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).

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.

Choice 1 (Lack)

It has become more American to consume than to think.

With it has come consumerism leadership and the ubiquitous practice of getting buy-in from followers. How ought we understand and put into perspective a mindset of leadership based on consumerism?


Marketing and advertising fuel consumerism. Sellers rely on stories designed to tickle the brain to light up with pleasure, either real, perceived, or expected.

Sellers frequently claim they seek a win-win relationship. A critical assessment of the claim must address the issue of which party defines winning. It is always the seller, never the buyer. Sellers have to close the sale to win, otherwise they lose. Sellers do not receive rewards for sales not made. The definition of win-win can only be understood through the lens of how the seller must win, not through the lens of how the buyer might win.

Selling is not, inherently, a transparent process. It requires a story favorable to the seller. Can you think of an advertisement or sales pitch that encouraged you to carefully consider whether the purchase was really necessary? Have you ever been pointed to a competitor’s product with the hint that it might be better for you?

The Mindset of the Leader as Seller

The overarching mindset of the seller is closing the deal; it is the only way the seller can keep her/his job. A seller’s patience and skill does not change that mindset.

This is likewise true for the consumerism leader. Selling to followers requires a basic indifference to their desires and needs. A key element of selling, no matter how artfully practiced using psychology and brain research, is overcoming objections. There is one and only one goal – make the sale. Helping others has little or nothing to do with selling, despite claims to the contrary. You can test this the next time you are the target of a sales pitch – say to the seller, “My needs and desires would be better met by passing on this offer, thank you” and observe the response.


It has become patriotic to make one’s contribution to the well-being of others by over-spending as much as possible. We’ve been conditioned to respond to advertising and to behave as responsible consumers. Effective messages convince the soul and the mind that it is possible, and desirable, to reward oneself and contribute to the nation by transacting one simple purchase. By extension, followers are encouraged to believe that they are likewise contributing to the best interests of the organization when they buy-in.

The Mindset of the Follower as Buyer

People know when they are being sold. Followers can discern that in a leader, it often being easier to do so in the workplace. The reliance on overcoming objections as the default position of leaders as sellers alert followers they are target of buy-in efforts.

Once consumerism leadership has been established, and leaders expect to gain buy-in from people, it should come as no surprise when followers behave like consumers. What, generally speaking, is typically on a consumer’s mind?

  • What’s for sale?
  • What is the exchange value?
  • What if I want another sales person (leader)?
  • I expect a bigger discount.
  • I want it in yellow.
  • I’ll wait for the end of year sale.
  • Do you barter?
  • Do you accept coupons?
  • I left because I got a better deal elsewhere.

The follower in the workplace brings the same flavor of questions to consumerism leaders.

If the buyer has no choice in the sales process (if the seller is your boss, walking away from the deal is a risky option) s/he tends to develop passive approaches to turning down the sale. There are many: saying yes but meaning no; and unending stream of questions; repeated mistakes while expressing deep frustration and the desire to do better; public words of encouragement combined with private acts of sabotage.

Consumerism leadership sets up the employee buyer as the most important person. Where does that leave the organization’s real customers?

In organizations, oddly enough, the consumer mentality takes a strange twist. Normally the consumer receives something in the exchange, giving up money for some product, tangible or intangible. In organizations followers are often called upon to give something up in the process of buying in. It should come as no surprise that consumerism leadership risks encouraging weak and insincere followers.

The Effects of Consumerism Leadership in the Workplace

More than anything, consumerism leadership dulls the minds of followers. It anchors compliance in the minds of followers, and rarely, if ever, touches people in a way that sparks commitment.

The consumer mentality is such that buyers assume a passive position and simply wait to sift through the barrage of offers that endlessly swirl around them. Buyers are accustomed to tuning out the chatter that holds no interest, quickly assessing offers in terms of its personal value to them, and being manipulated.

Knowing one is being manipulated and agreeing to be swayed by the manipulation is not a contradiction. Being aware of manipulation and making a decision from within that awareness is proof to ourselves that we can, and do, engage in rational decision making.

The worst effect that consumerism leadership has in the workplace is the deepening belief that all important thinking belongs to leaders, and nothing of real importance is required from followers. Think about the looping cycle this creates – consumerism leadership breeds passive followership and lazy minds which in turn reinforces leaders’ belief that followers must be manipulated through sales pitches into going along with the thinking of the leaders (who are the only ones capable of the thinking required).

Future Possibilities

Why do leaders resort to making sales pitches to the people who rely on their leadership? Is there an alternative? If so, what is it? If consumerism leadership holds that people are unable and/or unwilling to think for themselves and make their own informed decisions, what does the assumption that followers can and want to engage look like? What form does leadership based on treating followers as capable, autonomous thinkers take? What is choice leadership? What is choice followership?