Doorways and trapdoors of Generative Dialogue


7 minute read

I have just spent two amazing days with Neil Houghton and Julian Waters-Lynch working with the Executive Team of a client organisation. It was seriously cool. The program was focused on supporting the Executive Team to uncover, unlock and unleash its own  generative potential as it works together in considering and crafting the organisation's future.

In preparation for our time together with the Executive Team, we created many maps. Each map was designed to support the Executive Team in gaining a deeper appreciation of its own 'inner territory' - its ways of thinking, being, doing and relating together. And also, to provide the Executive Team with greater clarity (and confusion!) of the  terrain it will need to navigate in bringing the organisation's strategy to life (and, as Jules pointed out to me: Bring Life To Strategy). Over the coming few weeks I will be unpacking each of these maps, with the first being a simple frame that invited the Executive Team to open into new ways of exploring its future together.

The 4 Ds Of Generative Conversations

To expand the range of potential futures the Executive Team could consider it first needed to expand its conversational range. We have all experienced being in groups where the quality of the conversation is quite 'limited'; that is, the depth and span of the conversation is highly constrained. Often times, groups are in 'in dispute' in these conversations, where the players involved in that conversation are unable to listen to or appreciate the perspectives others in that conversation might be offering.  I have worked with many Executive Teams where the quality of the conversation (particularly between some members of the team) is entrenched in dispute.

As the depth and span of the conversational 'territory' expands Debate and Discussion becomes possible. Executive Teams 'in debate' are held by a more adversarial model of conversation; whereby each player has a perspective and sees their role in the conversation as trying to convince the other players that their perspective is the right one to be adopted by all. Certainly this way of engaging as an Executive Team is valid and valuable - especially where there is a 'right answer' and domain expertise to identify that right answer is required.

Discussion within an Executive Team occurs when each player in the conversation engages in a way that simultaneously maintained their own perspective and actively seeks to learn each other player's perspective. In a discussion, each player is not yet willing to let go of their own perspective, but they are willing to be open to the possibility that others might have a more useful perspective to consider.

Supporting teams to engage in healthy discussion is big business. Personally, I have spend years working with teams of all types learn the foundational skills of good conversation - active listening, open ended questioning, clarity of voice, etc. I have certainly had my fair share of successes with teams, and have had a number of false starts. However, the more I work with Executive Teams within a specific context of foresight and futures exploration, I am learning that conversations oriented in enabling a team to have a good Discussion is inadequate. Discussion simply supports the players in that conversation to work out how to play well together whilst still remaining within the current paradigm or 'rules of the game' for that conversation.

Novel and emergent conversational pathways do not emerge from Discussions, they emerge from Dialogue.

Dialogue literally means "together we make meaning". It is a form of conversation where all players in that conversation let go of their preconceived ideas of what the conversation's topics should be and 'surrender into' what wants to emerge through the conversation in service of deepening a team's collective understanding and appreciation of its Current Way Of Being (CWOB) and desired New Way Of Being (NWOB).

Dialogue is a conversation for emergence where the depth and span of the territory explored in that conversation is potentially infinite. And, pathways forward and 'the best decision(s)' emerging from this generative field of potentiality just occur. I have been in many dialogue conversations with my work with The Holos Group and am continually amazed at the creative solutions we identify together for some very complex organisational dynamics.

Fundamental to engaging in Dialogue with the Executive Team this week was starting from the premise that we all wanted to be in dialogue together and that dialogue was the most natural way of being together as a team. In support of enabling this way of being together we worked on a premise that all conversation begins with dialogue and are grounded in the following four states:





These four ways of engaging in dialogue together ensure that the depth and span of the conversation remains as expansive as possible.  These are the four doorways into Generate Dialogue. 

In working with the Executive Team, Neil supported each member of the team to activate and anchor their own sense of curiosity, suspense, wonder and awe in preparation for being in dialogue as a team.  Neil also worked with the Executive Team to identify those experiences the team might have when it is falling out of dialogue ... where the conversation degenerates to more constrained forms of communication.

The four trapdoors out of Generate Dialogue are:

Curiosity Indifference

Suspense = Knowing

Wonder = Expecting

Awe = Fear

Consider the teams you are involved in that work well together, and those that don't. For those that don't work as well together, which of the four trapdoors out of Dialogue do you notice occurring? When and why do these trapdoors occur for that team? 

In working with the Executive Team this week Neil, Jules and I helped the Executive Team answer some of these questions and create for itself a set of conversation polarities (more on this in a future post) and conversational personas (more on this in a later post too) to support the team in having more expansive and emergent conversations together.

We can't wait to see where we go next ...