Dialogue is the free flow of meaning between members of a board. The goal isn’t to sell a point, idea or position; instead, it is to explore with honest curiosity and understand the meaning of what people are saying. It is exploring ideas with no endpoint in mind other than to understand. Dialogue concerns itself with truly understanding, in a non-judgmental way, what is being said. It doesn’t concern itself with what is right or wrong, or truth. In fact, it recognizes that what is said is not the whole truth, but simply part of a larger truth.
William Isaacs (1993) defines dialogue, “…as a sustained, collective inquiry, into the processes, assumptions, and certainties that compose everyday experience. Yet the experience is of a special kind–the experience of the meaning embodied in a community of people.” Dialogue is a divergent conversation where the participants suspend judgment, listen rather than react, and identify assumptions upon which they reflect for the purpose of gaining an understanding of the meaning of what is being said.
Dialogue is iterative in the sense that when something is spoken it is listened to and built on by someone else. Unlike a discussion, dialogue doesn’t seek to break down and examine the parts of what is communicated but rather seeks to understand and build upon what has been said. As those dialoguing seek to digest what others are saying and the meaning behind it and contribute to the dialogue, new thoughts and ideas surface. Shared meaning is developed as the dialogue freely floats among board members; it is a collaborative conversation where all involved come to understand the assumptions of others and recognize their own assumptions.
If your board members aren’t accustomed to engaging in dialogue, as described above, it is important that you clearly signal the beginning and end of a dialogue session. It is also imperative that the following fundamentals are reviewed with the board members at the beginning of the dialogue session.
If you are interested in inserting dialogue into your next board meeting, there are two ways that you could approach it. Both require that you inform your board that you are going to engage in dialogue for a period of time and that the purpose is to dialogue, not deliberate or decide. Both options require a review of the fundamentals.
First, prior to the meeting you could identify a “big” strategic issue that confronts your organization. In this scenario, the objective would be to simply explore the issue. The advantage to this approach is that no decisions regarding the issue would be taken at the meeting. If interested in this approach, you might want to read about and engage in the generative mode of governance.
A second approach would be to identify an item on the agenda that requires action at the meeting. When taking this approach, you would engage in dialogue around the options that are being presented at the meeting. Of course, it is important that you clearly delineate between the dialogue period and the subsequent deliberation period.
As a result of the dialogue void that exists in the lives of most, your board members may be uncomfortable when they first engage in the practice of dialogue. However, this will dissipate over time. When introducing the concept, you may find it helpful to discuss how dialogue can raise your governance performance to the next level.
Keep in mind that what is important is to engage in relaxed dialogue with a curiosity to understand the meaning of what is said and the assumptions that are behind the meaning. Doing so and seeing things as clearly as possible without judgment will produce shared meaning, create new ideas, and strengthen board relationships, as a result of understanding and accepting the assumptions of others as part of a larger truth.
Robert Nelson, a Certified Association Executive (CAE), brings over a quarter-century of successful executive leadership experience, working with Boards and high-powered CEOs in a not-for-profit setting. He is the founder of Nelson Strategic Consulting and brings hands-on experience guiding and facilitating the design of strategy development processes and think tanks. His focus on organizational strategies and strategic solutions to complex organizational and global grand challenges for national as well as international organizations.
Contact Robert through his website, or learn more about Nelson Strategic Consulting at www.nscstrategies.com.