David Gurteen

First Published

September 1999


Dialogue; Creativity; Ideas; Innovation

In my view the real killer of creativity is the stranglehold that our limiting paradigms and mental models exert over us. We are prisoners of our own past – our upbringing, our education and business experiences. These limit and constrain us in our ability to think and act creatively. But there is an emerging solution and that is the concept of ‘dialogue’. Dialogue is a tool that allows us one-on-one and in groups to discuss issues in a way that helps reveal our limiting paradigms and in doing so helps lifts this major block to our creativity.
There is a deep fundamental problem in the way we relate to each other and in the way we 'discuss' or 'argue' issues - whether one to one, in small groups or in meetings. Lets take a look at what some 'thought leaders' say on this issue. In the words of Stephen Covey we listen ‘with the intent to reply - not the intent to understand’ - hence Stephen's fifth habit “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” David Bohm sees discussion as where “people hold relatively fixed positions and argue in favour of their views as they try to convince others to change". Edward de Bono talks about "argument becoming case making, point-scoring and ego-strutting".

The problem is that discussion is too often about ‘argument’ - about steam rolling something through about forcing agreement or compromise. It is about confrontation. It has nothing to do with creativity or the exploration of possibilities. In short our habitual ways of thinking are anti-creational. It is worse when anything of fundamental significance is at stake - attitudes harden to the extent that it is extremely difficult to make progress at all - people have hidden agendas - people perceive hidden agendas - discussion verges on open warfare. Extrovert types do battle while introverts recede into their shells. Such 'discussion’ is not creative - it is destructive not only of the 'truth' but worst of all of ‘relationships’. So is there an alternative? Yes. This is where dialogue plays its role. Dialogue is based on the work of David Bohm and I think about to be made immensely popular by the publishing of a new book entitled ‘Dialogue’ by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard of the Dialogue Group.

In dialogue: You prefer a certain position but do not cling to it. You are ready to listen to others. Your mindset is not one of 'convincing others that your way is right' but of asking what can you learn from others. It is recognising that their input will help you refine your own ideas or fundamentally point out where you are wrong. It is not a fight. It is not win-loose. In dialogue all sides win by coming up with a more appropriate solution than a single person could ever have. It is win-win. It is what Stephen Covey calls ‘synergy’ – and this leads to his sixth habit 'Synergize'. This is what Stephen says about it: "Many people have not really experienced even a moderate degree of synergy in their family life or in other interactions. They've been trained and scripted into defensive and protective communications or into believing that life and other people can't be trusted. This represents one of the great tragedies and wastes in life, because so much potential remains untapped - completely undeveloped and unused, Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential. They experience synergy only in small, peripheral ways in their lives."

So what is synergy? It is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s in the relationships that exist between the parts. Again in the words of Stephen Covey:
"The essence of synergy is to value differences - to respect them, to build on strengths, to compensate for weaknesses." Dialogue and synergy are founded on trust. The more you trust someone - the easier it is to engage in dialogue - the more likely that you will achieve synergy.

We also need to acknowledge facts as they are - whether we like them or not. We tend to avoid and walk around facts that we do not like – for example if something we hold dear is just not working - we look the other way - we pretend all is ok - we delude ourselves. Don’t kid yourselves – we all do it! Dialogue is about suspending our own views - our own judgement temporarily and focusing on alternative view points - to let those views into our minds rather than close them out - so they can mingle and merge with our own viewpoint. Its a very different way of thinking to that which we have been educated and accustomed.

The real power of dialogue though is in revealing our paradigms. As I have said we are not aware of our own paradigms by the very definition of the word. We all however, have different upbringings, experiences and backgrounds that make us eminently capable of seeing other people’s paradigms and they ours. By engaging in dialogue we can reveal other people’s paradigms to them and they in turn can reveal ours. This helps us all to see the world in new more appropriate ways and to destroy a lot of inappropriate assumptions and misinformation that we all hold dear. In short I believe dialogue is emerging as an immensely powerful creativity tool and will play a major role in knowledge management.

A final point. Dialogue and discussion both have their place. They need to be seen as tools to be used as appropriate. For example, if you are holding a meeting to explore issues then dialogue is the appropriate form of communication. If the meeting is to make tough urgent decisions than discussion is more appropriate but maybe with a good dose of dialogue to reduce its destructive tendencies! Another way of viewing things is that dialogue is more appropriate to the creative phase and discussion to the innovative phase of any task.

If you are interested in Knowledge Management, the Knowledge Café or the role of conversation in organizational life then you my be interested in this online book I am writing on Conversational Leadership
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