Category Archives: Dialogue

Valentine’s Day: The Gift of Dialogue

Valentine’s Day is similar to Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other significant holidays in raising expectations that may not be met.

We idealize the loving couple out for dinner, holding hands, eyes locked together throughout their slow, romantic evening, exchanging thoughtful gifts.

More commonly, our real-world busy couple has a quick kiss as they run out the door to work, exchange the required flowers or chocolates they quickly picked up at the market on the way home, then chit-chat through dinner while their subterranean selves run through the chores and obligations they need to attend to the next day.

The difference, of course, is intimacy, and in whether our mythical valentine’s couple has developed this simple but most difficult of skills.

In my work at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, I’ve been impressed by how the formal and public practice of dialogue can lead to intimacy and connection outside the civic sphere, in our private relationships.

We describe dialogue as involving collaborative listening and learning to discover meaning among diverse participants, best conducted in the context of citizenship and civic engagement. Yet, in my experience the intimacy created through the art of public discourse is transferable to every aspect of our deeply personal interactions.

What are the dialogue tools that can turn a mundane conversation into a profound connection? The first is presence, being genuinely and fully engaged. Seems straightforward, yet it is the most forgotten aspect of contemporary conversation.

Try this exercise randomly in meetings at work: stop your meeting for a moment and ask everyone to write down what else was going through their minds while a colleague was talking. I do this often as I facilitate dialogues, and invariably the embarrassed participants write lists of distracting issues that were preventing them from being fully present in the discussion.

The good news is that I notice an immediate shift in the room, from distraction to attention, and a clear increase in presence and interaction, once we get the garbage thoughts out of our heads and truly listen.

Listening is a second key aspect of dialogue, whether talking about a tough issue at work, politics in the civic sphere, or in the most romantic of interactions. But we tend to listen with a judgment editor in our minds, an inner voice that weighs in to agree or disagree with the viewpoints we’re hearing.

Good communication requires that we suspend judgment of right or wrong, and accept the validity and equality of other points of view. In the end, we don’t have to agree, but true intimacy requires that we at least understand. Any opinion can be torn to shreds in debate by a skilled adversary, but arguing is not dialogue, and tolerance for nuance, ambiguity, and even inconsistency is a key element of intimate relationships, whether at work or at home.

Another aspect of dialogue is a not to do: do not suck the air out of the room by taking up too much space. Picture yourself sitting next to our valentine couple’s table in a quiet, romantic, checked-tablecloth restaurant, and eavesdropping. Yes, we’ve all listened in to our neighbours’ conversations, and too-often what we hear is one member of the couple talking on and on, while the other purports to listen but really drifts into their own thoughts.

An exercise I do with over-talkers is allow them one comment during a meeting, and one only. Once they’ve spoken, their task for the rest of the meeting is to stop themselves every time they want to speak, and write down what they learned by listening to someone else rather than monopolizing the floor. You can almost see the light bulb go on as they understand how discussions thrive and understandings grow through their own brevity and silence.

Two other aspects of dialogue are effectively transferable from the public to the private spheres. One is to ask deeper questions, which is a byproduct of strong listening. Try, for example, asking a colleague at work, or your valentine, why a particular conversation point is so important to them. Everything is personal, and uncovering the underlying history, experiences, and motivations behind perspectives will turn the most mundane discussion into intimacy.

Finally, listen not only to what is being said, but what is left unsaid. Ask yourself “What am I not saying in this conversation”? “What are we not saying to each other?” Often the most significant and connecting issues occur beneath the surface, at the place where even our own conscious minds may not be aware of what we mean.

Consider giving the gift of dialogue this Valentine’s Day. Be present, listen, provide room in conversations, ask real questions, and attend to the unsaid.

Dialogue is highly effective at work, but also promotes the closeness at home that will make this Valentine’s Day a truly intimate one.

