Dialogue Protocols

Setting the Table

Some of the best conversations we experience seem to emerge spontaneously, focus on a theme or topic that quickly captures our interest and resonates with our minds and our hearts. The experience can be soulful, a sense of spiritual joining of people on a plane not commonly accessed.

Is it possible to have those conversations and access that spiritual joining by intention and through practice? What are conditions that make such dialogues possible? Are there practices or approaches that can reliably draw people into heart-full and mind-full speaking and listening? Can such a conversation be scheduled for Thursday morning at 10 AM?

What Is Really Happening During Deep Conversations?

The questions I am sure have many possible answers. One – which may be a distillation of several possible answers – is a cycle of deep listening, reflection, and speaking, where each person is primarily interested in listening to the thoughts and feelings of others and secondarily interested in speaking their own thoughts and feelings. When they do speak from their own thoughts and feelings they are offering a reflection on what they have heard and felt rather than starting from their own world view that they habitually download.

In my own experience the chatter of self talk quiets or even ceases. So intense is the attention paid to others that I lose the need and the desire to give voice to my own thoughts. Not only am I content to listen, I can feel a palpable excitement around the possibility that I am about to gain access to an insight that might not have otherwise come along.

Conversations By Design

The challenge it seems to me is to create the cycle of deep listening, reflection, and speaking as a matter of intentional design. I refer to this as a dialogue protocol. They are conversational “rules of engagement”. A protocol is in simple terms a set of rules that guide the conversation.

As an example, a protocol for a conversation that hopes to reveal some creative ideas might be Once Around, Uninterruptible followed by Open Conversation. Each person in the conversation offers comments which cannot be interrupted by anyone else. After each person has spoken the conversation is open and it will flow to wherever it flows.

At a minimum it delays one common enemy of creative thinking, the tendency to jump in and judge the merit of an idea before it has been explored, before idea scaffolding has been given a chance, where each idea is used as a stepping stone to the next.

Brief History of Protocols

My colleague Cheryl Barker and I attended the NeuroLeadership Conference in 2008 in New York. Upon her return she began to explore how meeting agendas might be improved. She and her colleagues at Neundorfer (a pollution control company in Northeast Ohio) developed the concept over a period of months. Included for each of the agenda items was a protocol. In simple terms it laid out the expected unfolding of conversation for that agenda item.

For sharing information the protocol was Presentation. For converging on a decision the protocol was Preference or Acclimation. The intent of the protocols was to ensure all voices were heard (that wished to be heard; anyone could say “pass”).

Can Rules Lead to Freedom?

Such was my introduction to dialogue protocols. Their appeal to me personally centered on their ability to slow my thinking down and delay my tendency to draw conclusions about the thoughts of others before I have given them their just due.

Is bringing orderliness to a conversation a real and feasible stepping stone to the conversations I described above? While the protocols measurably improved the quality and the productivity of meetings, they did not seem to reliably lead to that deeper exchange that signals the joining of minds, hearts, and souls. (The agenda item itself was a factor; a final decision is more analytical than it is creative.)

Was the failure an indicator that protocols (rules) were not the way in, or could it be that the protocols needed to be developed to a greater degree?

A Dive Into Synergy and Collaboration

Cheryl Barker introduced me to Nancy Klein’s book, “Time to Think.” It is an excellent read; I recommend it to everyone. At the heart of the book is the question, can we get people to do better thinking if we fail to make the time and the space for thinking?

Concurrent with this I was exploring the possibility of a major writing project with two colleagues. We had a number of discussions around synergy and collaboration, more at the level of responding to the spirit and energy of the words than taking the time to actually answer the question, What does that really mean for each of individually and all of us together?

As we discussed the words, I repeatedly referred to thinking, as in synergistic thinking, collaborative thinking. I had it in my mind that what I sought was at a deep level, where thoughts are formed, memories were accessed and recombined into new thoughts and ideas. But, I never really found the words to paint the picture I had in mind, that intimate weaving of thoughts and ideas, and it proved to be a frustrating experience for all of us.

