Last week I was informed (thank you ‘Twitter’) that prof. Noelle Aarts held an inaugural speech on September 3rd 2015 titled ‘The Art of Dialogue’. Because I’ve been working since 1999 on the concept of Dialogue, as an application of the Creative Interchange Process, I have watched the video of prof. Noelle Aarts’ Inaugural address: https://wurtv.wur.nl/p2gplayer/Player.aspx?id=dltvZ1 (from [18:00] on) with great interest.
I was struck by the similarities between the content of Professor Aarts’ talk and that of my own book ‘Cruciale dialogen’[i] (Crucial Dialogues). In this column I’ll cite parts of Noelle Aarts Inaugural lecture (in italic) followed by my personal reflections.
I understand conversations as the speaking and listening that goes between and among people. A dialogue can be considered as a special form of conversation, defined by David Bohm as “a stream of meanings flowing among, through and between us.” The main characteristic of a dialogue, as compared to other forms of conversation as a debate or a discussion, is that ‘Nobody is trying to Win!’
My understanding of Dialogue is equally based on David Bohm’s definition. During the Systems Thinking in Action® Conference in Atlanta of November 1999, where I met Peter M. Senge and William Isaacs, I was made aware of the existence of a little booklet ‘On Dialogue’ that had been edited from the transcription of several seminars of dr. Bohm. The very first pages of this essay were an eye-opener for me. Not only his definition, also his point of view ‘That nobody is trying to win’ and even more his statement that ‘in a dialogue, by creating a shared meaning, everybody wins’ was a real Aha-Erlebnis.
Later I understood that this shared meaning is obtained through living the ‘Authentic Interacting’ during phase one (Communication) and ‘Appreciative Understanding’ during phase two (Appreciation) of the Creative Interchange Model.
In a dialogue people supposedly express uncertainties and dilemma’s they experience, they make their assumptions explicit, they listen to each other without judgment, they develop new shared meanings and they co-construct institutions to facilitate the process.
This process is part of the Creative Interchange Process and corresponds with the left hand side of the Crucial Dialogue Model. Indeed, Authentic Interacting and Appreciative Understanding are two main characteristics of Creative Interchange.
However, as a dialogue is considered to be important to realize change and innovation, I will first elaborate on the role and significance of conversation in the processes of ordering and re-ordering Society and thus the position of my research in broader discussions on communication and change.
This part of dr. Aarts talk is visualized by the Crucial Dialogue Model. This model, based on the Creative Interchange Process and the Dialogue Model of the Nederlandse Stichting Dialoog, connects conversation (left part of the model) to transformation (right part of the model). Change and innovation are indeed at their best a transformation. And we shouldn’t forget what W. Edwards Deming thought us: “There is no change without personal transformation.”
The crucial dialogue model is at the same time a problem solving model. The problem being visualized by the question mark.
Instead of resulting from a single cause, change often results form an interplay of developments that take place simultaneously and have reinforced each other towards a tipping point. What is easily considered to be a cause, is often not more than ‘a straw that breaks the camels’ back’.
This passage of Noelle Aarts’s talk made me think of my second and third life. During my second life, as Safety Consultant, Root Cause Analysis was a main tool to unravel the causes of an accident (‘tipping point’ in the words of Noelle). During my third life – and thanks to Charles Leroy ‘Charlie’ Palmgren ph.D. – who introduced me to Creative Interchange – I finally understood that causes and effects are in mutual interplay influencing each other.
People’s changing activities and behaviors must therefore be understood and explained form the social bonds they have formed in interaction. In the words of Norbert Elias: “From this interdependence of people comes an order of a very specific nature, an order that is more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of each individual person.”
I understand the quote of Norbert Elias as being another way of defining the concept ‘synergy’, which is, in fact, the fruit of Creative Interchange: 1+1>3.
In conversations people construe images of the world around them, that are related to the context and meanings that people themselves consider to be important. Change, both become visible and are produced in what Jeffrey Ford calls ‘Shifting Conversations’. Conversations are therefore as potentially powerful mechanisms through which change and innovation come about, making them an interesting and important research object.
