The case for dialogue

Kofi Annan (U.N. Secretary General 1997 – 2006) has a remarkable way of creating

and sustaining connection with people, from adversarial politicians and bureaucrats,

through to violent dictators and networks of powerful peers who hold divergent

points of view. In the final moments before the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein was more

willing to meet Kofi Annan than anyone else from the international community who

was involved in building a case for war.


When most people get caught in patterns of talking nice, talking tough or not talking

at all, it appears that Kofi finds a way to foster meaningful conversations, build

relatedness and uncover opportunities for cooperation – however small – that have

evaded nearly everybody else. When most people are avoiding each other, or

attacking each other, people reach out to Kofi; they trust Kofi will listen, inquire

humbly and seek to grow the pool of shared understanding, even if they disagree.

Kofi has learnt a way to create connection rather than separation, even in situations

where there are tough problems with no easy answers, high stakes, strong emotions,

divergent perspectives and competing agendas.


What makes Kofi such a high performer at difficult conversations and in building

relationships, from everyday situations in the office through to international conflicts?

We spend a large part of our day in conversation and we depend on it so much for

getting things done, but we rarely contemplate what it means to build the high

performance capacities required for creating transformations in shared

understanding, relatedness and cooperation, particularly where there are deep



Fortunately, over the last couple of decades we have made significant advances in

researching the impact of conversations on relationships, from which we have built

new practice models that make up the emerging field of Transformative Dialogue.

The field of dialogue is different from monologues, debates and discussion. It is not

negotiation or mediation. In dialogue we stay steady through others’ upset,

rightness and defensiveness while we deliberately seek to build relationships that

have high levels of understanding, respect, reflection, creativity and resilience.

In dialogue we bring an orientation of someone on a profound learning journey – a

purposeful life long quest – seeking to uncover, share, cross-fertilise, reflect on and

integrate multiple realities that combine the past, present and emerging future.

Dialogue demands high levels of self-awareness, self-management and

conversational rigour. However, like most professional crafts, we start our practice at

foundational levels and work towards mastering high performance; a journey of

reflection and action that might start with skill-based routines and eventually

becomes a fully embodied experience of impactful creative action at peak levels.

Foundation level practices can be helpful in daily conversations with peers and

meetings with stakeholders.


They include skills such as:

§ Clarifying and revealing your purpose so it is transparent to others.

§ Building agreements with others to proactively reflect on how the

conversation (thoughts, feelings, behaviours, language and tone) is impacting

the pool of shared understanding and relatedness.

§ Summarising what you have heard and checking that others feel heard and

understood in the way they want to be heard and understood.

§ Checking for what else they have to add, until they are empty and complete.

§ Spotting defensive habits that are likely to erode the climate of safety,

relatedness and understanding.

§ Creating the permission to intervene at delicate moments when safety,

relatedness and understanding are at risk.

§ Learning to say what is fearful for you – and perhaps very hard for others to

hear – in a way that creates connection and fosters an opportunity for

respectful collective reflection.

Mastery level practices can assist create connection in the most difficult situations

where there are profound differences and deep divides. They include skills such as:

§ Identifying hidden unmet needs that are affecting the fear-stress response (in

yourself and others) and inviting reflection that builds effective inner

responses and mutual adjustment.

§ Separating the languages of connection and separation with high levels of

discernment and discipline.

§ Practicing empathy conversations to constructively transform emotional

states of upset, anger, rage and anxiety that can turn into blowing-up and

attacking, or clamming-up and withdrawing.

§ Reflecting with skilfulness anywhere along the spectrum of thoughts,

emotion, language, behaviour or any other sensory experience that is an

avenue for generating insight and growth in the relationship.

§ Acknowledging, demonstrating understanding and fully respecting the

profound differences in our life experiences – family, education, friends, faith,

culture, economic circumstance – that have shaped our world views.

§ Finding ways to appreciate others and have them feel appreciated, even

when they are saying things we oppose and when they are acting in ways we

do not like.

§ Identifying, naming and inviting reflection on hidden paradoxes and

dilemmas that often shape our lives and the systems in which we exist.

