Organizations and the Mindful Practice of Authentic Dialogue

Last week’s Thrivability Montreal was a fantastic gathering, full of energy and important insights.

We had gathered to explore the question: What if our organizations were designed  to support the mindful practice of authentic dialogue?

To offer some context for our conversation, I opened the evening by describing the machine metaphor that dominates business today, as well as the emerging story that portrays organizations instead as living systems. I explained how this new paradigm points the way to better business results.  Not only that, I shared my conviction that the mechanistic worldview in general is the root cause of every major challenge humanity faces and that, conversely, the new, life-centered story is critical to the very survival of the human race.

Introducing the evening’s topic, I explained my strong belief that authentic dialogue is an important part of that new story. Every living system is a web of dynamic relationships. The more open and free-flowing those relationships can be, the more the living system is likely to be resilient, adaptive and creative. So, as a simple set of principles and processes specifically designed to support open, free-flowing relationship, authentic dialogue offers a powerful path to resilience, creativity and adaptability – very desirable qualities in these challenging and fast-changing times.

Our guest speakers, Valérie Lanctôt-Bédard and Jean-Philippe Bouchard of Spiralis, took just fifteen minutes for an eloquent and engaging introduction to the concept of authentic dialogue, which is inspired by Marshall Rosenberg’s globally renowned process of Non-Violent Communication. Unlike debate, they explained, dialogue is an exchange – I share what I’m feeling, along with the core needs that those feelings stem from. And then I listen with curiosity to what you feel and need. It’s an honest, open exchange. Neither of us knows what the outcome of the exchange will be. We’re genuinely curious and committed to the relationship in that moment. To make the dialogue authentic, we each need to be able to identify and articulate our feelings and needs. And we need to do this from a factual basis, citing actual circumstances without exaggeration.

According to the conversation that then ensued, the payoff ought to be considerable – especially in our organizations. In the group’s view (corroborated by Valérie and Jean-Philippe), authentic dialogue promises greater efficiency and productivity, more creativity and innovation, better collaboration, and higher retention and engagement.

At this point, we were all sold on the idea.  It sounded pretty straightforward and very appealing.

But the challenge is that authentic dialogue is not something we’re accustomed to doing.  In fact, most of us have never been taught to identify our feelings and needs, much less to listen with curiosity to those of another. This is why authentic dialogue generally requires training, tools, support and, most of all, plenty of practice.

And even then, there’s more than meets the eye.  Practice is not only a requirement – it’s also an outlook.  Generally, we think of “practice” as repetition in order to improve a skill.  But authentic dialogue can also represent a life practice, like yoga or martial arts.  With this perspective, every person you encounter represents a mirror, and every interaction represents an opportunity for personal growth.  Our relationships move from being transactional to potentially transformational.

Again, this sounds relatively straightforward. But it only truly, fully makes sense from within a living systems view of the world. Think about it – according to the prevailing mechanistic worldview:

  • We see ourselves as fundamentally separate from each other and the world around us.
  • We view ourselves as static things, judging ourselves and others by our tangible accomplishments at this particular moment in time.
  • We are told by scientists that we exist to compete and consume.
  • We are told by economists that we interact with others in order to serve our own self-interests.

But we’re not machines; we’re living beings. Living systems are never static, and they’re never fully separate from their environment. They are in constant flow in reaction to internal or external change. And it seems that they exist to connect and create with other living systems. In other words, they – we – are continuously evolving through ever-changing relationship. Buckminster Fuller famously quipped, “I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral   function of the universe.” More simply, he observed: “I’m not a human being; I’m a human becoming.” When we see ourselves in this way, then everything becomes an opportunity to grow and evolve, with endless curiosity. Through mindfulness, everything becomes a life practice, especially our relationships.

Not surprisingly, we were not the only ones to recognize the parallels between authentic dialogue and life practices like yoga. An article called The Yoga of Relationships suggests that:

“When we learn to treat others with relational skilfulness, we are practicing yoga. The ultimate goal of yoga is union—with the divine essence in ourselves and in the world around us.”

Another, called Thoughts on Yoga & Relationships, asserts that:

“… [R]elationship is as much a spiritual path as life in a monastery because every day your ego gets tested and opportunities for growth abound.”

And a third, quotes spiritual teacher Ram Dass as saying:

“… [Y]ou can make your relationship your yoga, but it is the hardest yoga you will ever do.”

So, what’s needed to bring this perspective – and practice – into our organizations, with all the benefits listed above? Here are the needs we identified:

  • Maturity. An open mind. Humility. (These all were seen to go together.)
  • Openness to connect. Openness to being in the flow.
  • A willingness to invest time in relationships, along with trust that – paradoxically – time will be saved in the end.
  • Genuineness. If a leader introduces authentic dialogue simply as a manipulative means to higher productivity, the effort will likely fall flat.
  • Passion and courage.
  • A commitment to weaving authentic dialogue into the guiding principles of the organization.
  • Training, tools, support.

In the discussion that followed, Jean-Philippe pointed out that it’s not absolutely necessary for everyone in the organization to demonstrate all of these qualities.  Not everyone has to buy in. A small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world – and an organization – as Margaret Mead assures us.

At the end of the evening, as we dreamed together about our ideal organization, flowing with authentic dialogue, we envisioned the ability to have a truly human connection, feeling safe that we’ll be received with openness and curiosity. We saw ourselves full of energy, not noticing the time pass. In short, we imagined feeling more thrivable and alive. And in this vision, we accomplished more – and more important things – together.

“That’s the compass point,” said Valérie. “If you can imagine that, it’s because it’s possible.” 

Apparently, it’s going to take practice to get there. But truly, this may be the most important step we can take on the journey to thrivability. And imagine how much further we’ll get if we make that step together within our organizations.

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