Once again the Crucial Dialogue Model pictures that ‘conversation’ – the left side of the model – creates ‘change and innovation’ – the right side of the model.
I have identified an interrelated mechanism that plays decisive roles in the course of the conversation, which are: selective perceptions and strategic framing in meaning making interactions, self-referentially and its consequences for meaning making, one dimensional listening, dichotomization and other polarizing strategies that people apply in order to legitimize their frames and framings and communication dynamics in wider social networks, characterized by bonding and silencing.
Selective perceptions and framings
When people in conversation are confronted with new information, whether this is a text or an image, they immediately start constructing a sort of story in their head that form the basis for their responses. We construct stories by combining and mixing up images, pieces of stories we’ve heard before, specific associations, etcetera.
Selective perceptions and framing have to do with our ‘coloring consciousness’. In the words of Noelle Aarts: “we see the world through our self-constructed frames.” What is presented as new information in phase one ‘Communication’ should be seen in a ‘non-colored’ way using our Awareness (i.e. our crystal clear consciousness). I agree with Noelle’s statement that most people immediate color their Awareness, thus transforming it into Consciousness. Understanding the difference between Awareness and Consciousness is crucial during dialogues. Paraphrasing Stephen Covey: “We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we frame it.” We transform reality so to speak.
Through a dialogue within the dialogue; i.e. a dialogue between our Consciousness and our Awareness, we are able to adapt our frames.
The way people frame situations this gives direction to both problem definitions and solutions, these active and outcome oriented dimensions of framing helps us to understand why it is not easy to achieve common framings. As framings have a great strategic value, people in conversations try to convince their interlocutors of the value of their own frame, rather than adopting a new frame that would not fit their existing context and their interactional propose.
Seen through our Crucial Dialogue Model lens, deep understanding of the problem (which has its place in the middle of the model – the question mark) corresponds with the left side of the model. To use Noelle’s language: ‘people have by definition different frames.” In our training programs we learn people to see that each frame has its value and that no frame contains the ‘whole’ truth.
The perception of the environment is thus determined by the systems own internal logic, rather than by the features of external information. Outside reality is reduced and transformed to the point where it becomes of internal relevance, which means that it can be handled and regulated.
Prof Aarts underlines that through, what Maturana and Varela called, autopoiesis, the external information is transformed until it fits and is accepted by the own internal logic and thus can be controlled.
Clearly and effective dialogue between two or more self-referential social systems, each reducing and transforming information so as to confirm and maintain their own system, is difficult.
Indeed, Dialogue is difficult, if not impossible, if participants cling to their ‘own truth’. This brings me to our description of a dialogue: “I and the other(s) give and receive information in a very open way, during which we are conscious of and accept the influence of the other(s). During this exchange we are willing to change, to adapt our vision and to transform our assessment.”
Noelle Aarts refers in her Inaugural Lecture to Otto Scharmer’s typology. The type of listening which is conditional for a constructive dialogue to take place is Empathic listening.
Empathic listening, is listening without judgment by trying to grasp the perspective of the other and even critically consider one’s own perspective. Clearly, empathic listening is not easy; it is a skill that asks for intensive training. Cultural anthropologists, therapists, professional coaches are trained to listen empathically, not guaranteeing at all that they apply such in cases when they themselves have a stake in the conversation.
Not surprisingly, our Crucial Dialogue Model pleads for empathic listening. Not only do we provide for a tool that proves that listening occurs (Confirmed Paraphrasing Behavior #4 – phase 1 Communication); what has been said has to be appreciated (phase 2 Apperciation). When one does not fully grasps the ideas or statements of the other, he or she – when skilled in Crucial Dialogues – does not dismiss the information; instead he or she uses Humble Inquiry (Behavior #1 – phase 2 Appreciation). This in order to be able to appreciatively understand the message that has been conveyed.
The aim of the game being played on the left side of the Crucial Dialogue Model is creating a shared meaning built from the different frames used by the participants.
An important polarizing strategy we often encounter and which we are further exploring at the moment is dichotomization: dividing something in two radically opposed categories.
