In my favourite batman film, “The Dark Knight”, there is a speech by Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart) to a gathering of the press in the crumbling city of Gotham. Dent states:
“The night is darkest before the dawn.”So it is with the increasingly referenced - and often misunderstood - style of meeting, known as dialogue.
A speaker is umming and ahhing. There’s a story shared that appears irrelevant to the topic at hand. A participant becomes restless and lets out a sigh of frustration. It’s obvious there’s a lack of clarity or efficiency within the meeting. At least, on the surface, that’s how it seems!
Not so with dialogue.
For dialogue to surface, sometimes everyday communication patterns falter. Or even swirl into chaos, just like Gotham, before Batman shows.
Dialogue style meetings attempt to go beyond (but include) talking politely and showing empathy. They also aim to surpass talking tough or defending any one particular point of view.
Dialogue is a type of communication where there's space generated for something more to emerge. But the question must be asked: Something like what exactly?
David Bohm, the physicist and author of "On dialogue" appeared reluctant to pinpoint what can emerge - perhaps because that can create an aim or a goal. A need to achieve a goal in a meeting can get in the way of "thinking together" and the “increased understanding” that Bohm suggested was precisely the point. We're opening up to hold multiple, even contradictory, points of view.
Otto Scharmer, lecturer at MIT and author of "Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges," is more relaxed about narrowing things down when it comes to dialogue and the listening required. "We're listening… And connecting with an emerging future possibility," says Scharmer.
Scharmer’s work is about leading from the emerging future - as opposed to reenacting the past. So it makes sense that he would be looking for dialogue to fulfill this role.
Whether it be by way of increased insight or reduced defensiveness, most people know this instinctively: Like when a car accelerates, there are a number of gears within any conversation.
We don’t have to think too hard about it. We’ve experienced it first hand. When chatting with a friend over coffee. Or out hiking that time when the discussion went deeper. People became more open, more honest. Things felt more productive. And trust went up a notch or two.
At the time or maybe after, a new insight emerged. It was what the systems thinkers refer to as an "upward spiral". Or more commonly “being on a roll”. Sure, we might have taken a backward step before we took two steps forward. But it was worth it. Once experienced, it’s not easy to forget the moment of power and depth when we were moving towards dialogue.