Creating Deeper Dialogue in Organizations: How Understanding Comes From an Appreciation of the Person’s Past, Present & Future
In today’s hyper globalized world, we are seeing more and more challenges around engagement with complex topics like race, identity, culture and values. Social movements seen around the world suggest that the time has come to take a more serious look at the systemic dynamics that have created unfair labels, privileged perspectives, or outright discrimination within our organizations.
Through our work as a global Leadership, Development & Coaching company, we see organizations investing time thinking about these complex issues. Either explicitly through Diversity and Inclusion programs, or implicitly in the design considerations for global leadership programs.
The intentions are honourable and the desire to make a difference is real. However, as these programs grow and expand, so does the potential backlash of getting it wrong. As a consequence, we are seeing organizations taking a neutral or even avoidant approach to addressing these pressing issues and challenges. Once that metaphoric ‘lid on the can of worms’ is open, the response should to be to lean into the discomfort, not to push away.
The heart of this issue often comes down to being better able to understand meaning making for a person. In Psychology terms, “meaning-making” is the process of how people make sense of events, relationships, and Self. These are complex dynamics, built over a lifetime of experience. While offering programs about Diversity awareness and Inclusion is a step in the right direction, it is likely not deep enough for most people.
Encouraging leaders to be more empathetic and curious is important. However empowering people to discover their own meaning making systems, finding their own voice of truth to create narratives, and then sharing those narratives with others will profoundly change people’s appreciation for each other. It creates an opportunity to empower people through their own storytelling. It is a chance to celebrate our differences, and it encourages more open understanding of each other within the organizations.
How do we unpack this complex world of meaning making in organizations?
It is quite common for companies to offer programs on “The Power of Storytelling for Sales” or “Executive Presence and Leadership Effectiveness”. Using a similar approach to these programs, our storytelling focus would shift to allow participants to share how they’ve made sense of a lifetime of experiences within the framework of the following key principles:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
Beginning with a timeline exercise participants explore the whole of their lives over four key periods: Childhood, Adolescence, Early Adulthood and the Present day. Doing this allows participants to think about the early value systems that were imprinted onto them, how they began to form their own views of the world and how this was translated into their adult life and how their perspectives of ‘who am I?’ has evolved over time.
‘Sometimes to be seen is the same thing as being saved’ – Mary Rakow.
The power of sharing these reflections with others allows people to feel seen and, for many, it may feel like they are being really seen for the first time in their lives. There is power in communicating your truth and this exercise is intended to connect with that power.
‘We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.’ Australian Aboriginal Proverb
Just as the act of telling is powerful, so is the act of receiving. To really listen to another’s truth creates a sense of profound understanding. The key is to listen, understand and value the truth of another, without debate or challenge.
‘I remain convinced that most human conflicts can be solved through genuine dialogue conducted with a spirit of openness and reconciliation.’ – Dalai Lama
We are hardwired for storytelling. The beauty in sharing and understanding the truth of others is to also notice a truth within ourselves. We often look at difference as something to be feared, yet there is power in experiencing a truth so different to your own that it shifts your own understanding of yourself and your empathy towards others.
In our experience, encouraging this type of deeper dialogue exploration within organizations can be extremely powerful. Over time, these meaning making programs create such deep bonds between participants, they become sought out experiences. Eventually, the experience of these programs becomes the narrative of the organizations themselves: A place of self-discovery and a place of connectedness that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It is an opportunity to celebrate each other’s past, to create shared understanding in the present, and design a collective hope for the future.