However, dichotomization also plays a crucial role in blocking conversations as it forces to take one of two dimensions, also in situations in which both dimensions or poles co-exists or when different shades of grey between poles deserve to be explored.
In our jargon ‘dichotomization’ is called polarization due to ‘either/or’ thinking: either A is true or B is true, they can’t be both true. Carol Dweck calls this ‘Fixed mindset’ thinking. In ‘Crucial dialogues’ we plead for ‘Growth mindset’ thinking or in our language ‘both/and & different from’ thinking. Not only do we explore ‘both/and’ thinking, we surpass that thinking by using the synergy aspect of Creative Interchange (coined by Yoda in Starwars III as ‘The Force’).
All in all, it can be concluded that conversations are of utmost importance. However, we seem to miss chances for making progress in solving problems as we are not really good in conversations that therefor often result in undesired side effects as conflict or in no side effect at all. In the line of our difficulties, in effectively engage in a dialogue, is the problem of coping with differences and diversity; and that is quite a fundamental problem, because we simply have to. As Jeffrey Ford argues: “In the absence of people’s willingness to speak and listen differently, there can be no conversational shift and no organizational change.” Therefore, although we should not have illusory expectations, it remains essential to organize encounters between people who think differently and to develop skills to constructively deal with differences and diversity in conversations. From a dialogue perspective not differences, but the notion of a one and single truth leads to conflict. Last year, Hedwig te Molder revealed in her inaugural speech, how especially scientists, when interacting with society, tend to behave as if they had a monopoly on the truth. “These are the facts, you’d better deal with them!”, without taken into account all kinds of ambiguities and what te Molder calls ‘hidden moralities’ that may be at stake. The more science presents itself as arriving at one single truth, the more it will clash with society. As Bohm and Nigel argue, and I cite: “If scientists could engage in a dialogue that would be a radical revolution in science – in the very nature of science.”
We couldn’t agree more! The principle at the heart of the second phase ‘Appreciation’ of the Crucial Dialogue Model being “I have no monopoly on truth and I believe that behaves us to show humility.” Indeed, every frame has its ‘truth’. By combining different parts of these ‘truths’, one creates a shared meaning. Ideally this shared meaning is in itself a synergy of the different ‘partial truths’. Not surprisingly, ‘Tolerance for Ambiguity’ is one of the two basic conditions of the second phase ‘Appreciation’ of the Crucial Dialogue Model.
The effect of this approaches to diversity and differences hinges on the stakeholder’s ability to get engaged in constructive dialogue. My ambition is therefor to develop building blocks for a training on the art of dialogue for practitioners for whom conversation form an important part of their work, for facilitators of such conversations and for our students.
Creativity is simply not possible without diversity and differences. Creativity is in fact one of the basic conditions of phase 3 ‘Imagination’. And Innovation is only possible if Imagination is set into action, which we call phase 4 ‘Transformation’. Since we’ve unlearned the art of Dialogue, mainly due to the perverse consequences of the Vicious Circle[ii], we have to re-learn that art. Therefor a robust training program is needed. For some 15 years now we are continuously improving the building blocks of such a training. These building blocks are gathered around:
- 4 phases,
- 8 conditions (in red)
- Tolerance for Ambiguity
- and the 16 behaviors/tools (in green) of the Crucial Dialogue Model.
- Ask the Core Question
- Advocacy & Inquiry
- Non Verbal Communication
- Confirmed Paraphrasing
- Humble Inquiry
- Finding Positives
- Integrating Differences
- Altering Mental Models
- Use of Analogies
- Use of Metaphors
- 4 Plus and a Wish
- Repetition and Evaluation
- Feedback (PR & C)
- Dare to Change (if necessary)
- Process Awareness
[i] Roels, Johan. Cruciale dialogen Het dagelijks beleven van ‘creatieve wisselwerking’. Antwerpen/Appeldoorn: Garant, 2012
[ii] Hagan, Stacie and Palmgren, Charlie. The Chicken Conspiracy Breaking the Cycle of Personal Stress and Organizational Mediocrity. Baltimore: Recovery Communications Inc., 1998.