Isaacs* makes clear that dialogue is about mastering non-evident skills and can be compared with mastering martial arts. In this sense dialogue can serve as focus for lifelong development. He names 4 behavioural capacities: listening, respecting, suspending and voicing. To listen is to develop an inner silence that enables connection and wholeness. Learning to listen begins with recognizing how we are listening now. All too often we jump to conclusions or let emotions interfere. Respecting is honoring the boundaries of the other, being centered on oneself as part of the whole. Suspending is about letting go, accessing ignorance and making room for new mental maps. And voicing is finding words for the unfolding dialogue, speaking from the whole.
Dialogues don’t have to be one on one. They can be organized in large groups. Isaacs gives us guidance for authentic dialogue in group:
- Use a circle. The circle serves as a lens, focuses attention. It also implies that everyone is on the same level.
- Have a moment of silence after someone made a comment. Let the meaning bloom in the silence.
- Speak from & to the center. Don’t personalize or ‘interact’. Have attention for the group as a whole & speak from and, literally, to the center.
- Mine for the really important, hard questions and suspend all known beliefs and judgments. Manage your own thinking.
- Hold the tension that arises between different perspectives and let it be. Don’t fix it.
- Try not to assimilate. Do deliberately not take for granted you understand the other. ‘Make it strange’.
- Check in and check out. Inner silence helps to connect to the wholeness of the group.
In the second part of the book he reflects on dialogue from a systemic point of view. He cites Kantor’s four positions in communication: as a mover, a follower, a bystander or an opposer. Kantor also differentiates the languages of feeling, meaning and power within open, closed or mixed systems. Great food for expert organisation developers. But what does this all mean for leadership? Do we expect our leaders to be black belt in dialogue?
*ISAACS, W. (1999). Dialogue and the art of thinking together. New York: Random House, 428 p.