These types of skills and personal capacities allow us to turn separation into

connection. They allow us to hang in conversation together for longer, to move

beyond our inner struggle and defensive habits, and understand each other much

better. They allow us to build more relatedness and interest in each other; we

develop mutual positive regard. At their best, they foster qualitative shifts in our

awareness – in our collective sense-making faculties – where we are more likely to co-
create innovative solutions that accommodate each other’s needs.

Far few people have developed these skills and capacities. Instead, we live in

cultures which range from demanding politeness at all costs (Japan), right through to

fiercely making a point and winning at any cost to the relationships around us (the



Although these collectivist and individualistic cultures have different norms for how

we should relate to each other, both types of cultures contain limited choices; we

either sacrifice making contributions (ideas and questions) to the pool of shared

understanding in order to avoid any upset (i.e. to avoid disrupting the status quo), or

we sacrifice relatedness to forcefully make contributions (tell, sell or yell) that never

really make it into the pool of shared understanding.

Consequently, in an increasingly crowded, interdependent and diverse society, we

are experiencing stuckness on most of society’s toughest issues; climate change and

energy, biodiversity loss, fragile and unfair food and water systems, territorial

disputes, inequitable economic systems, population migration, crime, costly lifestyle

diseases, social marginalisation, radicalisation, terrorism and armed conflicts.

These issues are already complex and difficult. However, building our leadership

capacity for more transformative dialogue is becoming ever more important and

urgent. As we lurch forward from 7 billion citizens to 10 billion by 2050, we enter a

future of an increasingly crowded planet competing for limited natural resources.

In the The Great Disruption, Australian author Paul Guilding (former global CEO of

Greenpeace) outlines the research data that shows our current consumption rate of

natural resources already exceeds the Earth’s annual rate of replenishing its living

ecosystems. In today’s terms we have exceeded the Earth’s natural replenishment

rate by 1.5 times, and by 2050 we will exceed Earth’s ability to replenish its living

systems by a factor of 3.5 to 5.

These calculations include projected GDP growth rates, population growth rates,

consumption growth rates, the global innovation coefficient (i.e. a measure on how

much more efficient we are getting) and current data on the limits of ecological



For more information on planetary limits, see:

§ The Great Disruption, by Paul Guilding

§ Living Planet Report, by the World Wildlife Fund

§ The Stockholm Resilience Centre

§ The Earth Policy Institute

§ Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, by Meadows, Meadows & Randers


In a world already struggling with diversity and difference, how are we going to

respond to a future with more people competing for fewer resources on a planet

where our consumption rates are accelerating ecosystem exhaustion?

If past and present patterns point to the future, it seems we will most likely repeat

our norms of debate, defensive posturing, divisiveness, protectionism and conflict.

This is unless we build and demonstrate the leadership skills and capacities that are

required to hold people together for more transformative conversations and



Of course, this means you and me. It is not about hoping that somebody else will do

it. It is about taking on the personal development and rigorous practice that

transformative dialogue demands out in the field of leading profound change across



It is a craft, so it takes time. It requires an investment over months and years. But,

we need to create change. More debate and negotiation will only get us so far. We

also need to learn to move beyond these models of engagement and operate

differently, through dialogue, or we will stay divided and very stuck.

We need to demonstrate to others around us what is possible in difficult

conversations around complex issues where there are high stakes, strong emotions,

diverse perspectives and divergent agendas. However, it also means we need to

start in our everyday conversations with those immediately around us; our learning

groups, peers at work, friends and family.

This is what this short course is all about on Transformative Dialogue. Over the

coming weeks you will have six blogs to read, some short videos to watch and

opportunities for practice in workshops. It is just an introduction. However, if you

want much more, we will provide plenty of references for you to go deeper and

extend your practice.


In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Kofi Annan, read his recent

memoirs. From this website:

“Interventions [is a book that] tells the story of Kofi Annan’s forty years of

service at the United Nations. With eloquence and unprecedented candour,

Kofi Annan shares his unique perspective on leading the United Nations

during one of the most consequential eras in recent history.”

We hope you find it valuable and we very much look forward to hearing your

suggestions on what you think will make this short course more effective next year.


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