 

Bees and Dialogue video/ Semester in Dialogue Fosters Understanding, Leadership

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A couple of recent updates in the bees and dialogue vein:

Global Civic Policy Salon, “Bees and Dialogue,” video 4 May 2016

A nice article in the 30 May 2016 Toronto Globe and Mail Western Universities Report about the Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue.

I look forward to your comments:

 

Synchrony

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Bees, dance, playgrounds and children’s books came together unexpectedly in Toronto last week, along with synchrony, the idea of simultaneous occurrence or motion.

The children’s book was not so much the book as its author JonArno Lawson, whom I met at the Governor-General’s Literary Awards in December. His and illustrator Sydney Smith’s winning book was “Sidewalk Flowers,” which I recommend highly for children and adults alike.

I was delighted that JonArno was free one night while I was in Toronto, as he is a most engaging dinner companion. At one point he told me about a remarkable bit of playground research he’d uncovered, conducted by a student of the American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher Edward T. Hall. JonArno subsequently sent me a few pages from Hall’s 1983 Book “The Dance of Life,” that described the study.

As Hall wrote, “He began to notice one very active little girl who seemed to stand out from the rest. She was all over the place. My student noticed that whenever she was near a cluster of children the members of that group were in sync not only with each other but with her. Many viewings later, he realized that this girl, with her skipping and dancing and twirling, was actually orchestrating movements of the entire playground!”

Hall went on to describe how the pattern of movement was like the beat of music, with the playground’s children dancing to its silent rhythm. There was no music, however. Rather, the kids were tapping into some subconscious rhythm of play they perceived in a non-audible way.

I immediately thought of bees, and the transcendent spirit of the hive by which the colony collective seems to skip and dance and twirl within the hive much like Hall’s children on the playground.

There is a rhythm to each colony, a beat of activity set by a few individual bees. All might be quiet in the hive until a scout forager returns, dancing vigorously to inform her nestmates of the distance and direction to a field of nectar or pollen-yielding flowers. Potential foragers follow the dance and then fly out themselves, returning with nectar or pollen or both, and performing their own dances that excite other workers.

It all begins with that first scout setting the beat, but soon the pace of the hive has escalated, with some workers accepting and processing the incoming nectar, some packing pollen into cells, and still others following the now-numerous dances and then flying out to forage.

The colony appears in simultaneous motion, a synchronous blending of tasks that creates a palpable rhythm, each bee responding to the beat with different tasks while staying true to the inflections of the collective.

JonArno also suggested that perhaps human dancers resemble bees in our capacity to pace dance to a subtle rhythm-setter. We’ve all been at parties where we might be dancing fluidly among many partners, but there’s usually someone who is influencing the entire dance floor’s pace without being an obvious leader.

I experienced this intersection between bee and human dance most intensely when I was part of two dance projects with Vancouver’s LINK Dance Foundation. I’d never performed on stage with dancers before, but what struck me as most profound was how aware we were of each other without any direct look or other signals. Rather, each segment from each dance had its rhythm subtly conducted by a different performer’s individual beat, with understated leadership shifting between dancers as the piece progressed.

Whether we are well tuned to the playground’s beat or the synchronicity of dance, the pace of human life is remarkably influenced by subtle cues beneath our conscious awareness.

Hall wrote about our perception of that subliminal beat: “I have come to the conclusion that the human species lives in a sea of rhythm, ineffable to some, but quite tangible to others. This explains why some composers really do seem to be able to tap into that sea and express for the people the rhythms that are felt but not yet expressed as music. Poets do this too . . .”

As do bees, themselves composers and poets of their own colony’s cadence, another reminder of the remarkable lessons to be gleaned by those who listen to the rhythm of the hive.

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I’d love to hear from you:

All Credit to the Bees

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I’m having the most marvelous couple of months at work, with a remarkable diversity of pursuits that, at first blush, seem disconnected. What, for example, do naturopaths, territorial legislatures, a polytechnic college, a human rights caucus, agricultural land use planners and writing festivals have in common?