Having failed to reach some meeting of the minds on the meaning of synergy and collaboration, it is no surprise that we had very divergent opinions on the practice of synergy and collaboration. For one of us it was presenting a reasonably well formed idea to the other two and soliciting responses. While that was certainly more collaborative then simply embarking on a solo effort, it struck me as more of a negotiation than collaboration and synergy. It was also far from the partially formed, ill-described idea of synergy and collaboration with which I was struggling.

The Place of Synergy and Collaboration: Dialogue versus Thinking

I started to have doubts about my own assumptions. I started to lean into the possibility that it might be more a question of dialogue than thinking. Since we each had our own separate brain, failing a Klingon mind-meld it was unlikely that our neuronal thinking processes could be physically combined.

Dialogue on the other hand (the outward and audible manifestation of thinking) was something that took place in common space and time, and could be joined through listening and thinking. And that returned me to the idea of a protocol as a means to an end. If we could have a conversation that sounded like the one in my head, even if we had to hammer it into place, I thought my colleagues could experience what I was failing to verbally communicate, and the way forward would be a bit more accessible to all of us.

The Challenge of Dialogue

At the same time I was seeking a concrete entry point into synergistic and collaborative dialogue, one of us, Gail Severini, had been doing thinking around openness in organizations. She was (and is) very interested in understanding what conditions were necessary for this to happen, and what type of dialogue might be possible if and when it was achieved. This struck me as a framework highly compatible with synergy and collaboration.

It seemed to me that the primary challenge was decreasing the time that each of us spends with our own thoughts and increasing the time we are fully present to the thoughts of others. To that end I proposed a dialogue protocol to my colleagues for an upcoming conference call scheduled to discuss an article that John Barbuto (the third colleague) had written. We were at a crossroads, where we had to declare the path we intended to follow for thinking and writing. (This was not a rigid decision, more akin to saying, from here forward we are headed roughly east, at least making clear that north, south, and west were no longer on the table of possibilities.) They agreed with some hesitation and doubt.

Digging Deeper into Dialogue Protocols

The dialogue protocol unfolded this way.

1. Time to Think
This did not assume that no one had done any thinking prior to the call and needed a few minutes to catch up. Rather, it was explicit time to synchronize the prefrontal cortex with the amygdala. So, facts were synchronized with feelings. There was actual silence during the call.

2. Possibilities, Once Around, Uninterrupted, No Discussion
Each in turn briefly shared her/his view of the future possibilities that s/he had derived from John’s article. Brief meant brief, favored by having taken time to think. Each of us was expected to distill everything down to as few words as possible. This was discipline as well as creativity.

3. Time to Think
Time for each of us to think about the possibilities others had contributed. This was a reflection. There was actual silence during the call.

4. What I Find Interesting, Once Around, Uninterrupted, No Discussion
This was a “shift” exercise. As an example, I spoke to John about what I found interesting in his possibilities, John spoke to Gail about what he found interesting in her possibilities, and Gail spoke to me about what she found interesting in my possibilities. The protocol prevented me (as an example) from speaking my own thoughts without continuing to be present to the thinking and feelings of John (and the same for each in turn).

5. Time to Think
Another reflection. Each reflected on what her/his dialogue partner found interesting. This was not a compare and contract with one’s own original possibilities. It was thinking centered completely on what her/his dialogue partner found interesting. There was actual silence during the call. (While a reflection is obviously our own thoughts, the intent was to push each of us to center our thinking on what someone else had contributed to the dialogue, as opposed to our own default position on the idea.)

6. The Gift Received, Once Around, Uninterrupted, No Discussion
Each of us in turn shared the gift they received in what her/his dialogue partner found interesting. (The order was the reverse of #4; John shared the gift he received from me, Gail from John, and I from Gail.) This was also designed to keep each of us centered in the thoughts of another person. (Similar to above, while any articulation of a gift received was obviously our own thoughts, this protocol also kept each of us anchored in the thoughts of the other. In order to complete this protocol, each of us had to remain present to our dialogue partner.)

7. Time to Think
Another reflection, on the gift received. This was actual silence during the call.

8. Open Discussion

The Outcome

I think everyone found a rule based conversation odd to some degree. It was considerably different from a free flow conversation where anyone can express any idea in any order that seems logical to that person. There were murmurs of approval mixed with hesitation. It seemed to approach a new dialogue without actually arriving.

