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Systemic dialogue: Unlocking collective intelligence

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For dialogue to be effective it needs to be a collective activity. By talking together a shared pool of understanding emerges

My experience facilitating dialogue training for large corporations like Old Mutual and Virgin has taught me that open and honest communication is fundamental for building a sustainable future.

The numerous business benefits of effective dialogue include improved performance through higher-level collaboration and trust, increased profitability, greater employee engagement, better customer satisfaction, and the enhanced wellbeing of both staff and stakeholders.

But for dialogue to be effective it needs to be a collective activity. By talking and thinking together a shared pool of understanding emerges, allowing for new insights and possibilities for action.

How does dialogue work?

Dialogue is a flow of meaning that moves through a group of people; it flows most easily when people speak to what is moving 'through' them in the moment. This authentic voicing, combined with deep listening to the different views people express, creates an expansive emotional space for truth. In such a 'container' difficult issues can surface without relationships rupturing.

For the new to flow in a more receptive mindset is called for. In meetings – instead of typically dominant behaviours like asserting an opinion or discarding another’s perspective – the less competitive spirit of dialogue invites participants to 'play together' allowing 'everybody to win'. When there is a culture of dialogue breakthrough solutions emerge out of collective intelligence, which transform an organisation’s performance.

What is systemic dialogue?

Systemic dialogue is a powerful tool. The systemic approach invites an understanding of the nature of wholes, and how parts and wholes interrelate. Conventional thinking, by contrast, encourages a focus on parts, and often on individual people or components. When we consider organisations as living systems this reductionist view has many limitations, encouraging a view that performance, behaviour and creativity reside in the individual (which excludes the relationships between individuals), making us more prone to blaming others, taking things personally, or fighting our corner.

Adopting a systemic perspective, by contrast, enables us to see parts as a reflection of the whole. When we see that systems like teams, divisions and the wider ecosystem outside the organisation are interconnected we see how these systems affect each other.

How can systemic dialogue be practically applied in organisations?

The systemic method provides leaders with a range of powerful mapping tools, as well as a framework of key systemic principles, whose use brings many benefits, including:

  • Reducing overwhelm – By identifying and mapping the key features of a system under scrutiny, and understanding the principles that govern systems, we make the complex much simpler and enablie fresh perspectives on any challenges.
  • Addressing intractable problems – By revealing the hidden dynamics between the various parts of the system through mapping and dialogue stuck patterns, misplaced loyalties and outdated allegiances can be released.
  • Improving performance – By addressing the issues that lie underneath the surface problems morale increases, trust builds, and momentum for change grows.

Finally, by seeing 'the whole system' and ways to strengthen it organisations can unlock huge potential for innovation, and motivation, to achieve excellence. Workers are supported to find their own place in the system, giving rise to better performance and a greater sense of belonging.

Sarah Rozenthuler is author of Life-Changing Conversations and a chartered psychologist and leadership consultant. She co-presents skills-building programme Leading Systemic Dialogue: Unlocking Collective Intelligence.