If you’re a winstonhive.com regular, you can see the answer coming: bees. Admittedly I do occupy a senior position at my university’s Centre for Dialogue that allows me considerable latitude in my research, teaching and community engagement activities. But still, it’s bees that have guided me into the diverse portfolios I’ve taken on.

Take the naturopaths, for instance. I was approached by a clinic that was interested in increasing collaboration in their business decisions and professional development, as well as in how their doctors cooperate in patient care.

They turned to me to facilitate a workshop on collaboration after hearing me talk on the radio about how honeybees work together, putting the needs of the colony above those of individuals. And indeed, that was the outcome of our meeting; the group devised strategies by which their solitary endeavours could become communal, which is the essence of collaboration.

I wrote in an earlier blog post about facilitating a priority planning exercise for the 19 newly elected members of the Northwest Territories legislature. The NWT has an unusual form of government, consensus-based rather than the argumentative party politics more common in democracies. There was an excellent fit between how I understood consensus from studying honeybee colonies, and the legislators understood consensus as a decision-making tool.

For example, scout workers in a honeybee swarm searching for a new nest return from scouting and perform dances that contain information about the distance, direction and most importantly quality of a potential nesting cavity. At first there are dances to many sites, but eventually the workers concentrate on one and the swarm lifts off and flies together to the new nest.

David Bohm, one of human dialogue’s historical giants, wrote about how a tribe of native Americans reaches decisions, and his narrative perfectly summarizes how the NWT Territorial Assembly works by consensus, and honeybees as well: “They just talked and talked and talked. They made no decisions. There was no leader. And everybody could participate. The meeting went on, until it finally seemed to stop for no reason at all and the group dispersed. Yet after that, everybody seemed to know what to do, because they understood each other.”

Another bee-related invitation came from Humber College in Toronto, due to an important innovation in their classrooms, HIVES, which stands for Humber Interactive Spaces. HIVES are 19 classrooms designed to function as collaborative learning spaces, where students can learn from and with each other, as well as from the professor. Six to eight students sit in pods at tables with computer and internet access, and use inquiry based curriculum to learn together, guided by their group’s interactions as much or more than by the professor.

HIVES were inspired by honeycomb, which is among nature’s most collaborative enterprises, constructed by thousands of bees that each secrete simple flakes of wax and together form them into a highly complicated and robust structure. It is the venue upon which bees exchange information, communicating their experiences inside and outside the hive, creating awareness of their own community and the external environment. Honeycomb embodies the ideas of collaboration, experience and learning that characterize the HIVES classrooms.

Just yesterday I gave a talk and facilitated a session for a caucus of nurses invested in furthering human rights and equity within their profession and externally. The focus was on how to have difficult conversations. I was able to draw upon honeybee communication to provide ideas for the group to ponder.

If there is a single element that stands out to explain why honeybees work together so well, it’s their intense communication with each other. Honeybees excel at exchanging information with and maintaining a continual awareness of the hive mates around them.

Bees listen to each other, deeply, all channels on, using every mode of communicating we know of and probably some we’re not yet aware of. Vision, odor, taste, hearing, touch, vibration, magnetism, electric fields – the input is constant and the interactions intense. And that same depth of communication is a powerful tool to overcome human rights abuses and establish a more equitable society.

Next week I’m on way to Toronto for a dinner meeting with ALUS, the Agricultural Land Use Society. ALUS is a farmer delivered program that gives Canadians the opportunity to play an active role in building a healthier environment by providing support to farmers and ranchers to enhance and maintain ecosystem services.

Bees, both honey and wild, drew me into agriculture, as managed and wild bees can’t be studied without understanding how deeply they depend on healthy agroecosystems. The decline of honeybees and wild bees has been major news for the last ten years or so, and I share the public’s concern for the future of our pollinating global co-inhabitants. As a result, I’ve become increasingly proactive in speaking out in favor of reduced pesticide use, diversified habitats and more sustainable farming as important strategies to preserve pollinators.

