In his thought-provoking little book On Dialogue, David Bohm suggests that when people engage in productive dialogue, they are not taking instruction, but working together to create something in common. Defined as a process of frank and open discussion around an issue of importance, productive dialogue is where new ideas emerge to move things forward.
Bohm says that an intentionally aware, open and non-judging mindset is needed for productive dialogue to occur. This mindset underpins contemporary theories of authentic leadership put forward by Avolio and Luthans, and Kabat Zinn’s theory of mindfulness, and several decades of research have shown it leads to a spaciousness that enables unbiased processing and relational transparency, which in turn foster honesty, curiosity and open co-operation.
It is common, however, for us to approach difficult interactions with a mix of fear and desire. But when we are fearful, we engage behaviours that minimise threat, like defensiveness or avoidance. And when we are desire-full our attention is blinkered, focused on an ideal outcome. When fear and desire are dominant, our ability to be curious, value differing perspectives and nurture the emergence of something unknown is curtailed.
So, what can we do to engage the right mindset for productive dialogue around issues that matter to us?
I want you to imagine a meeting. I suggest a meeting because meetings are purposeful, usually arranged to move things forward. There is a topic, intention and role for each attendee. Yours can be ANY kind of meeting – an appointment with a lawyer, a committee meeting, the first dinner with your potential in-laws. Try to conjure a scene that is realistic for you, where the topic of the intended dialogue is meaningful.
In your scenario, you are prepared. You have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and some understanding of the fears and desires of the others. Some of the issues that need to be addressed are sticky and you anticipate resistance and defensiveness.
Now, imagine, in the few moments before your meeting, you take a few quiet minutes to acknowledge what has brought you to this moment. Become aware of how you feel. Notice your own fears and desires. You may have an increased heart rate, or be sitting on the edge of your seat ready for a challenge. Just notice the story in your mind, and your reaction to it – like you would as an observer of the situation. Try not to dwell or elaborate on what you notice, but acknowledge its indisputable presence: it is what it is.
Consider this back story, with its fears and desires, your ‘baggage’ of this moment. Now that you know the name, shape and feel of it, you can park your baggage to the side.
Now, establish your intention to carry into dialogue this open and non-judging awareness that you have given yourself, and make a commitment to hold this openness in dialogue, to allow the germination of something as yet unknown.
The others are tense, and determined to make themselves heard.
Their journey to the meeting may have been stressful: perhaps they failed in the past to have their opinions heard about this issue; perhaps they were rushing to arrive on time in the face of some adversity beyond their control. They may be struggling to retain focus on the matter at hand. They may be certain they have the one big answer.
They’ve made an effort to get there. They arrive with fears and desires.
Indeed, each of the people at the table has baggage, not just you. They may not have stopped to take stock of theirs. They may have walked into the meeting and plonked their baggage right down on the table to hide behind, or be waving it about so it can be noticed. They may be hiding their baggage, or ready to defend it. One thing is certain, everyone at your meeting has baggage.
Acknowledge their back stories, the legitimacy of their fears and desires. Retain your intentional mindset.
Because you have acknowledged and parked yours, you have space to notice the baggage of others. You can acknowledge their back stories and the different perspectives they bring.
Because you acknowledge their perspectives, you can better hear what is said. Because they feel heard, they will feel valued and safe to share their honest views.
If you all feel valued, heard and safe, you are well positioned to focus with openness and curiosity on the topic being discussed.
The powerful element in this dialogue setting is your intentional mindset. With this mindset, fears and desires can be accommodated, frank discussion can be had, and new ideas can emerge.
Think for a moment how things may have gone if you hadn’t taken those few minutes to prepare.
Larissa Bartlett has more than 20 years’ experience working in business, government and research organisations, with a focus on productive partnerships and community engagement. She is currently a PhD candidate at Menzies investigating the potential of mindfulness practice for stress reduction and other outcomes relevant to work. Here, Larissa writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative. Find more at chattermatters.com.au.