How to have better dialogue – Introducing the Four Interventions
How can a leader convene better dialogue? What can a leader do to generate new insights, fresh energy and aligned action? In what way can a leader participate more skilfully in the systems they lead, whether an intact team, a project group or a network of stakeholders?
In my experience there are four key interventions that a leader can use to lead a dialogue that truly engages and energises people. First, a story about how these four aspects played out in a meeting room where there was a complex mix of energies and emotions. Whereas this unseen dimension is often neglected in corporate life, navigating it using the four interventions generates much stronger results.
THE NEED FOR BETTER DIALOGUE
It was a snowy January morning in Chicago. The venue where I was due to facilitate, with its high ceiling and chandeliers, felt stiff and cold. As I pulled the rows of chairs into a circle, I wondered what energy people would step in. With participants flying in from Europe, Australia, Asia and the US, people were likely to be in very different states.
It was the third meeting of 25 financial planners in a global energy company. The leader who’d convened the group had asked me to create a ‘community of practice’ amongst the planners. He wanted them to think together about how to implement the global strategy for their part of the business. Given that only a handful of them were his direct reports, there was no ‘three-line whip’ he could use; people would only keep coming if they felt inspired to do so.
The meeting began in the same way as the previous two meetings with a ‘check-in.’ I invited each person to say what would be a great outcome for the session and how they were feeling. Whether they were enthusiastic, sceptical or exhausted, all states were welcome. Shortly after the check-in, one of the women burst out:
“I hate working like this!”
I could feel my palms start to sweat, despite the coolness of the room.
“There’s no table for my coffee, there’s no agenda for the meeting and there’s no slide deck in sight!”
The difference a ‘container’ makes
The energetic field in the room began to pulse. I could feel panic coming from some, restlessness from others and suspicion from one or two. Despite her frustration, I felt grateful we’d spent time checking in. By hearing all the voices in the room, we had started to build a ‘container’ that can hold complex energies, including aggression and anger. Without a container or ‘holding environment’, there is no possibility of having a creative conversation.
“How do others feel?” I asked, leaning into the discomfort. I was genuinely curious. Was she speaking only for herself or were others also feeling annoyed?
When difficult feelings come into the room, a container either breaks down or deepens. If we bypass feelings such as anger or frustration, they don’t go away; they fester. These strong energies are likely to derail a meeting, if people feel ignored. When we consciously work with these feelings, however, and allow them to be, they seamlessly move on their own. Nothing needs to be fixed. No one needs to be made wrong. It’s about softening the tone and seeing what’s really at stake.
What unfolded was a one-and-a-half hour unplanned-for conversation. Others shared that they felt enlivened by working without a table, whilst a couple of others shared her frustration. Whilst it began with a discussion about whether we would continue to sit in a circle or install a table, we gradually dropped into a deeper dialogue. It came to light that the circle of chairs had come to symbolise a very different way of working – with more participation and involvement but less of a sense of control, which was threatening for some.
By inquiring into the range of feelings present, our dialogue brought greater clarity about the group’s purpose. As people talked, they came to see that the purpose of the community of practice was knowledge sharing about financial planning in retail. People who preferred a more structured way of working came to see that the more unstructured, collaborative learning process was essential to bringing the community of practice to life. Getting clear that this was their purpose helped to settle the question of whether to work with or without a table.
I went on to work with this network of financial planners for the following three years. Each time they met, their dialogue deepened and they began to not only implement aligned actions but to set the strategy for their part of the business. When my client retired at the end of the three years, he shared that several members of the group said that they were the best meetings they had ever attended – not despite the ‘bumps in the road’ along the way but because of them. They had learn to transform conflict into constructive dialogue.
The Four Interventions
Starting with the most central—but in some ways the least ‘tangible’—and moving outwards from there, the four Interventions are outlined below.
- Purpose: This is the big-picture context that brings people together. When a leader includes a question about the purpose of an organization, team or group this infuses the dialogue with meaning. It also helps to unify diverse perspectives, making it more likely that people will find common ground.
- Tone: This is the quality of the atmosphere in the room. It is not something that can be seen or heard directly, but something that we can feel. When a leader sets an authentic tone – such as curiosity – for a dialogue, others are more likely to co-create a positive atmosphere.
- Structure: This refers to the unspoken ‘rules’ that shape a dialogue, including the invisible norms about who gets to speak and who remains silent. When a leader acknowledges and addresses these ‘forces’ by inviting people who have not yet spoken to speak, people are freed up to talk in new ways.
- Choreography: This refers to the more tangible elements of the dialogue, including the room set-up and the logistics of the session, such as how a dialogue begins and ends. Having a circle of chairs without a table in the middle is the most conducive set up for a dialogue.
Attend to the Four Interventions
Attending to the less-visible layers of dialogue—purpose, tone and structure—is as much a part of the process as including the more tangible actions, such as having a ‘check-in.’ In fact, the ability to work at the more intangible parts of the Intervention spectrum is crucial to good leadership. If we bypass these layers our dialogue is much more likely to be stilted and less likely to address key issues. A dialogue becomes much richer when a leader includes deeper questions to address such as:
- What is our purpose?
- How safe do we feel as we talk together?
- How can we best interact with one another?
What team members most want is to feel valued, listened to, supported and treated as the unique individual they are. And all of this happens through dialogue. While there is never any guarantee how a dialogue will go (it’s a co-creation after all!), you can maximize the likelihood that you’ll achieve a positive outcome. Read more about the Four Interventions here