Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together

I’ve been participating in global, strategic meetings these past few weeks, and now I’m about to participate in the NFPW board meeting. One thing I found helpful in focusing me for the meetings was a conversation about Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs.

Amazon.com’s review noted: “Modern conversation is a lot like nuclear physics, argues William Isaacs. Lots of atoms zoom around, many of which just rush past each other. But others collide, creating friction. Even if our atomic conversations don’t turn contentious, they often just serve to establish each participant’s place in the cosmos. One guy shares a statistic he’s privy to, another shares another fact, and on and on. Each person fires off a tidbit, pauses to reload while someone else talks, then fires off another. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Isaacs explains how we can do better than that.”

Isaacs defines dialogue as conversation that encourages collective observation and thought, enabling groups to think beyond their members’ individual limitations.

Dialogue takes work. It’s about listening, acknowledging and questioning.

When it comes to listening, it’s not just about hearing the words. It’s about waiting to speak. Too often, we’re listening to the words, but we’re already forming our response or the question we want to ask. I know I used to do that when I attended press conferences. In that setting, it’s appropriate to be ready to ask the questions that I need answers to. When I am in a meeting working toward an organizational solution, it’s more important for me to hear what others have to say. And I need to take time to process what they said.

One way to do that is through acknowledgment. This involves respecting the speaker by not interrupting. I’ve watched many individuals talk over others or interrupt because they just had to have their say at that particular moment. It’s also about not jumping to solutions, but rather listening to all the proposals on the table. Often, it’s good to paraphrase what a speaker said to ensure understanding.

Another way to ensure understanding is to ask open-ended follow-up questions. And we should check our filters – our limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations.

It’s a lot to think about while trying to have a dialogue. When done successfully, though, organizational learning will take place. I’m looking forward to listening and thinking together during the NFPW board meeting.

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