For three days this week I had the pleasure of attending the first ‘The World Needs Dialogue’ conference, hosted at Roffey Park by the International Academy of Dialogue. The conference drew 80 people from around the world who have been working with dialogue in a variety of sectors, from healthcare, criminal justice, organisations and societies, some for many years. The wealth of experience, expertise, passion and warmth was a source of great inspiration and motivation that dialogue can bring about positive change in our many fragmented and polarised societies and organisations.
A number of themes emerged for me from the dialogues that I attended and I make some attempt to summarise them and identify the further questions they raised.
In the first dialogue I noticed a question arising about how our natural human instinct to help others can often inadvertently render the very people or person we are trying to help, to become helpless. It became apparent to me that it is important for us to understand the intention and projection of our desire to ‘help’. There is a danger in thinking that we can ‘help’ others, in that part of us thinks this way because we think we have more skills, intelligence or ability than the person or people we are trying to help. Have we asked ourselves whether the person or people need or want our help, or whether we have a authentic and legitimate relationship to their community or context. If we think we know ‘what is best’ for someone are we actually disempowering them, by not supporting a situation that allows them to discover and create their own answers and solutions for themselves, with their own personal or collective power. We are very often moved to help because the situation touches something in us that we have experienced or felt. Perhaps if we look for ways to connect with the person by sharing these motivations or offering ourselves in service to their needs, then we can create a more equal starting point in which we can work together to solve problems or affect change. Finally it is important that we empower each other to be able to ask for help, from a place of ownership of own individual needs. Creating spaces for each person’s voice to be heard equally and with respect, as in dialogue, is a space where we are able to ‘help’ each other simply by being ourselves.
Following on from the first dialogue, the second was within a prison and criminal justice context. One participant shared in the check-in that for them, prisons dehumanise people. This led me to build on the theme of help, to one of power and powerlessness. When we dehumanise people we take away their personal power, we render them powerless. Prisons are by their nature structures of power and control. However, if our prison service is committed to reform and rehabilitation then must we find a way to give back to prisoners a sense of their personal power and the responsibility that comes with it.
The themes of conflict and responsibility arose in the three dialogue I took part in. Conflict was explored in two ways; the conflict that can arise in a dialogue in the present moment, and the conflict that is bought to the dialogue with the hope of dissipating it. It is very often that in situations of conflict one or both sides are placing blame and judgement on the other. When we are forced to start from a position of defence it is unlikely that we are going to open ourselves to an exploration of possible solutions to an issue in a positive and conducive way. This blame and judgement is very often exacerbated by the roles that people wear: if you have a role of responsibility then you can be held accountable to that role. But what do we really mean by responsibility? Who or what are we responsible to or for? By participating in dialogue we can learn to view responsibility in two forms: one, that we are responsible for, and to ourselves; for our thoughts, feelings and responses to others, and for how and when we use our voices and how and when we listen: and two, we begin to feel a sense of collective responsibility for the group; for what we are creating together by sharing meaning and co-inquiring. Lastly, it became clear that by taking on roles or wearing labels we very often restrict ourselves, and by doing so limit what we can offer to each other in organisations or in society. If we meet from a place of ‘I am ‘ versus ‘my role is’ can we act from a greater place of freedom and energy to offer our skills, passions and interests to others.
The theme of roles emerged in the next dialogue as well. We were exploring together ways that we can manage emotions that arise from participants in dialogue. It became clear that the roles we wear can often repress us, and when we take them off, we can show our full range of emotions and connect with each other from a place of common humanity. In a dialogue we are responsible for our emotional responses, however, my offer to the group was that it can be helpful to equip people with the language of feelings and needs, so that they are able to take ownership of their emotions in a way that does not require shame of experiencing feelings that often perceived to be ‘negative.’
The final dialogue I participated in was exploring power and fragmentation in organisations. The energy that arose in the group was a clear indicator for me that there is a lot of energy around the topic of power. This is because we have all experienced the expressions of power in both positive and negative ways. Power can be spoken about, and thought about, but ultimately we experience power, we feel it, and its consequences. We very often ignore the power dynamics that are at play and present in every situation, and relationship. This can often be because of hierarchical power structures that are in place that create fear of the repercussions of naming power. From where do we find the courage to name and speak to power. For me it happens when there is something personal at stake, when we recognise that something is important to us in relation to our values, when we have a history with the person, people or experience, and when we are able to take a risk. We all experience power differently in relation to these factors and we are able to experience and witness that in a dialogic context. Our experience of power is also influenced by the quality of our relationships and the intention we bring to them.
The conference provided a very rich experience and reaffirms my passion and belief in dialogue and its ability to bring about change and healing in the world.
Dialogue creates a space that allows us to be seen, heard and appreciated: these are basic human needs that we all have and that are often not met in us.
Dialogue allows us to Be together, which is vital for good quality Doing.
We bring our history/experience, the roles we wear, our responsibilities, and what’s important to us to a dialogue and we can learn by sharing these and listening to others.
We may be able to operate in the world as an individual well but we have forgotten how to be together well in groups. Dialogue allows us to witness and experience how we are together and inquire into the group dynamics that arise. The structures we exist in are all made of groups: organisations, communities, families; and we have to ask ourselves what would we gain from learning to be together well because ultimately we are all one group, and dialogue allows us to reconnect with that feeling and create new meaning together, that can create action that serves each member of the group.