The last set of invitations have come through writing, especially my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” I’ve given 30 or 40 readings over the last year since the book came out, and will be heading to the Winnipeg Writers Festival next week for their annual gala celebrating the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

Writing about bees has been among my greatest personal delights, and the chance to read for a public audience is still a thrill. Invisible to my audience, but visceral to me, is that I’m sharing the podium with the bees.

I rarely spend time in apiaries any more, but the bees are with me no matter what activity has come my way, infused by whatever wisdom the hive has imparted during my 40 years of bee time.

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I’d love to hear from you:

Consensus

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I had an unusual experience last December, facilitating a priority planning session for the incoming members of the 18th Legislative Assembly in the Northwest Territories. I had never been in Yellowknife, or so far north anywhere, and that alone was fascinating. But what really struck me during my visit was that the Assembly works by consensus, without political parties through which to structure governance.

Our American and Canadian governance systems rely on political parties, hoping that law and custom will contain the adversarial interactions inherent in party politics from spilling too far outside reasonable bounds.

The United States is a federal constitutional democracy designed so that Congress, the President and the Judicial System each have defined functions that check and balance the others. In practice the United States has two political parties that compete for elected office, and the system used to work reasonably well. Since any of the three government branches could overrule the others, compromise and conciliation became practical elements of the political landscape in between the more vitriolic campaign periods.

The need to govern within the boundaries formed by this balanced three-tiered system served to keep the worst impulses of politicians in check. But as any follower of American news knows, the system has gone seriously off the rails, becoming a caricature of what the founders had envisioned when writing the U.S. constitution.

The Canadian system is Parliamentary, with a number of political parties competing for seats in Parliament. The Prime Minister is the head of the party with the most votes. If he or she wins a majority of seats, their party has full control over the legislature, whereas a minority government requires more compromise between the leading party and the others. A Senate is appointed, and has limited power, but the judiciary is strong and to some extent keeps the government restrained.

This system served Canada well until recently, in part because there was a culture in Parliament of the governing parties respecting the opposition. This system broke down with the government led by Conservative Stephen Harper that trampled over Parliamentary traditions, resulting in voters turfing that government out and electing the Liberals who promised more conciliation.

The 19 members of the Northwest Territory’s Legislative Assembly run for office in their home ridings as individuals rather than as members of a party. Voters pick the person they believe will best represent their interests, and each is in office without the constraint of having to support a platform determined by a central political party. Most significantly, they are culturally and by law expected to work together to govern, rather than divide into politically fragmented segments competing with each other.

One advantage of consensus government is that it favors careful consideration of issues on merits rather than dogma. I found it difficult to categorize the members of the Assembly as left or right wing, liberal or conservative. Discussion was nuanced, reflecting the reality that issues are complex rather than the simplifications that political parties rely on to differentiate their positions from the others.

The tone of discussions also was refreshing, avoiding debate and supporting dialogue. Attack mode was missing, interactions substantive but respectful and ideas delivered thoughtfully. A tone of listening to all viewpoints permeated the room, and discussion continued until everyone who wanted to had their say.

There certainly was disagreement, but it was fascinating to see how different opinions were resolved. For one thing there was a remarkable lack of conflict. Disagreement, yes, but skirmishes and battles were absent. Most notably, issues didn’t become personal but were discussed respectfully on their merits. After listening to the caustic personal attacks that permeated the recent Canadian and the current American elections, it was most refreshing to hear tones of respect rather than personal denigration.

Another compelling aspect of how consensus government resolves disagreements is that decisions are made less by vote and more by slow evolution towards communally acceptable positions. In a typical exchange, one member of the legislature will raise a point that may differ from another. The group talks around the issue until all points are raised, but in a direction that seeks agreement.