For me, it at least allowed a glimmer of what I had in mind to show through.

Was the Dialogue Protocol Effective?

Short-term, it is likely that dialogue protocols can feel confining, even counter productive. Having spent a good deal of time designing and imagining this protocol inside my head, the periods of silence seemed very long to me. The lack of familiarity with the protocol likely dampened dialogue to some degree.

Long-term, it seems to me that the promise of dialogue protocols is when written rules are internalized as habit, when taking time to think and being fully present to another person become normal and routine ways of having dialogues and being in conversation with each other. The overt sense of “rules of engagement” gives way to the normal and routine manner in which people engage each other’s feelings and thoughts.

Future Possibilities

The future possibility, for me, is a reliable way to have conversations that matter on a routine basis. This doesn’t mean that every dialogue has to be structured; there is much to be said for completely spontaneous conversations that flow where they flow and the point of departure and the destination take on less importance than the journey.

Notwithstanding, in the course of work we have to eventually be about the business of the business, and to make forward progress on that front in a more productive and meaningful way is very attractive to me.

I invite others to develop and try dialogue protocols, experiment with them, share their experience, and work toward enriching dialogue (by this or any other approach).

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Thinking from the Future as It Emerges

Setting the Table

I started using this phrase, “thinking from the future as it emerges”, in conversation with colleagues. Recently one of them said that while she had an inkling of what it might mean, she did not really know, describing herself as sitting back, waiting for the meaning to take shape for her. Her comment set me to explore what the phrase really means, why I am using it, and what I mean to communicate.

Otto Scharmer

I lifted the phrase from Otto Scharmer. In his book, “Theory U”, he refers to “leading from the future as it emerges”. I had substituted thinking for leading, and left the rest of the phrase in tact.

Scharmer’s book is about transformational change in leaders (as persons) that will enable and ready them to meet their existing challenges. In order to do that, Scharmer writes, leaders have to learn how to operate from the highest possible future rather than being stuck in the patterns of past experiences.

He describes this as operating from a deeper state, a deeper process, and being pulled into an emerging possibility and operating from that altered state rather then simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences (which he refers to elsewhere as “downloading”).

The key element in being able to do this (here he uses the word able in its meaning of “ability or capacity to”) is to become aware of a profound blind spot in leadership and in every day lives.

The blind spot for Scharmer is the place within or around us where our attention and intention originates. It is the place from where we operate when we do something, what Bill O’Brien, the former CEO of Hanover Insurance, calls the “interior condition”. The reason it is blind, Scharmer writes, is because it is an invisible dimension of our everyday experience in social interactions. (I might paraphrase this as finding nothing interesting about normal and as a result, spending very little time reflecting on normal.)

He uses the example of an artist, offering three perspectives:

  • We can look at the painting after it has been created (the thing).
  • We can look at the painting during its creation (the process).
  • We can look at the painting before its creation (the blank canvass or source dimension).

The blank canvass or source is the future (i.e., the painting) emerging in the mind’s eye of the artist.

Extrapolating from the example, Scharmer notes that we can look at what leaders do, we can look at how leaders do what they do (processes), or we can look at the leader’s work from the blank canvass point of view.

Shifting From Painting to Thinking

We leave Scharmer here, reluctantly, for having opened his book after some time I am reminded of the mastery and majesty of his work. With the above as a working analogy, what is “thinking from the future as it emerges”?

If we replace painting with thinking, thoughts after they have been created (the thing) reside in our brains as memories and may be communicated to others. Thinking during creation (the process) is a complex neurological process. For now, I’ll describe it in limited fashion as the recombination or reordering of information stored in memory and/or learning (as in something new). These thoughts are written to the brain as memories or rewritten in the case of memories that already exist. That cycle repeats itself hundreds if not thousands of times a day.

I am most interested in the third, the blank canvass. What is thinking before its creation? What is the mind’s eye of the thinker? What is the blank canvass of our brain? What is the source we are tapping into when we are in a state of “no thinking” (when the canvass is blank). What gives us access to the blank canvass of thought, and what do we do with it once we get there? Most importantly, how do we identify our blind spot?

