Speak-up and start a conversation
10 ways to create dialogue

Resilient organizations seek dialogue with internal and external stakeholders. In this way they bolster long-term relationships, formulate answers to complex challenges, find ways to innovate, create alignment and support for change, and enhance collaboration and engagement. But how does dialogue actually differ from other forms of interaction and in what ways can you shape dialogue? This list of 10 well and lesser known types of dialogue gives an idea of the dimensions of the dialogue landscape.

We are living in a time where our appetite for fast, ready-made answers is not serving us very well anymore. We are facing ever more complex problems, that can be looked at in a variety of ways, and for which standard solutions are less and less adequate. In addition, people have an inherent need to be heard, to assert influence and to experience autonomy.

No wonder then that “command-and-control”-management and its twin brother “top down communication” are all but dead. Dialogue, on the other hand, is a form of communication which basks in growing popularity. Indeed, no form of communication and interaction is more suitable for bridging contradictions, creating truly innovative ideas, and strengthening relatedness and trust than a well-designed and professionally-led dialogue.

What dialogue is and what it is not

“Speak less and listen more”, that’s how dialogue could be described in a nutshell. According to Buber, in dialogue we strive for an “authentic meeting with the others”. William Isaacs, author of “Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together” describes dialogue as “a way of bridging differences and creating something new. Dialogue lifts us out of polarization and into a sense of commonality.” Therein lies the crucial difference with other forms of interaction such as debate, conference, discussion, negotiation and advocacy in which persuasion and a sense of opposing sides prevail.

When to opt for dialogue

Dialogue can be used to destill ideas and insights from the organization, for example to:

  • Formulate or implement a new strategy
  • Solve a “wicked problem”
  • Continuously improve systems and processes
  • Encourage disruptive innovations
  • Improve collaboration within or between teams and to overcome disagreements


Engaging in a dialogue is only useful if you truly value the insights and contributions of your conversation partners. Setting up and facilitating a dialogue takes time and effort. What you get in return is trust, enthusiasm and – when you carefully design and facilitate the dialogue – access to a wealth of creativity, ideas and insights that a group has at their disposal.

Here are 10 proven methods for setting up a dialogue.

1. Socratic Dialogue

Socratic dialogue is a practical way of getting deep insight in abstract questions. Questions such as: What does our mission mean in daily practice? What do we mean by customer centricity? How does one put ‘to act ethically’ to practice?

The idea is that reflecting together on concrete experiences leads to relevant insights. By sharing personal experiences the abstract becomes concrete. Participants are supposed to turn off their judgments and to seek consensus, not because it is achievable, but because it encourages deepening and listening. Underlying assumptions come to the surface and are investigated together. Generalized insights are distilled from a deep understanding of shared experiences. A Socratic dialogue usually takes an hour and is suitable for small groups of up to eight participants.

2. Appreciative Inquiry

Rather than finding solutions to a problem, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on identifying the best of what already is in an organization and on discovering new opportunities. It is based on the idea that thinking in terms of opportunity and strength is more inspiring than in terms of problems and weaknesses and that in each system there are things that work well that you can build on. Once the focus of the conversation is determined, the appreciative inquiry process follows four steps, the 4Ds: Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny.

Appreciative Inquiry can be done in several ways, from multi-day conferences with hundreds to thousands of participants to simple workshops, and can be combined with other methods, such as Open Spaces. Appreciative Inquiry is a suitable method for demoralized audiences with a focus on the negative. A disadvantage of the method is that its focus on positivity can lead to a one-sided perspective and could be experienced by participants as limiting.





3. World Cafe

World Café creates a living network of conversations about a number of previously determined questions. Participants are divided into groups of 4 to 5 per table. After each conversation round, the table host remains behind to share the essence of the conversation with the following group. The rest of the group moves on to the next table and – after an update from the table host – continues the conversation held by the previous group. This creates a granular network of conversations that fully harnesses the collective intelligence of a group through continuous cross-pollination of ideas.

World Cafe is a very suitable method for involving larger groups of 12 to 1200 participants in an issue in a meaningful way. A condition is that participants feel emotionally involved in the issue to begin with. The World Cafe can well be combined with Open Spaces for example, where participants organize themselves into groups to further work on a theme.

The World Café is also an appropriate method for workgroups who want to update their constituents in an interactive manner about the state of affairs or (preliminary) results of a project.

4. ORR-dialogue

ORR – Opportunities, Risks and Requirements – is a decision-making dialogue on a proposal already on the table. The starting point is that every suggestion is accepted as worth the effort of examining. An ORR dialogue encompasses three rounds: in the first round the opportunities and benefits of the proposal are mapped. The objections and disadvantages are discussed in the second round. In the third round, requirements will be identified that can increase the proposal’s likelihood of succes or limit its drawbacks and disadvantages. The petitioner is then asked to adjust the proposal.

ORR is a suitable method of setting up a constructive dialogue with your team about the advantages and terms of a proposal.

5. Future Search

Future Search is an extremely thorough way to achieve a shared vision of the future. The idea is to bring the “whole system” into the room by selecting at least 8 stakeholder groups of 8 participants each. In a 3-day process, past, present and future, are discussed, culminating into a number of “ideal” future scenarios. After common ground has been achieved, action plans are drawn up. Visual techniques and creative processes play an important role in Future Search.

IKEA has used Future Search with great success to enhance a global end-to-end production chain for sofas.

