Sunday, October 22, 2006

What Kind of a Discussion do You Want?

It is thought-provoking to hear people come away from discussions that they have lead and say, "Why do you think people reacted that way to my ideas?" Another question they could ask might be, "What could I have done differently to develop a generative discussion rather than a debate?"

We noticed during a recent meeting, where an external speaker was presenting a set of models of change, that some of our often outspoken younger colleagues remained silent, and a few of our more gentle colleagues really debated the speaker strongly, even in one case where the differences were very slight between the ideas that were apparently in conflict. If you took away the words and just watched the body language and the tone of voice - what would come to mind?
For me, a university classroom. There was an expert standing up at a screen, talking about theory, showing diagrams, asking questions and inviting comments. Around the table there were several quiet learners who were on a steep-ish learning curve, and several others well versed in the literature and related theory, heatedly debating fine points with the speaker. Most of the discussion time was spent intellectually jousting - good mental exercise, thought-provoking, entertaining, and making us proud of our smart colleagues, and of our speaker who tackled them all. What it brought to mind - many people loved university and love getting back in the thick of it.

If the goal of the discussion was to get the most points, then this kind of mind wrestling would have been a perfect way to do it (nearly a tie I would say). If the goal was to get people to develop something new and think about ways to work together on a common initiative, then perhaps some changes in the approach could have produced a different outcome.

I think the outcome of the meeting was a good one, people left interested generally, although I think we had a slightly higher goal. What kind of impact could the following changes have made?

* Speaker sitting down or standing at the back of the room?
* Presentation more applied, with case studies?
* More conversational (less taught)?
* More explanation (less acronyms)?
* What else?

What did I learn - if one sets up an academic situation, then people will be happy to react as though they are in one! Rarely do people throw a professor or a keynote speaker for that matter a soft ball...

What is your theory of change?

When I first drafted the opening paragraph of this blog entry, it read as follows:

I was out with a group of friends on Saturday night when a number of supposed non-smokers lit up cigarettes. 'Social smokers' – they called themselves. This has always baffled me (not in the least because I believe smoking is particularly anti-social). What makes these non-addicted smokers smoke? I know they all read ‘smoking kills’ on the packet and understand the health risks. What’s more I know they are well-educated, socially oriented individuals and, as the World Health Organization has put it, "the tobacco industry and corporate responsibility are an inherent contradiction". So, if awareness and knowledge are not enough to prevent this behaviour, what would successfully bring about this change?

Thinking about this, I'm pretty sure that asserting my personal bias is not going to bring about a change in their smoking habits. And knowledge of the risks hasn't done the trick. So what might work? If I were to make it my mission, what questions should I ask to better understand what it is about social smoking that people enjoy in the first place and what, if anything, might change this behaviour? How do I think people change? If I thought that knowledge changed people's behaviour, then this smoking case is one that challenges my theory.

“What is your theory of change?” asked Steve Waddell, founder of GAN-Net (a learning network of Global Action Networks), visiting our organization on Friday. Whether or not we’ve studied theories of change at an academic level, we often have a pretty embedded change theory influencing the way we approach the world. For example, I might have assumed that informing people about the serious hazards of smoking (or of damaging the environment for that matter) would be enough to change behaviour. The question is, do we subscribe to one change theory in a no-questions-asked fashion? For example, do we believe it’s as simple as knowledge → behaviour change? Or do we give due attention to diverse change theories and the multitude of other factors influencing change, ranging from beliefs to new technologies?

As seen in the case of the social smokers, the knowledge → behaviour change theory is clearly not a universal truth (those who are working on climate change these days would have noticed this as well). Other theories of change are needed. In what ways could learning about our own, embedded theories of change as well as the diversity of other theories help us change the way we approach the world for greater, positive impact?

Dialoguing about dialogue

In a beautiful retreat forty minutes drive from Boston, two dozen members of the Generative Dialogue Project community ( came together. I was extremely privileged to join the group and, over the course of three days, engage in dialoguing about dialogue.

From the outset we were charged with the following: “Listen to one another with your full attention. Think about what is said, how it is said and the intent behind this. How does it make you feel - physically, intellectually and emotionally - as a participant in this dialogue process? How does it make others feel?” The purpose of this was advancing our understanding of generative dialogue by experiencing it as well as talking about it and examining case examples.

A heightened level of awareness was brought to the discussion by balancing theory with practice in the ‘here and now’. This experiential dimension – the learning by doing approach – set the stage for a wonderful interplay between exploring academic discourse, sharing experiences, and at the same time reflecting throughout on our own dialogue process.

This was a truly inspiring exercise! Joining change and dialogue process experts in this, I was party to a rare space in which professionals listen and inquire with a resolve and integrity too often reserved for outside the professional environment. These were conversations that mattered; conversations in which relationships changed – including my relationship with the ‘art’ of dialogue, the way I will approach dialogue processes, will listen, will inquire and will learn.

There is still much to explore and emerge about the role of dialogue in change processes. Along the way, how can we replicate such experiential approaches in our own institutions for collective learning about the important role of dialogue in change?