Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

The grittiness of dialogue

I recently found a new way to describe the experience of dialogue, seeking to convey a felt-sense of this kind of conversation. It came about because I was asked to contribute to a series of 90-minute leadership development sessions. I don’t often accept such invitations, preferring to host practice-based learning over time. However, sometimes it’s helpful to test my assumptions – my ‘ladder of inference’ – about the lasting impact of short inputs, and to stretch my prejudices about the value of one-off interventions.

In designing the session, I was keen to avoid two potholes:

• too much ‘presenting’ (advocacy) in a context of dialogue (balancing advocacy and inquiry); and
• giving an impression that dialogue is a form of sublime, zen-like conversation.

I fall easily into each of these potholes – but I’m conscious of the habits that lead me into the first, which means I can be mindful in my practice. In contrast, I often only realise I’m in the second when other people reflect back their understanding of what I’ve said. Since this (currently) happens outside my awareness, I’m exploring how I might change my practice.

While dialogue can indeed have moments of great expansion and lucidity, it’s usual to pass through some earthier territory before these unfold. On this rougher ground, it’s easy to lose heart, especially if we expect a smooth path. If I can more fully communicate the essence of dialogue, leaders will be better able to navigate this experience.

The concentrated nature of the 90-minute development session proved useful in sharpening my thinking – the experience of many years can mean I over-complicate matters! In designing a short workshop, I needed to identify the essential aspects of my dialogue-related work, and leave out elements that, while important for developing a practice, would simply confuse a taster session.

When, as a leader in your own field, does your familiarity with the terrain lead to less clarity for others, rather than more? What will support you to distil your experience so that you communicate potently, and illuminate rather than obscure?

In my quest to convey the look and feel of dialogue without too much ‘presenting’, I drew on the ‘fields of conversation’ developed by Otto Scharmer. This framework, which is outlined in chapter 5 of my book, Pause for Breath, describes the patterns in, and ‘energetic feel’ of, four distinct conversational experiences, offering a language to distinguish between them.

Using the framework, it becomes clear that many conversations have a routine, co-created and held in place by all participants. These routines serve some purposes well, and others less well. When a different kind of conversation is required, it can be hard to escape the ‘gravitational pull’ of established interactions. Any attempt to change the energy of a conversation, moving away from the familiar, can lead to ‘grittiness’ in the form of frustration, irritation, hostility, anxiety and other states of heightened energy.

The aim of my dialogue-related work is to support leaders to navigate the ‘grittiness’ of this unsettled and unsettling energy, which is why mindfulness and Leadership Embodiment practices are central to my approach. Being skilful in this ‘gritty’ field opens the possibility of a third kind of conversation, in which opinions are less-tightly held, allowing space for more curiosity about the views of others. Scharmer calls this type of conversation ‘inquiry’ or ‘reflective dialogue’.

While there is a fourth field, I tend to focus on ‘inquiry’ as it seems to meet most organisational needs. This field might feel like ‘calmer’ water after turbulent ‘rapids’, yet it can be complex, fast moving and intense – the issues matter, leaders are opinionated and are relative experts in their domains, the pace is pressured. This is not zen-like, which is where I began: how can I evoke this experience without using 600+ words?!

For my 90-minute session, I came up with this invitation: recall an occasion when you’ve been in a struggle with yourself about something that matters – you have a dilemma, and you’re digging deep for an answer.

Most people recognise these moments, and if you’ve identified one as you read this article, notice how it feels. Perhaps your attention is turned inwards? Perhaps you are frowning? A sense of ‘struggle’ becomes real again.

Now consider this: if this is what it feels like when you’re trying to settle your own mind about a complex issue, imagine how it would feel to seek settlement amongst many minds.

In the workshop, these moments of reflection generated conversations that indicated that the rich, earthy, compost-like feel of dialogue had ‘landed’, and that the challenges of being in dialogue could be acknowledged. From a place of ‘experience’ rather than words, the qualities and practices that we need if we are to be skilful in gritty and important conversations become more obvious. It also becomes clear that, if these qualities and practices were prevalent and/or easy, dialogue would occur more frequently.

If, as leaders, we seek to be in dialogue more often, there may be two areas for growth:

• becoming more skilful in traversing the rougher ground that paves the way for dialogue; and
• cultivating capacity for those qualities and practices that support us in seeking ‘settlement’ amongst many minds.

Where might you begin?

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