During my second call with my dialogue coach, we examined some of my conclusions after exercising David Kantor’s four-player conversation model. Kantor suggests actions a person may take during a conversation: movers initiate ideas and transition the conversation; opposers challenge ideas and the conversation; followers complete ideas and support the conversation; bystanders provide perspective on the ideas and conversation. We also considered the implications of creating a “container” for generative dialogue, and whether that container is considered negative or positive.
I explained a conversation this week, where I consciously attempted the follower and bystander roles. While I had hoped to avoid the role of mover or opposer, we couldn’t be players without a playground, or container. So, to get us started, I felt compelled to act as a mover and opposer to establish that our conversation was going to be far more than cordial. With the container formed, ideas started flying and I transitioned to the follower and bystander roles. We quickly transcended the container, formed by debate, and engaged in reflective and generative dialogue. We dropped our weather updates, and worked on solving world problems with currency and technology. I suggested to my coach that dialogue containers are not negative, even when created through tough talking attitudes. They’re not anymore negative than astronauts relying on a violent explosion to float into space, where their discovery begins. I suggested the container cannot be formed by talking nice and downloading assumptions that avoid debate. A sturdy exchange of ideas is required to propel discussions toward new understandings. And dialogue leaders must control that propulsion to prevent a catastrophic break down.
My coach opposed my perspective, suggesting containers are less about debate itself and more about establishing mutual agreements that encourage collaborative understandings. She explained her spiritual retreats, shifting our perspective away from workplace meetings. During the retreats, generative dialog occurs by leaders creating a safe space that allows everyone to share freely, more authentically. The circular gatherings include a facilitator who explains the focus of the meeting, and the guidelines for holding the space. Everyone is expected to listen without getting caught in their own analyses and opinions. Back-and-forth debates are directed to the circle as a whole, preventing personality conflicts between two actors. She said each retreat’s guidelines reflect William Isaacs’ four practices for dialogue leadership: listening, respecting, suspending and voicing. They breakdown the “I” and “me” behaviors, so that the group can develop more mutual understandings. Her perspective helped clarify that forming the container doesn’t rely solely on an intense inception, but also a gentle convergence of respect and safety.
My coach asked what I thought about the role of using humor to move debate into more reflective inquiry. I think humor is largely under-used in conversations, and it can take a discussion from folded-arm seriousness to knee-slapping candidness. What’s more, humor fuels creativity, which is contributes to problem-solving attitudes. Injecting more perspective, she asked if humor could be improperly used. I think so. Humor relies on a rapid change in ideas, which stimulates outward smiles and laughter. If that change is poorly timed or in bad taste, it can leave someone feeling their input is discarded, or their importance is comical. We decided that a key indicator for gauging if a person is feeling like a valued part of a conversation is their comfort level in changing roles, bouncing between mover, opposer, follower and bystander within the same conversation. When someone stops transitioning roles, it’s likely they’re no longer feeling respected or safe.
That led our discussion to the idea that, perhaps, self esteem is a necessary component to a generative conversation. However, this idea contains many important variables to consider. For example, a woman oppressed by gender roles or emotionally scarred by domestic violence, may feel unsafe in a discussion dominated by men. However, the same woman may become a leader in civil and human rights discussions when placed into an environment that suddenly appears secure and productive. Eighty-five percent of Arab women believe social media makes it easier for them to express themselves, according to the Arab Social Media Report by the Dubai School of Government in November 2011. Eight-out-of-10 women said it empowers them to be role models for social change. We agreed that both self esteem and personal security are powerful catalysts to generative dialogue.