Compromise is paramount, worded in language such as “Here’s an idea; do you think it will resolve your concern?” Indeed, this was a striking aspect of my time with the Assembly; discussions didn’t lead towards hardening of perspectives but rather softening of the boundaries between positions.

Whatever the mechanism, consensus government supports another “c” word sadly lacking in political interactions: “Civility.” It was uplifting, and invigorating, to see that civility can work in government, without the circus arena that today characterizes the Canadian Parliaments and Assemblies, and the U.S. Congress and state governments.

The Canadian north may be small in population, but it is huge in ideas that we in the south would be well served to learn from.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Senior Moments

“Perhaps I have reached the age at which those who have been through the wash-and-spin cycle a few times become seized by the notion that their own experience in the suds may be relevant to others.” Margaret Atwood, “Negotiating with the Dead”

I’m becoming an official senior soon, reaching the arbitrary age recognized by society through reduced ticket prices at movies, slightly lower fares on transit and small senior-sized portions at the occasional early bird dinner.

I thought this next phase would be about growing old, but inevitable as that may be I don’t yet feel old, or even that I’m aging, although a look in the mirror should convince me that time is marching on.

What is starting to shift is feeling senior, with its particular challenge of becoming an elder, with lived experiences that may be useful to others.

In traditional religious and First Nations communities, elders are respected for having obtained wisdom and are entrusted with responsibility. They often settle disputes, guide the young and set an example of proper behavior.

At the same time, elders are expected to behave with humility, fairness, be slow to judge others, temperate in their own behavior and in religious organizations devout.

I’ve achieved the age of an elder, but I’m not so sure I’ve obtained the wisdom to be entrusted with the accompanying responsibility. Reaching this age has inspired more reflection, though, and a striving to understand what I may have learned during my time in the wash-and-spin cycle.

One thing I think I’ve learned is to listen, slowing down in conversations and paying more attention to what’s being said beneath the surface of language. It’s a rich layer, the subsurface, with currents of insecurity and vulnerability beneath the upper level of more confident words. The reward is deeper intimacy when successful at hearing what is truly meant.

Asking deeper questions is another skill that comes with seniorhood. Curiousity and inquisitiveness are skills well coupled with listening, yet most of us too often stop at the face value of interactions rather than delving more deeply into the issues of deepest concern. I have watched my own capacity to ask the next question has grown along with the ability to accept the sometimes-troubling answers, another powerful blessing of growing older.

We seniors also benefit from being repositories of history, better able to analyze current situations because of our lived experiences. I find increasingly that stories from the past come to mind that illuminate current dilemmas, often indicating a way forward informed by lessons learned many decades ago.

A final senior revelation has been a growing acceptance of my own limitations and those of others. I am less judgmental of my own faults, and certainly more tolerant of what my younger self would have considered defects in others.

It’s in this context that I’m trying to grow into my recent appointment as a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue. My hope is that as a senior I can contribute by modeling a commitment to deep listening, probing but respectful questioning, attention to the stories from which we can learn and tolerance for our many vulnerabilities.

If those are to be my senior moments, growing old will be sweet, indeed.

The Collaboration Room

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I received an unusual honor a few weeks ago: Simon Fraser University named a room after me, the Mark L. Winston Collaboration Room.

It generally takes a hefty donation to inspire a university to name a room, a level of financial incentive quite beyond my capacity to give. But the Collaboration Room was named to recognize my tenure as founding director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue as I stepped down from that post.

I was informed of this most generous of gestures at a picnic attended by students, faculty, staff and colleagues, and was moved beyond even my usual tears. This surpassed any honor I had ever imagined, but it was particularly poignant to have the idea of collaboration attached to it.

“Collaboration” is defined as working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals, and requires teamwork, cooperation and collegiality for success. The younger version of myself didn’t exhibit a particularly cooperative nature, but that changed when I entered the world of bees.

