Setting the Stage for Dialogue

I first experienced the power of dialogue at the hands of an expert facilitator from the World Business Academy. The facilitator was hosting dialogue sessions with diverse groups of employees as part of an intensive corporate culture change effort.

I called my first experience “a waterslide” conversation. Within minutes of the facilitator sharing the groundrules, I felt myself plunge into a stillness of deep listening, genuine inquiry and fresh insights.

Hal Saunders of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, defines dialogue this way:
“Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take other’s concerns into her or his own picture, even when disagreement persists. No participant gives up her or his identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid human claims that he or she will act differently toward the other”.

Here are some groundrules used to set the stage for dialogue:

1. Speak to the center of the circle rather than to any person.
2. Really listen. What does the dialogue bring up for you?
3. Speak only when moved. Be “economical” with what you say.
4. Leave a space for silence after people speak. Don’t think about what you are going to say. Digest what was said.
5. Speak in “I” statements and only on behalf of yourself.
6. Do not use any evaluative comments – neither supporting nor disagreeing. Simply make your own statement.
7. Ask questions to the center of the circle. Do not direct questions to any one person.
8. Everybody is responsible for following and ensuring everyone follows the rules for dialogue.
9. Speak in a way that others want to listen, and listen in a way that makes others want to speak.

For more information on dialogue, I recommend William Isaacs Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.

The founders of the dialogue movement believe we can change the world by changing how we talk and listen. I believe and hope that is true.

Powerful Questions to Drive Change

Over a decade ago, I saw an advertisement for a workshop on Powerful Questions. That’s an odd topic, I thought. Now with hindsight, I realize the topic was ahead of its time.

What is a powerful question? Reos Partners in their Change Lab methodology use powerful questions as the catalyst for significant social innovation. A powerful question is one to which there is no answer yet. A technical question, in contrast, is one to which we do not know the answer but the answer exists. In other words, when faced with a technical question, research can provide the answer. When faced with a powerful question, we must turn to one another and engage in dialogue and discovery, through which new intelligence emerges.

Examples of powerful questions being explored now using Reos Partners’ methodology are:

  • “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” being explored by The United Way in Calgary and Area’s community change initiative, Thrive by 5
  • “What will it take for Canadians to succeed in creating a good future?” explored by the Possible Canadas Project 

Powerful questions are challenging because they focus on complex, systemic issues. Often the questions are about “wicked problems”.   The Austin Center for Design defines a wicked problem as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for many reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems”.

Forming a powerful question takes a lot of trial and error to ensure it is a “real” question, not technical, that will inspire and engage others in the search for change. However, be inspired by this wonderful quote from Albert Einstein, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

Balancing Six Paradoxical Tensions

In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer outlines six paradoxical tensions that  enable powerful dialogue and learning. Palmer says the space must:

  1. Be bounded and open.
  2. Be hospitable and “charged”.
  3. Invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  4. Honour “little stories” of the participants, and the “big stories” of history and society.
  5. Support solitude and community.
  6. Welcome silence and speech.

The challenge for any facilitator is how to create an environment that holds these opposing energies. Here are some ways I have found to honour these paradoxes:

Establish and use groundrules.
Clarify roles and review agenda.
Practice “emerging design”. Treat agendas like accordions.
Pay attention to light, space, smell and comfort.
Make sure each person feels expected and welcome.
Create and remain in “creative tension”.
Do not rescue, protect or try to relieve.
Invite the voice of the individual
Invite the voice of the group
Respect the value of a single comment.
Support people who stand alone.
Search for themes.
Honour the language of the group.
Honour little stories
page1image39448Honour big stories
Start with the personal connection and help enrich/enlarge the stories.
Identify stories that have meaning for all.
Support Solitude
Support community
Hold no prisoners.
Acknowledge that thinking is participating.
Acknowledge comings and goings.
Acknowledge shared interests and concerns.
Welcome Silence
Welcome Speech
Allow the pregnant pause.


Encourage those who have not spoken.
Be patient with those who are not succinct and/or have contrary views.


Of course, balancing these tensions is not easy, and things can go wrong.  When that happens,

  • Be aware of your emotions and reactions to the situation.
  • Acknowledge things are not going well. The capacity to demonstrate vulnerability is key to creating the conditions for dialogue and learning.
  • Ask the group what we should do to get back on track. (Don’t fake it because you won’t make it.)
  • Call a timeout so the pattern is interrupted, people can reflect and replenish, and there is a chance for a fresh start.
Best of luck in balancing the tensions.
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