In seeking to understand “thinking from future as it emerges”, I am most drawn to the idea of “operating from the highest possible future” in the sense of operating from a deeper state, a deeper process. Being pulled into an emerging possibility and operating from that altered state rather then simply reflecting on and reacting to past experiences resonates with me as a seminal insight, what the Quakers might refer to as “opening way”.

Some Guiding Questions (taken from Scharmer)

1.What is thinking before its creation, the mind’s eye of the thinker, the blank canvass of the brain?

It occurred to me that there is a common term for this – zoning out. What is the neuroscience of zoning out?

A group of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and the University of California Santa Barbara, led by Jonathan Smallwood and Kevin Brown, describe zoning out as the brain’s “offline mode”. Their “decoupling hypothesis” posits that the brain decides that nothing too interesting or too threatening is happening near by and cuts the connection between our inner and outer worlds[1]. They conclude that the decoupling hypothesis “suggests that the capacity for spontaneous cognitive activity depends upon minimizing disruptions from the external world”.

Could this be the blank canvass? I do not know, and I suspect a lot more research is needed to draw that conclusion. But it does open the door to a feasible way of understanding thinking before its creation and the mind’s eye of the thinker.

2. What is the source we are tapping into when we are in a state of “no thinking”?

One read of Smallwood and Brown suggests that creativity and imagination may be enhanced. When external stimuli are shut out, and the brain does not have to concern itself with safety, we are free to follow our thoughts where they go, float along, with no care for point of departure, destination, direction, or speed.

Does this lead to what we know as the “eureka moment”, the insight or creation or innovation that seemingly appears from nowhere? As above, I do not know, but it seems to be at least a plausible, working conjecture.

3. What gives us access to that source?

Smallwood and Brown (above) described the brain going into “offline mode” spontaneously. Can it planned? Can we schedule a time to go offline? Can we create the conditions in which the brain concludes it need not be present to the external world?

Well, we know zoning out happens, we know the circumstances, and we know the neurological mechanism.

In my own personal experience (n=1 for all you statisticians and scientists) powerful questions give me access to my source. Powerful questions can open way into parts of my source I had not yet unpacked. As I have written before, powerful questions are personal, ambiguous, and anxiety provoking. (Read Article on Powerful Questions) I have experienced very brief moments of zoning out in the immediate response to a powerful question.

Can those moments be extended? Can zoning out and being present to a group of colleagues thinking together be combined? It appears on the surface to be self-contradictory. I do not know, but I am struck by the possibility.

4. What is thinking from the highest possible future?

I often complain that bench marking is the guarantee of mediocrity. It dulls the mind and consigns the questions “why?” and “what if?” to the compost pile. Once a benchmark is declared, everyone in the industry aims to operate at the benchmark. Assuming they are all successful, when every company arrives to the benchmark, they are all operating at the same level, which by definition is the mean, which by definition is average.

And what of the company that was marked as the holder of the benchmark in the first place? Do you think they are still operating at that level?

I have always been far more interested in the thinking that created the breakthrough for the company that became the benchmark than in the benchmark itself. I have always wanted to know, how did they approach thinking in such manner that they were able to breakthrough established ways of doing things, and leapfrog into very different futures?

In the realm of thinking, proceeding forward from what is known strikes me a form of bench marking. When viewed from the vantage point of time, the results are actually a regression to a past point that once was a good idea. By the time the inquiry is done, the idea that was good is older yet, and its relevancy is at risk. It completely fails to point into a desired or possible future. It serves to anchor us in the past.

What is the highest possible future? That is a very personal question. The answer for one may be the “unanswer” for another. It does suggest that risk is involved. There is nothing safe about aiming for the highest point imaginable. Such effort, if successful, invites scrutiny, and possibly lots of it. It risks upsetting the status quo. The messenger might be confused with the message and find her or himself shipped off to Coventry.

One’s highest possible future requires a declaration of possibility. It requires putting a stake in the ground, aiming high, and pressing hard. If such action earns one the enmity of others, hurdles have to be overcome and prices paid to stay the course. It is a matter of settling for nothing less that one’s personal best. Every time. There is no rest.

