Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

In another light

As I begin to write this article, I’m in the Orkney Islands, which Andrew Greig, in his novel ‘In Another Light’, describes evocatively as ‘land like an old green tarpaulin dragged out of the North Sea, glinting pools of water in its folds’. My first impressions are of another place, qualitatively different in energy to any other part of the British Isles.

With other island communities, Orkney is keen to shape their own future. They’re in a conversation with the Scottish Government similar to that between Holyrood and Westminster about Scotland. More widely there are conversations about the UK’s relationship with the EU, and the options for an independent Scotland in Europe. I have a sense of asymmetry in these conversations – we don’t want to be part of this alliance, but we do want to be part of that one, or we don’t want you to leave this union, but we want to leave that one. I’m bemused: who stands for what?

We live in a complex adaptive world and there will always be asymmetries: a principle that applies in one situation doesn’t necessarily apply in another. Leadership choices are often complex, and explaining subtleties in our positions takes time and energy, which we often feel we don’t have. If we don’t acknowledge, and shed light on, apparent inconsistencies, what are the consequences?

Recall a time when you perceived a contradiction in leadership thinking – what was the impact on you and others?

How we see things depends on where we stand and what is visible. Think of a landscape – our view depends on our position, the direction we’re facing, and the quality of our eyesight. It also depends on what’s in the foreground and background, and on the quality of air and light. As leaders, if we want others to understand and support our strategic choices, despite asymmetries, we might consider how to make more context visible to more people, enabling them to see things in another light.

Some conversational forms are better than others for creating broader horizons. The conversation to influence the choice of the residents of Scotland consists, in the style of the politics of our time, mainly of point and counter-point. This conversational form, known as ‘debate’, is ideal for honing a robust case for or against a position.

However, strategic choices are rarely black and white, and debate is not particularly well-suited to revealing the sophistications of complexity. The more uncertainties, ambiguities, and interdependencies are present, the less likely debate will reflect the nuances in a scenario. Further, the larger the number of stakeholders with differing interests, values and perspectives, the higher the probability that point and counter-point will lead to misunderstanding and/or frustration.

To talk skilfully about strategic choice in a complex adaptive world, a different conversational form is required. Dialogue creates space for curiosity and inquiry, fostering a fuller sense of the scope and complexity of different possible futures. Garrett, Isaacs and others propose four practices for dialogue: listening, respecting, suspending judgement, and speaking truly. Adopting them enriches our understanding: we see things in another light.

A prospective uncoupling of nation states is a strategic choice in a complex adaptive setting. A voting public represents ‘multiple stakeholders’ with diverse interests. Yet the current conversation (in the public arena) about Scotland’s future consists mainly of assertions about attributes of a separate Scotland that cannot yet be known or determined. Debate has limitations when the fairest response to most significant questions is: ‘we don’t know – we need to work this through with other stakeholders.’

In this context I’m heartened by Collaborative Scotland, a movement to encourage respectful dialogue about the future of Scotland. Their rationale is that whatever the outcome of the referendum, the way we engage with each other is important, both within and outwith Scotland. They invite everyone involved (which includes those with a vote) to listen and speak with care, to be curious and ask questions, and to be clear, honest and transparent in our own views and motivations.

In shifting attention to the tenor of conversation rather than a result, Collaborative Scotland calls for a finer Scotland, regardless of the location of the seat of government. This feels like an invitation to true self-determination – an inner freedom to choose one’s attitude, as described by Viktor Frankl in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘.

Dialogue practice is easier to aspire to than to do, as Charlie Woods outlines eloquently in his blog. The road to hell is, after all, paved with good intentions. When we feel strongly about something, and identify with it, we get caught in the ‘gravitational pull’ of our story. We become less able to listen, be respectful, or suspend judgement. Alternatively, we experience someone else’s passionately-held view as a threat, and we’re hijacked into fight or flight. Dialogue is gritty, and to engage in it we must learn to work skilfully with our own reactivity, through mindfulness practices, or other ways of remembering what matters.

The political arena isn’t unique in mismatching conversational form with the complexity of an issue – it’s just more visible than other settings in which debate is the prevalent form for leadership conversations about complex strategic choices.

So wherever you live and work, as a leader in a complex adaptive world, to what extent will you commit to respectful dialogue, and being seen in another light?

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