Honeybees are consummate collaborators, working together with exquisite coordination to conduct the myriad tasks colonies need to survive and thrive. Take comb building, for example, one of nature’s most complex examples of animal architecture.

Comb construction requires organized efforts by a hiveful of workers, all conducted without the benefit of a foreman or supervisor and no carefully drawn-out architectural plans. First, foraging bees must collect nectar from innumerable flowers and return with it to the nest. There, after being processed into honey and stored in already-constructed cells, the comb-building bees consume and metabolize it into the three hundred plus components of beeswax.

Then many hundreds or even thousands of workers, each acting independently, secrete the beeswax as thin flakes from overlapping plates in their abdomens. They each use their jaws and spines on their legs to work collaboratively with other bees to shape the wax flakes into precise hexagonal cells, within .05 mm tolerance in diameter and .002 mm in cell wall thickness.

Each bee contributes a small bit of wax and a few minutes of work to a cell, and then moves away to let a co-worker in with fresh wax, who picks up where the previous worker left off.  Apparently each worker can perceive the stage of construction at each new location and contributes whatever is needed for that cell. Thus, a single cell is built cooperatively by many bees stepping in and contributing, all without being told what to do by any overseer.

Perhaps the most extreme example of bee collaboration is pollination, because it crosses species boundaries. The environment through which bees forage would not exist without the actions of each individual bee pollinating flowers, one by one, a remarkable lesson for us in the benefits of collaborating with nature rather than managing it into submission.

It’s a simple formula: bees pollinate flowers, and the plants provide nectar and pollen to feed the bees. Bees wouldn’t exist without flowering plants, and most plants wouldn’t exist without the accumulated pollinating efforts of innumerable individual bees globally. Sixty five per cent of all plants and about one-third of crops require or benefit from bee pollination, by honeybees and the over 20,000 species of wild bees, making the actions of gazillions of individual bees a crucial element of almost all terrestrial habitats.

Oddly, the intense cooperation of honeybees working with each other and with the flowers they pollinate reminds us that individual actions matter, not only for the bees but also for the larger sphere they inhabit. Colonies could not function without the small but innumerable contributions of myriad individuals, and the same is true for human societies.

It’s not surprising that I ended up at a centre for dialogue given how absorbed I became in the collaborative example set by honeybees. The Collaboration Room could be nicknamed “The Hive,” because it was observing bees that forged my inclination to work with others.

I know every time I walk into the Collaboration Room my throat will catch with emotion in appreciation of having it carry my name, but also with the deepest of respect for the bees that brought me to collaboration and dialogue.

Writing on the Wall

I am an inveterate collector of quotes, now on my second thick journal full of passages I’ve gleaned from books, newspapers, magazine articles, and conversations. The quote journals are fun to reread occasionally, as the phrases and sentences I’ve selected over the years reflect what was going on in my life at the time.

A few of my favorite excerpts have made it to my office wall, some calligraphied and framed, others as posters with sayings embossed over images. Perhaps my favorite came from Ed Broadbent, former leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. He spoke at dinner for a leadership development program, Action Canada, for which I was a mentor for about five years.

One of his sentences jumped out at me, and made it to my wall: “Real leaders want to do something, not be somebody.” I discovered later that the original quote came from a 19th century French philosopher whose name now escapes me. It resonated for me because I was mentoring emerging Canadian leaders and also had just taken on a leadership role at my university, directing the Centre for Dialogue.

I’ve thought about this quote often over the years, as the leaders I respect the most are focused on what good they can achieve in the world more than what rewards or honors might be bestowed. It’s in the how we do things that determine the somebody we become; setting out to be exalted as a life objective is one of the worst ways to build a life.

My Semester in Dialogue students provided a second favorite quote on my wall, as a framed gift at the end of one of our Semesters in Dialogue. They invented a new verb: Winstonize: to cut out half the words and get straight to the point.

