Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Voice recognition

Writing about ‘authentic voice’ for my April post prompted me to deepen my inquiry into the other dialogue practices outlined by Garrett, Isaacs and others*: respecting, suspending judgment, and listening. Together, the four practices establish core conditions for ‘roomier’ and more generative conversations.

This month, I am focusing on the practice of respecting, which is especially important when we are faced with difference. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs describes dialogue as:

‘taking the energy of our differences and channelling it toward something that has never been created before’

Harnessing the energy of difference requires that we first acknowledge, and respect, the legitimacy of other perspectives. In dialogue, each view is held to be valid in the context of the knowledge, experience and understanding of the speaker. If I am able to receive the views of others, and hold them in parity with my own voice, I contribute to creating conditions in which deeper, more personal truths may be spoken, from the heart or soul. I become a witness to the rich variety of ways in which people make sense of the world. New possibilities germinate in the fertile soil of many ‘truths’.

In practising respect, and recognising other voices as legitimate, we create the potential for difference to be generative rather than awkward, inconvenient or irritating.

As a leader, how do you handle difference? What is your underlying belief about it – do you see it as problematic or productive?

As with all practice-based approaches, cognitively embracing an aspiration is not sufficient to embody it consistently and well. We may intend to navigate difference expansively, creatively, generously – and yet, when we care passionately about something, or intensely want a particular outcome, it can be hard to hear and honour opposing views. Instead, we downplay them, or dismiss them. Why is this? And what is the impact?

When we have too little respect for the legitimacy of another person’s position, we may be tempted to:

• Try to persuade them to see the error of their ways, and so minimise or erase differences; or
• Ignore the difference and carry on as if they agree with us.

In denying that their view makes sense for them, however inaccurate, unfounded or incomprehensible it may seem to us, we risk implying that they are mistaken, or without relevance. Discounting someone’s voice may provoke resentment, frustration, irritation, or worse. Instead, if we can honour different ‘takes’ on a situation, we can talk about the wider implications of not being in agreement: how will our discord impact others? How might we navigate our differences? Are there alternatives we haven’t yet considered?

Fostering diversity of view, and supporting difference as a creative energy, also entails speaking for our own view. When we are unsure of ourselves, or uncertain of the impact of dissenting, it can be hard to express our personal truth. Instead, we dilute or withhold our voice. Why is this? And what is the impact?

Too much respect for another person’s view also ‘denies’ the legitimacy of a voice – our own. In deferring to another’s experience or expertise, we may be tempted to:

• Moderate our view to minimise any risk of adverse impact; or
• Stay silent.

In not expressing our position, we consider our contribution to be unimportant, or uninformed. In not speaking authentically, we may feel frustrated or irritated with ourselves. In seeking to protect ourselves from the discomfort of an unsettling reaction in others, we feel uneasy, dissatisfied or ashamed because we have not held faith with ourselves.

The practice of respecting supports voice recognition: hearing, acknowledging, and thereby validating, expressions of human experience, without necessarily agreeing with them. If we don’t respect differences between voices, our own and others, we forego opportunities to explore them. We lose potential for stimulation, creative spark, expansive thinking, and making connections. In understanding more deeply how and why varied perspectives arise, new thinking may unfold.

With so much at stake, why is it so challenging to practise respecting?

Intellectually, it’s easy to see that opposing ideas each have validity and that diversity and dissent offer the opportunity for fresh insights. However, for many of us, difference is an unsettling experience, strongly associated with exclusion, approbation, self-consciousness, or stress. It’s a tall order to practise respect when we feel isolated, wrong, angry, or anxious. In order to recognise different voices and hold them in respect, we need to recover our composure, or centre.

While building capacity to regain presence and equanimity in charged, stressful or uncomfortable circumstances is crucial to respecting, we can also inquire into our patterns of thinking. When we judge a view be right or wrong, good or bad, relevant or not relevant, we have already begun to lean towards too much or too little respect. This invites us to adopt the practice of suspending judgement – of which, more in June.

Meantime, as a leader, are you inclined to have too much or too little respect for the views of others? What is the impact in your conversations? How might you expand your capacity for holding in parity your own view and those of others?

*See my book, Pause for Breath, for more details.

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