5. What is the deeper state of emerging thought?

Daryl Conner speaks about what really matters. That is also a very personal place to go. To do so we have to take inventory. Who am I? What is my purpose? With what resolution will I make my mark upon the planet? We have to face the question, “Why bother in the first place?” as a matter of assessing its deep meaning to us. Are we marking time and following, or cutting trails into future possibilities?

This is heavy lifting. We have to do what we have to do to get there, continuously find ways to improve our tools for breaking through, and we have to help each other.

That, for me, is the deeper state.

6. What does it mean to operate from that altered state?

Jeffery Shwartz and Henry Stapp describe “attention density”, where intention and attention are so intensely applied that we hold onto questions and explore their meaning for long periods of time. It includes exercises such as asking a question, answering it, then asking it again, and repeating that cycle many times. Each cycle takes us deeper into our source and creates an altered state, where we are willing to stick with “why?” and “what if?” for extended periods of time, deferring “how?” for another day.

Future Possibilities

A number of the above questions ended with other questions. So a lot more thinking and inquiry around “thinking from the future as it emerges” is needed. I welcome other people’s thinking on this, whether their knowledge supports or refutes the thinking I have done thus far.

[1] Described in detail in Pupillometric Evidence for the Decoupling of Attention from Perceptual Input during Offline Thought by Smallwood, Brown, et al., retrieved 2011.10.09 at URL: http://tinyurl.com/3t57ufu.

Hearing Doubt Rather Than Seeing Resistance

Setting the Table

My thinking in the last several years has focused on how the routine and ordinary conversations in organization affect their willingness and ability to see the future different from the past. These conversations are based on recurring themes (frequently repeated conversations or stories that reinforce “this is the way we do things around here”) and common vocabulary (words or phrases that occur frequently and which have a strong and pointed meaning in the organization).

One such phrase, “resistance to change”, is well-established in the lexicon of managers, leaders, and consultants. (Google Scholar returned 82,700 results, 7,500 in the last year alone.) It typically refers to followers who fail to readily adopt new ways of thinking or doing. It strikes me that labeling people who are slow to adopt a new idea as resistant is to cast them as a force to be overcome, as if they were the enemy or villains.

Enemies and villains are people to be conquered and subjugated. They are expected to pay a price for their opposition. After they have been subdued they are regarded with a wary eye. Trust is out of the question. Constant supervision and vigilance is required. Their good will is always suspect.

Is this healthy, to see followers as the enemy for no other reason than that they have a different opinion or preference or belief, or questions about what change means to them? If so, how do leaders simultaneously think of followers as allies in producing goods and services for customers and as a cohort that must be conquered or overcome in some way? So which is it – friends, or foes?

My Opinion, Your Attitude

Resistance to change is often associated with another phrase, a somewhat damning one, where resisters are accused of having a “bad attitude”. The phrase can be understood on many levels but its connection to “resistance to change” further deepens the divide between leaders and followers.

In order to name an attitude, it is the world view of the leader (not that of the follower about to be labeled) that is hard at work. It requires the leader to process spoken words or observable behaviors and interpret them in some way.

It is the interpretation to which the leader gives voice but without any corresponding sense of ownership or accountability. Rather, the leader’s opinion is assigned to the follower in the form of an attitude. This is an action of a weak leader who lacks any sense of the difference between thinking “I am cause” and thinking, “This is what happened to me.”

Such thinking is injurious to leaders, followers, and to the organization as a whole.

(Claiming a follower has a “good attitude” is the same process – it is still the leader’s opinion projected on the follower as fact without any sense of ownership or accountability.)

Unpacking Resistance

Dictionaries are useful for clarifying meaning. Looking up “resistance” reveals the following that are related to social systems:

Definitions [1]
1. the act or power of resisting, opposing, or withstanding.
2. the opposition offered by one thing, force, etc., to another.
5. ( often initial capital letter ) an underground organization composed of groups of private individuals working as an opposition force in a conquered country to overthrow the occupying power, usually by acts of sabotage, guerrilla warfare, etc.

