Dialogue and the art of listening

We don’t listen enough. We are quick to dismiss others. Following on from my blog, “the age of intolerance” , I wanted to further explore how we can bridge the gap, the gap of ‘difference’ and ‘intolerance’. To do this, I would like to talk about the work of William Isaacs, and his fantastic book “Dialogue and the art of thinking together.”


In my blog of December 2019 I wrote “Ideological differences are more profound than ever. This is the world of polarity, one or the other, right or wrong, mine or yours. Differences, opposites, are not tolerated in this current society of polarities. There is no middle ground. There is no acceptance, just the will to destroy others who have different views. The world has become an incubator for hatred.”

This is exactly what William Isaacs discussed in 1999, when he said “Most of us, despite our best intentions, tend to spend our conversational time waiting for the first opportunity to offer our own comments and opinions … Instead of creating something new, we polarise and fight.” William proposed a solution; “Dialogue, as I define it, is a conversation with a centre, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channelling it towards something that had never been created before. It lifts us out of polarisation and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people.”

I find this a very exciting aspiration and a potential solution to many of our problems, individually and collectively. But I describe this as an ‘aspiration’ because it is so rarely done. When William described this in 1999, it was clearly not the norm, and in 2020, we do this even less. The reason for this is that we don’t listen. We either choose not, or do not have the skill, to listen to others. We do not have the time to engage in real dialogue. In this increasingly demanding world, we are ‘time poor’, and seek simplicity. Listening to others takes time, and creating a dialogue is not simple, dialogue makes things more complex. But being time poor only leads to avoidance, it’s “kicking the can down the road.”

William Isaacs suggests that to enable dialogue we need to develop the ability to listen to others:

• Hear the words, but also embrace, accept, and gradually let go of our own inner clamouring.
• Listen to others and our own reactions.
• To listen is to develop an inner silence.
• Learn to be present, we must learn to notice what we are feeling. As you begin to listen, you can also begin to notice what you are thinking.
• Learn to listen with a great deal of humility. Listen to what is actually said, without continually jumping to conclusions and making assumptions.
• Listen without resistance.
• Listen from own perspective and from that of others, requiring a shift in perspective.

Reflect on these points when you next engage in a conversation, are you really listening?

In 1999 William Isaacs wrote “If you are a corporate executive or senior leader in an organisation, then you are likely faced with leadership challenges that are growing exponentially… The problems we face today are too complex to be managed by one person. We require more than one brain to solve them. Dialogue seeks to harness the “collective intelligence”… when many businesses are continuously reinventing themselves today, this capacity for collective improvisation and creativity is essential.”

What have we learned in the 21 years since William Isaacs wrote this great quote? In 2020 dialogue is needed even more than ever.


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