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  • Anne Cotterell

Using Dialogue to Generate Collective Wisdom



How often is your thinking pre-planned so there are ‘no surprises’? Maybe your intention is to win an argument, provide your opinion or analyse information. Is anxiety, distrust or politics getting in the way of an honest conversation? What happens when your way of approaching something is very different to someone else? How resourceful are your conversations when it comes to working with uncertainty and tension?


Our way of working is increasingly complex and interdependent and cannot be understood or responded to by individuals alone. The gestalt wisdom of the group is required – when the collective wisdom of the group becomes larger than the sum of its individual parts. Yet cultivating collective wisdom requires bringing a curious mindset to conversations and an openness for inquiry into the unknown.


Most of the talking we do occurs in the form of a discussion or debate. Discussion means to ‘break apart’, which is what happens to our communication when we hold onto and defend our differences or when we seek to win our point across without considering it in relation to other perspectives. Holding the belief ‘may the best person win’ creates a stance, it polarizes perspectives and breaks down the opportunity for creativity.


More effective dialogue is needed to harness peoples’ collective wisdom and find answers within the uncertainty, paradoxes and tensions that cannot be found through monologue, linear or pre-planned thinking.


Dialogue, defined as ‘flow of meaning’, is a relational inquiry that explores the uncertainties and questions that nobody has answers to. It harnesses collective thinking to surface multiple perspectives, ideas and understandings. It leans us into the energy (tension) of our differences, judgements and assumptions to reveal collective wisdom.


An approach to relational inquiry through dialogue is provided by David Kantor. In his Four Player Model, David describes four action roles that support the process of dialogue and group functioning.



The balance of all action roles is necessary for the system of dialogue to function. The system of dialogue becomes unbalanced when roles are missing or preferenced over others (e.g. creating stuck sequences like move-oppose, move-oppose), or when there is limited flexibility within the group to adapt or change roles.


While people tend to have a preferred role they lean towards, ideally individuals learn to embody any of the four action roles and facilitate their activation in others.


Given this, what can you do to facilitate high quality dialogue?

1. Recognise which roles are being played and which are missing. Either adopt the missing role(s) yourself or encourage others to do so.

2. Notice when the system is moving away from dialogue to discussion or debate, and seek to restore the balance.

3. Listen deeply and consider when the system needs to move from Advocacy (Moving and Opposing) to Inquiry (Bystanding and Following).

4. Encourage and bring multiple perspectives to the dialogue.


Fig.1. Using an integral quadrants lens to bring multiple perspectives to dialogue

By fostering collective inquiry and leaving agendas at the doorstep, dialogue extends our relational thinking from within contexts and silos to between contexts, acknowledging the implicit interdependencies at play. It provides a foundation for exploring uncertainty and tension, generating the collective wisdom to uncover the answers within.




References

https://www.kantorinstitute.com/approach, accessed September 21, 2019

Summary of David Kantor’s Four-Player Model of Communication. Michael J Yacovane. http://www.yacavone.com/pdf/KantorFourPlayerSummaryV2.pdf, accessed September 21, 2019

https://integrallife.com/four-quadrants/, accessed September 21, 2019

William Isaacs (1999). Dialogic Leadership. The Systems Thinker, Volume 10(1). Pegasus Communications.

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