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.


[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; 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”.


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 – 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.




The importance of mindful conversations

The knowledge of early philosophers ranged far and wide, covering fields from biology to ethics, from politics to physics. With increasing production of knowledge, facilitated by the web, technology and a greater educated class and increasing cultural exchanges, it became harder to know everything under the sun. Over time it became clear that individuals could not keep abreast of all knowledge and we gradually learnt to specialize in one or more areas. With our specialization our thinking has become more fragmented and our ability to think wholly has been made more difficult.

At work we are more likely to be specialists in our field making it harder and harder to link different fragments of knowledge that lies scattered across sub disciplines within any organisation. Simplistic tools may be honoured as a way of addressing these problems, but often at the expense of complexity that require context and connection. It is much easier to attempt to incorporate procedures or tools rather than exploring the real complexities of these issue in a transdisciplinarian way.

A skilfully hosted group Dialogue or Council is one powerful transdiscilpinary approach of dealing with complexity within organisations, recognising the lived experience and subjectivity of each person in context, in a network of relationships, in an ecology. A Transdiscilpinary approach is meta-paradigmatic- opening many perspectives at once. This enables us to understand not only the content of various approaches to issues, but their underlying assumptions or paradigms, and how those paradigms shape the inquiry. A trans disciplinary approach offers opportunities to questions ones own assumptions. It is in the exchange with different perspectives that our own perspectives become most clearly elucidated and articulated.

Renowned Systems thinker, Social scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson believed great creativity emerges out of this interaction of multiple perspectives. The creative process has been defined as seeing “a single idea in two habitually incompatible frames of reference”. The existence of a multiplicity of perspectives, at times mutually opposed, can therefore be transformed into an opportunity for creativity, if we accept the possibility of multiple ways of knowing, that there is more than one perspective that has something to offer and no one perspective has the monopoly, and recognise the possibility that the perspectives can co-exist and also be brought together to develop creative integrations.

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. Quantum physicist David Bohm believed that through persistent dialogue a radically new state of mind could emerge, “a concrete alteration that penetrates the core of a person’s experience and has the potential to communicate itself directly”

In Dialogue there is a shedding of agendas that allows for a co-creative flowing interaction, in which it is possible for something new to emerge. 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. Openness is naturally initiated, bringing our prejudgments to the surface. The process often highlights the limitation of one’s own framework of thinking which then allows one to go beyond one’s own previous possibilities.