader who is skilled in the Art of Dialogue creates an environment for the forming or reforming of the deeper part of the Self. The concept of formation is one of change or flux that is constant with any organism. This change is not a random meaningless event but is connected to the ongoing formation of the world around it. Dialogue provides a container for creative formative thinking that enables people to transcend the limits of their bodily senses and cognitive processes of rational thought and memory.

 

The Art of Dialogue

The Art of Dialogue is a response to a world that is becoming increasingly complex and fragmented, where true solutions and innovation lie not in one leader or one viewpoint, but in the bigger picture of our collective intelligence.

One of the essential skills for growing as a leader and dialogue host is being aware of what is happening around you and not losing yourself in the emotions of any given moment. Throughout the day we need to constantly ask ourselves how do we know what we know? This question is at the core of our worldview and needs to be examined deeply.

Our world views influences our communication, decision-making and workplace cultures – most of this happening unconsciously. They are the lens through which we experience and see the world through. All the decisions and actions you make are directly a result of our world views, which have been informed by your culture, education, parents. Media, spirituality, and environment you live in and friends. You can spend a lifetime examining how each of our world views have been informed.

Each one of us views the world through a different lens, which informs the actions we take and the thinking we bring to situations. Our thinking for the most part remains unvalidated throughout our lives. For this reason an extraordinary leader understands that they will only ever have partial answers for any problem and as such need the subtle skills in hosting dialogues to embrace all views which help make up the whole.

The most important conversation any leader must be aware of when hosting conversations that matter is the conversation one has with ourselves. When we are aware that our views of the world are seen through a coloured or filtered lens formed around our experiences  we are naturally more likely to be empathetic leaders who know the importance of hearing all voices to co-create creative solutions.

In the next blog we will examine six philosophical domains that shape our world views.

The Art of Dialogue – Awakening Awareness

Over the next few blogs I will be discussing skills and practices one needs to develop as an effective Dialogue facilitator or host. Hosting dialogue is an art form and not a method that can simply be learnt and followed. It takes a well-developed evolved leader to skilfully host great Dialogues. And as with any art forms one requires a solid framework of skills to work with but most importantly, requires practice and well-honed self-awareness skills to manage and skilfully harvest the subtleties and energies that emerge from good group Dialogue. These skills are the foundations for any extraordinary transformative leader who want to get the very best out of people and generate a creative harmonious, innovative learning culture.

To be an extraordinary leader in the world of constant change requires an understanding that your community or organisation and knowledge, are living things that constantly shifts moment by moment in line with the ever constant unfolding of the Universe. This unfolding and our ever shifting ways of knowing takes place through the coming together of (different) things in a communion that does not deny the voice or inner character of any individual. This is how life in all its forms is born.

It takes great courage and awareness for any individual leader to comprehend that we are part of something greater. Skilfully hosted Dialogue encourages groups and individuals to effectively participate in the unfolding of meaning – a creative interaction that allows new insights and unexpected ideas to emerge from the encounter. When we put our own ego aside we are more likely to experience the world in a state of flow and ride the magic of synchronicity that emerges with this state.

Dialogue can be described as a practice that awakens the desire for, and provides the means to, expand consciousness of each other and access untapped wisdom beyond our own worldview or paradigms. The mere presence of the other in Dialogue helps us to break up our own bias and narrowness and offers deep self-understanding.

Mindfulness in action

To support your skills in hosting dialogues there is a very simple but incredibly powerful exercise I recommend that helps develop your awareness skills; essential for any extraordinary leader and Dialogue host. I find this practice rewilds and reawakens my awareness to the world as  living and constantly changing, enabling me see things as they are, not limited by my conditioned lens of perspectives.

Our natural state is to move into a mechanistic deadened patterned way of thinking when walking in the same areas more that a few times. We almost walk with all our senses closed down assuming that things remain the same. To shifting our patterned perspective and participate in the living world around us take yourself out for a walk at lunch. in town, or in park or around your neighbourhood and just be aware of all the things that happen moment by moment that you never planned for.

This practice asks you to become aware of everything that happens that you did not expect or intend. As you become more experienced you will start noticing the minute experience such as a line of ants crossing your path that you would not have noticed before. Just be aware of them. Notice a bird flying across your path or hear the sound of a bird that you could not have planned for. Be aware of each noise or person bumping past you. A siren screeching by, a gust of wind, a person chatting, or anything at all that crosses your path that you could never have planned or expected to see or smell or feel. Your world starts to come truly alive and awakened again as you begin to experience things from a very different perspective. Your ego takes a back seat as you are practicing being in the world without trying to dictate or predict future events.

When you become a little more experienced with this practice you can then play with it throughout the whole day. This is mindfulness in action. Start asking yourself “What did I just experience that I wasn’t expecting?” When I bring awareness to this we realize how much of what we experienced was actually not expected. To really appreciate those few moments when something new and unexpected appears, and then to vividly re-picture those experiences helps cultivate sensitivity to the unexpected. This in turn helps develop the sensitivities to be a good host of conversations and group Dialogues. When I practice creating this field of openness. I can begin to experience another person, a landscape, or a social problem as a living thing with openness and fresh eyes.