6. Open Space

Open Space Technology allows groups, large or small, to self-organise to effectively deal with complex issues in a very short time. Participants create and manage their own agenda of parallel working sessions around a central theme of strategic importance. The method was born from the insight of founder Harrison Owen that the most memorable moments at a conference often happen outside of the formal program. Owen took some of his inspiration from witnessing a four-day long rite of passage for young men in a west African village in Liberia, where no form of formal organization seems to exist.

Open Spaces is especially suitable for complex problems about which stakeholders entertain widely different insights and that need to be solved yesterday. Its effectiveness depends strongly on the emotional involvement and sense of urgency of participants. Open Space can be combined well with, for example, a World Café or Appreciative Inquiry.

An open space meeting can take two hours to a few days and is suitabe for groups of five to more than a thousand participants.

7. Sustained Dialogue

Sustained Dialogue was developed for dealing with conflicts. Its main premise is that when people experience intractable disagreements, the quality of the mutual relationships often plays a major role in the background. Improving relationships is not something that can be done within a single session or day but rather is an unpredictable process that can extend over many sessions over a period of weeks or months.

The method was developed by the American diplomat Harold Saunders. He aimed to resolve the extremely difficult talks between US and Soviet diplomats during the Cold War. Unsurprisingly, Sustained Dialogue focuses on the quality of relationships between parties. The process usually involves the spontaneous unfolding of five stages, marked by increasing levels of commitment to work together.

Sustained Dialogue is a time-consuming method that requires an expert facilitator and is suitable for groups of 8 to 12 participants. It is worthwhile if the issue is important enough and  improvement of mutual relationships can bring a solution closer.

8. The Circle

The circle is as old as humanity itself. Forming a circle, around the campfire, sometimes engaging in conversation, sometimes in contemplative togetherness, is something that comes almost instinctively to us. Inspired by traditions of native Americans, Christina Baldwin developed three basic principles: rotational leadership, shared responsibility and a higher purpose.

A circle usually encompasses the following phases: a brief welcome, a check-in to share feelings and expectations, agreement on rules of conduct, the actual conversation, and a checkout for each participant. The host or conversation leader is assisted by a guardian who monitors the energy and keeps the conversation as close to the intent as possible. It is important that the participants abide by three crucial behaviors: speaking with intent, listening attentively and taking care of group well-being.

A circle is a good way of strengthening the commitment within a group, giving everyone an equal voice and promoting a collective way of thinking. A circle can be called once for a particular purpose or regularly. An example of the latter is a permanent leadership circle where executives share experiences and challenges. AA-meetings are also based on the principles of the circle. The ideal size of a circle is 8 to 15 people with a maximum of 30 to 35. With larger numbers, the group can be split into several small groups. Alternatively the circle can be turned into a “fishbowl”, creating an inner and outer circle.

9. Deep Democracy

Sometimes people in a group may not be saying what they really think because they feel they will not be heard or be able to exert any influence.  Deep Democracy is a facilitation methodology which is based on the assumption that there is a wisdom in the minority voice and in the diversity of viewpoints, which has value for the whole group. The approach helps to surface and give expression to what is otherwise left unsaid.

The idea behind Deep Democracy is that the greatest potential and wisdom of a group hidden lies ‘below the waterline’ in what is called the ‘undercurrent’ — the subconscious — of the group. Issues in this realm are rarely mentioned in formal settings such as a meeting but rather in water cooler conversations and the grapevine or not at all. In order to ‘lower the waterline’, Deep Democracy uses several unusual principles:

  • Don’ t practice majority democracy
  • Search for and encourage the “no”
  • Spread the “no”
  • Access the wisdom of the “no

This helps the group reach a point where the minority actually comes along and buys into a decision. When resistance to a decision continues, the fifth step is activated, whereby the facilitator “turns up the volume” on a conversation. If the discussion becomes polarised through the amplification, the group may decide to actually go into a conflict but only as a conscious means of growing and connecting. At a certain point viewpoints start to shift, individually and then at the group level, after which new space is created to reach agreement.

The key strength of Deep Democracy is in recognising the important role that emotional dynamics can play and in incorporating wisdom into decision-making. Deep Democracy is most useful in situations where: things remain unspoken, people have dug themselves in, there are many different insights and people are experiencing power differences. Obviously, Deep Democracy requires a very skilled facilitator. Many of the principles of Deep Democracy are also useful in other methods however, such as asking “what would it take for you to come along?”

10. Scenario Planning

Scenarios are plausible pictures of the future. They are created through a series of conversations, through which a group of people invent and consider stories about how the world may turn out.

Scenarios are used not so much a tool for predicting the future, but rather a process which challenges assumptions, values and mental models of various stakeholders about how uncertainties might affect their collective futures. Scenario planning encourages innovation through creating surprising possible stories of the future. In doing so they help develop new valuable knowledge. Scenarios also encourage storytelling and dialogue between people who would otherwise not necessarily share their perspectives with each other.

Scenarios are especially useful in situations of high complexity, when there is a longer term focus, and uncertainty about the external environment and when resources are available to sustain conversations over a period of time. While there are many ways of developing scenarios they usually involve an assessment of the context, identifying of key uncertainties, deriving scenarios from these uncertainties, identifying options and decision-making.

The real value of the scenario planning process is the ability to bring different stakeholders into a conversation about the future, thereby creating collective ownership of these sets of pictures, and building important relationships across differences.

Sources: Mapping Dialogue, Pioneers of Change Associates, 2006 and “De Socratische Methode”, profcoaches.nl

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