Synonyms
1. opposition, obstinacy, defiance, intransigence.

The above suggests that resistance is an active choice. It requires one to have given some thought to a situation or issue, to have concluded that it is not in their best interest, and to actively campaign against the situation or issue as a worthy and honorable endeavor. It communicates a hardening of position, the opposition of forces. It seems reasonable to conclude that anyone who is not adopting new ways of thinking and doing must have, in fact, actively made such a conscious decision. It seems reasonable and logical to label the person a resister.

Unpacking Doubt

Labeling someone a resister has a chilling effect on a leader – it removes the possibility of thoughtful and reflective conversation as a means of forward progress. As resisters, followers must simply be overcome. This can happen through brute force or by reliance on consumerism leadership, in which the leader sells the future and seeks buy-in from followers.

What happens if people who exhibit or demonstrate some slowness in adopting new ways of thinking and doing are viewed as having doubts rather than engaging in resistance?

From the dictionary:
Verb (used with object)
1. to be uncertain about; consider questionable or unlikely; hesitate to believe.
2. to distrust.
3. Archaic . to fear; be apprehensive about.
4. to be uncertain about something; be undecided in opinion or belief.
Noun
5. a feeling of uncertainty about the truth, reality, or nature of something.
6. distrust.
7. a state of affairs such as to occasion uncertainty.
8. Obsolete . fear; dread.

The above meanings are quite the contrast to those for resistance. They open an entirely new set of possibilities that can be explored by leaders and followers. It frames a conversation of mutual regard, one that holds the deep assumption that some reconciliation of ideas can and ought to be achieved, the opportunity to “move along in thought” in the words of Henry Real Bird, the poet laureate of Montana.

Doubt is something than can be explored as colleagues. Two parties can have the same goals, have doubts, and still work as colleagues in pursuit of reaching those goals. Two parties can have different goals, have doubts, and still work as colleagues to create common ground (where none existed).

Leaders frequently expect commitment from followers without giving followers the latitude to discuss any doubts they might have about the future. This is paradoxical – if there are no doubts, no commitment is required.

Imagine that you have a task for which you have the money, time, people, experience, knowledge, equipment, information, materials, and skills that might be required, all in unlimited supply. Save for remembering to begin, how much commitment is required? None, for a successful outcome is guaranteed.

It is only when any of the above is in short supply that people need commitment to work though obstacles and to deliver a successful outcome. Resources in short supply raise doubt about the outcome, about the future.

Future Possibilities

Peter Block asks, “If we cannot say ‘no’ (which is a form of expressing doubt) then what does ‘yes’ mean?”

Expressing doubt is a way of clarifying role, needs, and expectations in the context of vision and mission. Genuine commitment begins with doubt, and “no” is a symbolic expression of people finding their space and role in the strategy. It is when leaders fully understand what followers do not want that they can fully design what they want. The option to say no and pass is the foundation for commitment.

Expressing doubt is not about hijacking the future. Nor is it done in the expectation of guarantees that followers (and leaders themselves for that matter) will receive exactly what they want. Expressing doubt is a deep expression of integrity and honesty, and a gift to leaders and followers alike. The leadership task, writes Block, is to surface doubts and dissent without having an answer to every question.

Block poses some questions to assist leaders in surfacing and exploring doubt. These questions are considered by leaders and followers alike.

  • What concerns about the future do you want to talk about?
  • What is the “no” that you have been postponing that impacts your choice of the past or the future
  • What is the “yes” that has lost its meaning that impacts your choice of the past or the future?
  • What is the forgiveness that you have been withholding that may stand in the way of choosing the future?
  • What is the resentment that you have that no one knows about that impacts your choice for the future?

How would change in organizations be different if leaders inquired into the doubts people have about the future rather than cast them as enemies of the future? What conversations would be created? What conversations would cease?

[1] (From Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2011.)

Post-script, 2011.10.05: I just came across the following from my colleague Tim Soden, who I consider to be a wise person. “I believe that if I use a label to assert that someone is resisting me I am sabotaging myself by limiting my personal abilities after all ‘what we resists persists’.”