Friday, March 25, 2005

The Communication Dilemma

With all of the seemingly controversial topics in the universe, it's a wonder we ever come to any kind of agreement or understanding. I even struggled with what to call this post as any term I might use for "communication" has a distinct meaning, put there either by etymology or by our past experiences.

In this post I'm going to share a bit about the distinctions between dialogue, conversation, discussion and debate - and attempt to determine whether one is more effective than another.

My interest in this topic came to me earlier this week while I was participating in a book "discussion" group (note the later definition of "discussion"). That's exactly what it ended up being, as I found myself in the throes of a situation that made me quite uncomfortable.

I'm finding, for myself, that it's much more interesting and enlightening to engage in "dialogue" (note later definition of "dialogue") where I can bring an idea or thought to the table with the express intent of learning something from someone else. The challenge to this notion is that I've recently found myself in one of two types of situations: 1) one where most everyone agrees (or appears to agree to avoid "conflict"), or 2) one where there are definite "sides" and there doesn't appear to be much learning intent present.

If the outcome of our communication comes down to intention, it's probably no wonder that we tend to avoid those "crucial conversations." We struggle with what we really want in so many areas of our lives - why should it be surprising that we would struggle with accepting ideas that are different from our own when in many cases we haven't really examined our own beliefs at a more than superficial level?

Many people appear to have adopted their beliefs, values, worldviews, political and religious affiliations through their upbringing - and often have seen very little need to go beyond what they "know" to be true through their original conditioning or programming or, what Miguel Ruiz calls "domestication."

What is the catalyst that causes humans to re-examine previously upheld beliefs? Does there come a point sometime, somewhere that old beliefs and worldviews just don't work anymore? Does every human being come to that point sometime in his/her life or are there some people who just go along without ever questioning?

I'm very interested in those turning points - those moments of truth - those trigger events - that cause people to rethink and reassess.

Is it these kinds of events that cause people to become more open-minded? Are people with rigid belief systems closed-minded? Is it ever possible to instigate a dialogue or conversation without bringing in our own personal biases? Is it possible to ever be truly open-minded?

I'm also very interested in the words we choose to use when we're talking about talking. Often we probably don't even know the real definitions of the words we use, and may be stuck in our own understanding of those words, which, if we're not open to learning, will retain in our own minds the meaning we've known through our understanding.

It seems to me that if people were truly open-minded, they would relish the opportunity to add to and learn from the pool of shared meaning created by a true dialogue (using Senge's, Bohm's, and Quinn's definition of dialogue - see for a good overview).

Senge quotes Bohm in identifying the three basic conditions necessary for dialogue:
1. All participants must "suspend" their assumptions, literally to hold them "as if suspended before us";
2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues;
3. There must be a 'facilitator' who 'holds the context' of dialogue. (Senge, p. 243)

So unless we are open to dialogue, using this definition, can we really ever achieve more than a cursory understanding of another point of view? Are we merely going through the motions when discussing situations of people like Terri Schiavo or Scott Peterson, or topics like politics or religion? Instead of polarizing our relationships, might there be an opportunity to add to the pool of shared meaning by suspending our own assumptions?

What is our intention as we come to a situation where information can be exchanged with another? Is what we are intending to engage in more like

discussion (Discussion has the same Greek root as percussion and concussion, discus, meaning to throw, fragment, shatter. David Bohm likened discussion to an activity where we throw our opinions back and forth in an attempt to convince each other of the rightness of a particular point of view. In this process, the whole view is often fragmented and shattered into many pieces.),

conversation (The Oxford English Dictionary (1993) gives the first recorded usage in 1346 as "to be united in heaven in conversation." Nearly all of the 12 definitions of the word emphasize the emotional, apprehensional, and communal aspect of conversation.),

dialogue (David Bohm traces the roots of Dialogue to the Greek "dia" and "logos" which means "through meaning." One might think of Dialogue as a stream of meaning flowing among and through a group of people, out of which may emerge some new understanding, something creative. Dialogue moves beyond any one individual's understanding, to make explicit the implicit and build collective meaning and community.),

debate (etymological meaning from the French debattre, originally meaning. "to fight," from de- "down, completely" + batre "to beat."),

or something completely different? Does it even matter?

There are many great articles online regarding dialogue, but one of my favorites is from The Dialogue Group.

What do you think? Is there hope in coming to some sort of shared experience through our communication? Can we suspend our own beliefs long enough to learn something from someone with whom we disagree?

Maybe I'm an eternal optimist, but I sure hope so. If we mindfully engage in a dialogue, we might come right back to our original belief, but at least we can be more certain that that belief is true for us if we've tested it against something different.

Going back to my book discussion situation last week, it becomes apparent to me that perhaps we set ourselves up for an uncomfortable situation if we called our group a "discussion" group when some people were there to engage in "dialogue."

How important is intention? I see that the most effective way to add to the pool of shared meaning in communication is to make our intention one of total suspension of preconceived ideas. Otherwise everyone brings expectations which can cloud the opportunity for learning.
“This is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” -Doris Lessing

Friday, March 18, 2005

What's It All About, Alfie?

You know that Meow Mix commercial with the all-too-catchy jingle: "Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow," and so on and on and on ...

In one particular scene, I remember where the dogs are watching the cats walk along the street and the dogs start humming the jingle and then look at each other and one says, "Great. Now I'm going to have that song in my head all day."