They had received edited pages marked with dense red suggestions for three months, mostly brutally cutting phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs from what they thought was stellar prose. I took it as an honor to have a word named after me, although perhaps they were just making fun of my penchant for brevity.

I do indeed love writing, and increasingly have been teaching workshops called “Communicating with Impact,” with brevity, clarity and focus as organizing concepts. Much of the workshop content was developed at the Banff Centre about ten years ago, where I was a founding faculty member in the Science Communication program.

That experience improved my own clarity around what good communication means, partly reflected in what became an end-of-program tradition, a poster with pithy phrases that summarized the participants’ experiences. The 2008 poster that I have on my wall includes: Tell a story, It’s all about audience, Make it personal, Keep it ruthlessly simple, and Listen.

I’ve always been intrigued by what people choose to post; a careful tour of an office wall reveals volumes about the inhabitant. In my case, it’s pretty obvious what I value as a professor: encouraging students to find the unique thing in the world that’s most important for them to do, and providing the tools, especially communication skills, to facilitate achieving their ambitions.

 Knowing your point, and getting right to it, is the essence of a life well lived.

Pitfalls of Dialogue

Public dialogue, done well, is a work of art, a thing of beauty no less impressive than a fine painting, sculpture or tapestry. A well-crafted dialogue is at its best when the audience becomes participants; the lectern fades and interaction flourishes.

But most events publicized as dialogues don’t meet that expectation, often because they utilize formats that stifle rather than stimulate engagement.

Take the standard panel discussion format, a surefire way to keep the audience limited to being an audience. Most panels begin with each panelist provided with ten or so minutes to make their point, but invariably extending overtime as they attempt to cram in more information than appropriate for their time slot.

Then the audience gets to ask questions, with each panelist feeling compelled to chime in on each question, creating a dead zone of tuned-out audience members bored from listening to the panel talk to itself.

A successful panel should stimulate rather than stultify, and at the Centre for Dialogue we’ve developed a few methods that move panels towards dialogue. For one thing, each panelist is given only five minutes at the start; we charge them with telling one and only one story during this strictly limited time, a story that illuminates an experience that contributes a personal perspective on the meeting’s topic.

We then turn the audience themselves into a large panel, asking them to contribute their stories. Sometimes we encourage a few members of the former audience (now participants) to share their stories with the larger group, or we might ask them to share a story with the person in the next seat.

We handle questions and answers differently as well. We’ll call on an audience member to ask a short question, but limit the response to one panelist and two minutes. Then we turn it around and ask if anyone in the audience would like to answer the same question before moving on to the next query. We’ve also encouraged panel members to come prepared with questions to ask of the audience, reversing the expected direction of interaction.

Another way to kindle good dialogue is using breakout groups, since many more participants can speak at a breakout table of eight to ten than in a larger plenary session. But breakout groups have their pitfalls as well, particularly in how they report back to the larger plenary. The danger is in gruesomely long reporting back that attempts to cover every point discussed, a sure recipe for draining energy out of a room and extending meetings well over their advertised time.

We’ve tried a couple of things that work well for these reports. A notetaker captures all the ideas in breakouts, and then we amalgamate those in the days following the meeting and issue a report. At the meeting itself, we ask each group to decide on their one best idea and report that out verbally in one to two minutes. While we miss ideas from each table, the range of single ideas from all tables usually covers most of the territory discussed at any one table.

A second approach we’ve taken to liven up reporting out is to ask for a one-minute, art-based summary to be presented to the plenary following the breakout session. We’ve seen poems, skits, dance, collage, and songs that vibrantly capture key points from each table, in an entertaining style that is highly participatory and deeply engaging.

These tricks of the dialogue trade all have one thing in common: individuals come together as equals to share the deep wisdom in the room rather than limit their involvement to passively listening to an invited expert or observing a panel perform.

Isn’t that the essence of public dialogue: catalyzing an audience to become participants?