Develop Dialogue Skills

I wrote recently about how pursuing simplicity is one of the core practices of Enlightened Leadership. Simplicity removes friction and helps us keep moving. Yet simplicity has its limits. Pursuing simplicity is one thing. Being simplistic is another. 

Take people. We love to give people, including ourselves, labels. “She’s a bully.” “He’s really narrow minded.” “I’m the CEO.” All simplistic attempts to put people in a box so we don’t have to think too hard about the complexity that actually exists. 

Yet people are complex. As Anand Giridharadas, author of The Persuaders, shows us, most people are a set of internal contradictions. No-one is simply what they seem to be.

Honour Complexity

During my recent trip to Europe, I met with a number of senior leaders to discuss their leadership and culture challenges. One of the common themes was the challenge of creating inclusive cultures. It’s well documented that when we embrace diversity and create cultures of high inclusion, people thrive and performance boosts. Yet, as one head of organisational performance put it, “We’re doing all of this work to raise awareness of the importance of inclusion, yet it’s hard to get people to even come to the starting line.”

That got me thinking. What would leadership need to look like to realise the promise of inclusion? Then I thought a little more. It’s not only inclusion that’s the challenge. In complex environments, the ones who succeed are the ones who master the art of bringing people together to solve complex problems. Those leaders master the art of creating the conditions that shape a shared awareness of reality. This form of leadership doesn’t just pursue simplicity. It honours complexity.

One of the activities that I use the most in my leadership workshops is called Cone in the Box. It’s a way of helping people see that when it comes to complex problems, there’s no one ‘right’ perspective. We need to invite multiple perspectives to see the whole. Check it out here: Cone in the box.


What does it take to help people to see multiple perspectives? Here’s one powerful tool that I reckon all leaders need to master: dialogue. 

Dialogue is a word that often gets bandied around yet too few truly live it. Having a dialogue is different to having a discussion or a debate. The root of the word gives us a clue: ‘meaning flowing through’. Dialogue is the process of sharing and seeking to understand the multiple perspectives that exist in a group so we can better create a collective sense of meaning around an issue. Quite simply, it helps to reveal the cone in the box.

Dialogue involves two core practices: advocacy and inquiry.

Advocacy: sharing your perspective on and beliefs about the issue at hand. It requires the humility to know (and show) that your perspective is limited, and the willingness to have your assumptions challenged.

Inquiry: truly seeking to understand and learn from another’s perspective. It requires the willingness to suspend your own beliefs, the heart to listen deeply, and the ability to ask truly open questions in order for everyone to learn.

Dialogue is not about:

  • the best idea wins
  • playing the ‘I’m being reasonable, you’re being unreasonable’ game
  • interrogation dressed up as curiosity
  • giving everyone a voice just so you can ‘tick the box’

As leaders, we navigate complex issues every day. To navigate more successfully, we’re wise to bring people together in dialogue so we can co-create shared awareness and collective solutions. In cultures where speed trumps substance, and ego-systems trump ecosystems, this can be a real challenge.

Dialogue requires everyone present to transcend their own ego for the greater good. It’s also time-consuming and challenging. Yet, the reason we form organisations is to bring people together to create something that we can’t do alone. If we want to realise the potential that exists, we need to master the art of facilitating dialogue.

Develop dialogue skills.

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