I'm sure we all know that feeling when that one pesky song or thought keeps going around and around and around in our minds. Well, for me lately that song has been the first two lines of the theme song from the newly re-released movie "Alfie." All I can remember is the first two lines:

"What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?"
I don't even know if I've ever heard the whole song, but lately people have been very interested in the topic of life purpose, so those words have started to be on my mind a lot.

I've spoken to 4 groups in the past week and each group has gotten some form of the "what's it all about" message. Their positive feedback has prompted me to look more deeply at that question and how I might be able to best support my current and potential clients as they look into that question for themselves in their own lives.

Although it makes some sense to me why people of my generation (right on the edge of the Boomer/Gen X bubble) might be wondering about this at this point in our lives, I'm especially excited because I've been asked to speak about this same topic at a college student association meeting next week. The topics of life purpose, personal branding, integrity and those deeper subjects are even infiltrating our students' heads as they begin to examine their careers.

Maybe that shouldn't surprise me so much as it's clear the awareness of the entire planet seems to be shifting. We of our generation might need to work on our listening and our KNOWING as we interact with the younger generation within our workplaces.

What's it all about? I'm betting we'll discover it - together.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

What is IT? - Part Deux

I'm compelled today to re-examine this question after working with an awesome client during our team coaching session today and last week.

One of our missions in working together is to bring light first to our SELVES so that we can then move on to, using Stephen Covey's term, our CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE. We want my client's customers to choose my client's business because they know something is different there, even if they can't really define what it is.

That conversation led us to an attempt to define this "IT" we know is there, but aren't sure how to define. There is something - some spirit, some energy, some sense of something - that draws members/clients/customers to this place.

As we worked to define this "IT," it began to feel like looking into a starry sky during a dark night and trying to see individual stars. Have you ever tried to do that? Just as you begin to make out a specific cluster, it eludes your definitive gaze and you discover that the best way to take in the galaxy is by looking at it as a whole entity.

We know when "IT" is there ... and we know when "IT" isn't. Think about that next time you go to a restaurant. Is there something (besides your favorite dish) that draws you back? What about your favorite clothing store? What about your favorite coffee shop - your doctor - your accountant - your grocery store?

Do we need to have a definition of "IT" to be able to produce or create "IT" within a work environment or is it enough just to sense "IT"?

This reminds me of David Whyte's definition of soul in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. Here's his take:

"By definition, soul evades the cage of definition. It is the indefinable essence of a person's spirit and being. It can never be touched and yet the merest hint of its absence causes immediate distress."

Through my work with this awesome client, I now have a better sense of what "IT" is. And through the hard work of their staff, I know that, even if they can't pinpoint a definition, their clients know "IT" because they feel/sense/are surrounded by "IT" when they're there.

Where in your life is "IT" missing? Where in your life is "IT" present? Notice what you notice ....

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

WE Are Who We've Been Waiting For

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
- Margaret Mead

I know I've shared that quote here before, but it bears repeating.

I attended a leadership retreat a couple of weeks ago on the campus of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota and witnessed the power of that statement in action.

The purpose of our retreat was to discuss several questions around the topic of Leaders as Healers. The premise for the retreat was the high level of dysfunction and toxicity found in today's organizations and institutions. The facilitators of the retreat believed this presented both a challenge and a unique opportunity for today's leaders and invited 9 of us from five different states to participate.

Among the questions we discussed were: how are we to respond as leaders to this level of imbalance within our organizations? How can we continue to hold our vision amidst all the pressures to view human beings as a commodity (human resource) to be managed and utilized? How can we remain compassionate in the midst of pressures to constantly increase the bottom line? How can we as leaders be healers in these systems in order to transform them and empower a healing mission?

The things I learned about myself during those two days on such a deep level will stay with me forever. Perhaps the biggest blinding glimpse of the obvious for me was the fact that I've been waiting for someone to do something to change the state of Corporate America when in fact, I AM THE ONE I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR.

When I had the opportunity to be surrounded by people who simultaneously challenged and supported my thinking and my way of being, I realized the truth of Mead's statement above.

I'll share more insights from the retreat in subsequent posts, but will leave this one with this thought ...

If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

What is "IT" and who are "THEY"?

"They just don't get it."

The "old me" has definitely been guilty of uttering this phrase more than one time, and in more than one context.

The problems with this statement are many, as my more enlightened perspective shows me.

First of all, who are "they"? In my moments of frustration, which lately are much fewer and further between, this statement found its way into my head more than once - and never was I able to identify this odd pronoun. When it came right down to being accountable to myself for this thought, I don't think I was ever able to completely identify the individuals who collectively made up this unit that caused me frustration. Whether a social organization or a workgroup or even a family unit, as I began to really delve deep into the source of my frustration, I couldn't really get more specific than that.

Merely working to identify the source of my frustration began to help break it up.

But the second part of that question - "what is IT?" seems to be the more elusive question for me.

Of course you would expect that the "IT" in question would shift depending upon the situation; however, in my moments of clarity (as my focus was shifted squarely upon myself), the undefinable "IT" usually seemed to grasp similiar characteristics.

"IT" usually came to mean "ME" (as in "they don't get ME") or "the source of my frustration" (as in "they don't understand this situation that I can't understand any better than to use this trite pronoun to encompass my unwillingness to take responsibility for my part in the confusion.").

"They just don't get it" really was a copout I used to avoid having to have meaningful conversations with any one of the elusive members of "THEY."

Beginning to accept this reponsibility doesn't necessarily guarantee an easy out, but it does provide the beginning of a roadmap for some destination, which, really, is a victory.

I submit that "THEY" really do get "SOMETHING." That's where the conversation can begin.