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As a corporate retreat facilitator I am often asked why I think that dialogue can help, and how I feel it differs from discussion. I believe that dialogue is a journey of change and a key vehicle for learning that goes far beyond its “feel good” results. I have come to believe that transformative conversations are not possible without dialogue, and that such conversations are critical for cultural change.

So, ultimately I see dialogue as a journey of change. When we talk about change we are in the domain of leadership, a special kind of leadership that is required to make dialogue happen, in a way that it will impact change at the systemic level through transformative conversations. That kind of leadership is called “conversational leadership” – the stance and skills to design, host and convene important conversations around questions that matter in organizations. Developing this kind of leadership is a job with its own merit…

When I say these things people normally agree: after all who can be against dialogue? And people dialogue all the time, they know that it is important for organizations… so what’s the big deal? The issue might rest in the unstated assumptions that dialogue and the connection with others it creates is good but is not action. And that change is really about defining and planning actions.

Now, let’s be real here: would you plan a retreat and spend a few thousand dollars to hire me if you knew in advance that no action items will result from our session? Probably not, because you would assume that to affect change in your organization you will need some action; and if no action items will be defined, and no action will be planned, then probably change will not occur. This is how the thinking goes: no action items, no change.

Now notice the absurdity of this thinking: how many action items or strategic plan reports – outlined in great detail and using actionable verbs – go nowhere in organizational life? Well, you know the answer: so many that every time we hear the word “retreat” or “strategic planning” we already secretly know how it will end: with a beautiful laminated card or a well laid-out report that will sit on our shelf or on our desk among a pile of more urgent things to do.

Notice how committed we are to doing more of what we know doesn’t work.

But if we look more closely beyond our long to do lists, we can appreciate that dialogue is action, just a different kind, one that is more likely to generate the changes organizations are looking for. Why? Because it goes deeper and avoids the “low hanging fruits” for the big picture:

  • rather than asking what to do, dialogue is about asking why do it in the first place,
  • rather than asking who will do it, dialogue asks who are you and why you care,
  • rather than defining the timeline and sequence of events, dialogue lives in the “moment” of creativity and connection that has no schedule.

Sounds crazy, or like West-Coast hu-hu? Perhaps, but this is not about “Kumbaya My lord” –rather it is more in line with the Blues Brothers classic: “Everybody needs somebody to love!” We are human beings, not just brains at work and a more integral way to interact with each other in relationships has a greater chance to bring about the transformation we so badly crave for our institutions. This is about recognizing that when we come together, if we do not change the context of our gatherings with a dose of realistic idealism, we will get what we have always got. And that is no change.

Dialogue is not problem solving, because dialogue dissolves problems: when you achieve mutual understanding you rediscover and nurture connections with others, and interpersonal relationships will improve as a result. When you get to “we” it becomes much easier to confront reality, to solve problems, to inquire freely, to openly share thoughts and feelings … In the heat of challenging moments, “we” carry you forward with powers you never knew you had. When you reach that level, you are open to the experience of looking for hidden meanings, assumptions, values, conflict, traps, voices, and the invisible forces of interactions.

Dialogue provides the springboard for organizational transformation. Change is part ofdialogue because the stories we tell others and ourselves can permit or hinder the self-agency needed for change. Whether it is “people can’t be trusted around here” or “better not to take risks”… those are all stories that – true or not –influence our thinking. In fact it’s through the sharing of stories through the ever changing interpretations assigned to past, present, and future occurrences that people open their minds to the possibilities emerging from being in relationships with others.

Change has a much higher probability of occurring through transformative conversations. In today’s complex business landscape, change will not happenby decree. Some people mistakenly believe that if they design a solid change plan, employees will automatically implement it. That’s rarely the case, as 75 percent of change efforts fail. Even with a solid design, a flawed implementation plan can spoil success.

Empowering team members to design effective change journeys that will work for all might be the one thing to do to ensure change. By engaging in an interactive dialogue, people arrive at a more robust list of options than would have resulted from an individual effort and a deeper understanding of those options. The formal and informal communication networks that naturally develop in organizations largely determine the collective attitude that leads to change or stagnation. Dialogue can change those attitudes and reset the meaning of personal and organizational experience, allowing individuals to overcome their fears, gain confidence, and release the creative energy required for new and innovative ideas to flow.

And this –rather than a list of action items – is the real purpose of a retreat in the first place.

A question to ponder: When the purpose of a retreat is the one described above, what would the agenda look like? Lets talk about it soon!