Theory of Dialogue

Peter Garrett

Theory of Dialogue

Dialogue is about a diverse group of people finding a common sense or understanding about things. This leads to moving forward together in a common direction, each understanding their part in what is being done, and contributing to what may be needed in a willing and intelligent way.

The more diverse the interests of group (many different stakeholders), the more cultural differences there are (many different assumptions and beliefs), and the greater the hierarchical levels (power differences) the less likely it is that a common understanding will be realised, and the more essential it is to use dialogue to succeed.

Dialogue involves an ethical stance (respect) and a curiosity (listening) about what is being said that challenges one’s own and others assumptions (suspension) and results in authenticity (voice).  It is based on an ontology (nature of reality) that things are already inter-connected (wholeness) and that acting as if this were not the case (fragmentation) causes trouble.  There is a way of thinking together (participation) and attending to what is happening (awareness) which reveals how things already hold together (coherence) in a common purpose (potential).  Talking and thinking together in this way is dialogue – literally a common meaning (logos) running through (dia) a group of people.

Once people can talk and think together in a dialogic mode, then organisational change can be brought about with people (participatory) rather than being imposed on people (directive).  This has the advantage of the co-authoring and collective ownership of change initiatives in difficult or complex situations.

Individual and collective identity is formed and maintained by the stories people tell repeatedly about themselves, each other and the organisation in which they live or work.  As these stories change, the identity changes.  Stories authored in isolation fragment the identity and lead to a divisive culture, whilst co-authored stories integrate the identity.  Dialogue enables people to talk and think together that reveals the inter-dependent needs and interests of people, and these co-authored stories integrate the identity.

The theory of change by Dialogue is based on the relationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm.  When initiating change in a system (the macrocosm), key representatives of each of the stakeholders (sub-cultural interest groups) are first brought together (the microcosm) to identify the need or opportunity and to co-author the change.  Once they have aligned their understanding of how to proceed then they engage a wider section of those affected in a similar process.  In this step by step process change is brought about sustainably in the whole (macrocosm)

A key piece of the Dialogic Practice is skill building.  There are four levels of skill needed to enable people to engage in Dialogue – namely the check-in/check-out, the Dialogic Modes, the Dialogic Actions and the Dialogic Practices.  These skills are easily learnt and once mastered enable people to engage in dialogue.  Without the Dialogue skills people will fall into levels of conversation, discussion, debate or monologue and will be unable to talk and think together in an effective way.

The intervention architecture involves starting where there is response (whether at the top, middle or lower down in the organisation) and establishing an ongoing dialogue of some kind that has self-evident value to those involved.  Sponsorship is then established by inviting individual leaders in to experience the dialogue in order to understand the value first-hand and want to extend it to other parts of the organisation.  Care should be taken over time to ensure the methodical inclusion of the entire leadership group and to attend to their skill building needs.  A single common language for dialogue (as embodied in the dialogue skills) means everyone has a similar understanding of what is involved.  As people become more widely involved in dialogue, they can work with change in a more participatory way.  The simple principle here is that when you are designing a change and find your self talking about ‘them’ – then include them in the conversation.  The dialogue skills enable you to do this successfully.