Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Changing minds

Early last week, a friend sent an email: Am watching Brexit debate. Unedifying.

In response to this succinct appraisal of the parliamentary process, I rolled my eyes. While I should care more about such matters, I seriously question whether our current political system enables people to talk about our place in the world in a way that reflects the complexity of that world. And so I disengage.

As politicians trade opinions, I reflect that I haven’t ever changed my mind by being told the same thing over and over. At best, I stop listening. At worst, I dig in. Further, on no occasion have I persuaded others to see things differently by repeating my argument. And believe me, I’ve tried!

So, what kind of conversation does change minds?

When I’ve witnessed a shift in someone’s thinking I’ve usually been showing interest in their perspective. I’ve acknowledged some positives in what they say, and asked questions to better understand how they’ve arrived at their conclusions. In order to show genuine curiosity, I set aside my own position for a moment. In doing so, I’m not agreeing with them, but I am willing to respect their stance. After all, the view we each have is partial, in both meanings of the word.

In my dialogue work, I call this loosening of mind-set an amnesty of opinions. As I free myself from the tyranny of my certainties, I create the conditions in which another person might do the same. Then, together, we may begin to find space to consider other options.

This is an inspiring possibility. However, truly ‘parking’ my agenda is difficult, even when I’m willing. It’s particularly challenging when a conversation takes the form of debate.

Debate is an exchange of point and counter-point, of proposing and opposing. When conducted well, it’s a powerful means of stress-testing a possible course of action, provided that there is reasonable assurance about the consequences. Debate is also valuable in comparing alternative proposals, again assuming a degree of confidence in how things will play out.

However, debate has little room for exploring assumptions or unknowns. It is therefore less suitable for navigating uncertainty, nuance and complexity, and finding a way forward based on a balance of probabilities. When seeking to uncouple the UK from Europe (or Scotland from the UK), this is surely the territory we’re in.

Yet debate predominates.

I wonder if debate is a habit so familiar we’re unaware of its presence? In the UK, we learn from an early age to compare and contrast, or to speak for and against a premise. We carry this practice into the workplace, as we make and evaluate cases for change or the status quo. Acclimatised to propose-oppose, we forget to ask if a different kind of conversation might better fit the circumstances.

A conversation that does create space for minds to change is dialogue. Dialogue is an attitude of heart and mind, rather than a toolkit. To prepare for dialogue, we consider how we’ll carry ourselves into a conversation. We might ask: am I willing to sincerely listen to others, with respect? Am I ready to engage with an open mind?

Resolving to approach a conversation in this way is a good start. However, it can be hard to maintain this disposition when the stakes are high. It is possible to build greater capacity to stay in the fray with poise. This takes time that we say we don’t have.

And yet, kicking the habit of debate and developing capability for engaging in dialogue may be the essential leadership work of our times. If we don’t attend to this, minds will remain resolutely unchanged.

How dialogue-ready are you?

My next dialogue programme begins in April. If you would like to participate, please get in touch.

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