Just listen.

Among the well-researched high-tech, complex or expensive sustainability solutions suggested by executives on a prestigious development programme, an audacious idea stood out. One person suggested their organisation invest in dialogue circles.

This idea doesn’t come with a huge price tag, it doesn’t necessarily attract attention in a corporate brochure or say to the world ‘look at us lead’ – but it is a powerful tool to transform, align and connect. I’d suggest listening is perhaps the most powerful tool organisations can and should be using to realign and reinvigorate their workforces – to address uncertainty, create a future-facing agenda and to engage employees.

We’ve had a lot of experience with listening at She Leads Change (https://sheleadschange.org/). Our award-winning leadership programme uses structured dialogue as part of every interaction. We have used dialogue for:

  • A group of diverse C-suite professionals to assess and grow their leadership potential by exploring critical topics together, including setting boundaries, the role of play and managing change.
  • A global not for profit organisation wanting to shift internal culture towards a more beneficiary-centred approach, to help each person understand the limits of their individual paradigms and create a more collective understanding of the world.
  • Women from a progressive global publishing business to support them stepping into leadership by exploring together how to expand their self-belief, navigate relationships, create impact and build resilience.
  • A large group of sustainability practitioners from around the world to collaborate and explore better ways of addressing the climate crisis during COP through investigating their relationship with time, empathy and nature.

We have learned 4 things are imperative to the success of this work:

  1. Clarity of objectives: Dialogues need to be expertly structured against specific aims. It is not enough to put people in a room and hope for the best! For example, if the primary objective is team cohesion all the activities and questions should be directed into this objective. Holding this at the centre of the dialogues allows some flexibility – but also a coherent outcome.
  2. Depth of conversation: Dialogue is meaningless unless it comes from the heart. To ‘go there’ people need to feel safe. We embed this into our dialogue programmes in two ways – first we work on the psychological safety of each participant and second we very carefully structure our agendas.
  • Psychological safety occurs when each person feels able to be themselves and is created by instilling trust. We do this through setting the tone – sharing from the heart ourselves, recognising and engaging each individual and listening and responding with respect.
  • Our agendas take the group through a deepening-process of examining their own understanding, letting go, getting clarity, exploring possibility and integrating their learning. Each part of the agenda is supported by non-traditional learning methods to engage people fully e.g. somatic learning, poetry, games and stories.

3. Appreciation of diversity: Our most successful dialogues occur when we can lift people into a new and better shared reality. To do this we need to bring in diversity. We do this in three key ways:

  • First we design our programmes to respond to the diverse needs in the room – how people best like to learn and the varying strengths and weaknesses of participants.
  • Second we acknowledge, appreciate and give direct permission for the diversity in the room to surface. This could be gender, age or race but also includes non-visible aspects of diversity e.g. preferred ways of interacting, cultural world-views, etc.
  • Third we actively bring in different perspectives – through introducing people from outside the organisation or bringing in innovation methodologies e.g. future-thinking. We’ve done this through inviting people from different geographies, different sectors or through creating an exhibition showcasing futuristic products/services around the dialogues.

4. Plan for outcomes: Any organisation running dialogues needs to have a clear route for all that surfaces during these dialogues – both good and bad. While dialogue can have value in and of itself, participants generally want to know ‘what next’. They will need to know how their ideas will be used or how their new-found relationships or ways of working will be protected or expanded in the traditional organisation. There needs to be a way of handling unexpected outcomes e.g. the group who thought the sustainability plan was not progressive enough…

It is attractive to reach out for the next best thing (e.g. AI, big data, vertical farming) or to erect a big organisational banner (e.g. Net Zero) – and these things are worth exploring. However, if you really want to tap into the potential of your people, if you really want to create lasting impact and an organisation that is resilient to knocks – try listening. Listening will surface fresh ideas, socialise new ways of working and create stronger internal connections. Listen.

If you want to know more about the power of this simple tool to transform your organisation, please do get in touch with us on hello@sheleadschange.org.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s