Active Listening & Personal Connection

An entry point to a new kind of discussion on Gender Equality

Today there is no shortage of research, tools and analysis on the importance and implications of gender (in-)equality in our society and workplaces. However, as we all know, progress is difficult and slow. Why?

When we engage with gender equality only at an intellectual level, analyzing facts, figures and reports, we take the position of neutral scientists who observe an external problem, an issue that is “out there”, only relevant to a few (women or minorities).  But this positioning could well be the main problem, because I can’t think of a more personal and emotional issue than gender.  There is a big gap between our intellectual understanding of the “problem”, and the personal connection we all have to gender as it shapes our identity and life experience.

I believe that bridging this gap is an essential entry point for real change to happen. The motivation and will to do something about a situation comes from realizing that we have an active part to play in it.

My biggest aha-moment from my experience in collaboratio helvetica’s Social Lab on Gender Equality is captured in the drawing on the left: I realized that by not speaking up when I felt or saw gender inequality, I was part of sustaining the system I wanted to change. The “gender inequality situation” of our society was no longer just an observable reality around me. I was an integral part of it and had to start working from within, by challenging my own assumptions and behavior.

Otto Scharmer, the founder of Theory U states that, “You cannot change a system (in this case: gender inequality) unless you transform consciousness”. And, “You cannot transform consciousness unless you make the system sense and see itself.” Which, in this case, means allowing people to experience how they are an active part of shaping the current gender (in-)equality situation, whether they want to or not.

So how did we become a system that would “sense and see itself”? And what led me to this aha-moment? The fact that with the 20 participants of the GenderLab, from all over Switzerland, we consciously shared our personal experiences, hopes and fears related to the topic and engaged in deep listening and dialogue with each other and with the stakeholders we interacted with.

To do so, we used many methods and tools, and I want to share one of them with you called the Dialogue Walk. It is a very simple yet powerful exercise of active listening that we used in the lab and that I have used since in several gender equality workshops. You can use in your own change initiative, be it with gender equality or something else.

Dialogue Walk: what is it?

The dialogue walk allows people to connect with a topic on a more personal level and to form deeper connections with each other. This can be a powerful entry point to start bridging the gap between the intellectual understanding of an issue “out there”, and the personal connection to the topic that is “right here”, or we could say “in here”.

The best way to understand this is to experience it. So here are the instructions:

  1. Find someone you want to explore this topic with and plan a 20 minute walk together. If you are facilitating this exercise, ask people to form pairs.

  2. Formulate a powerful question on the topic you are dealing with and write it down for both of you. For example, a question I have used in a workshop on gender equality is:

    —> How did my own relationship with gender equality evolve? What were some of the key experiences of this topic on my own journey and how do I relate to gender equality right now?

  3. Go on a walk together. Each person will have 7 min. to answer and reflect upon the question and share as much or little as they want. The listener’s task is to simply listen, without making any comments or asking any questions. Decide who will be the first to share. Make sure you keep the time and when the 7 minutes are over, reset the timer and switch roles.

  4. Spend a few more minutes to debrief, by sharing what you learned or what surprised you about this exercise.

Learnings & observations from this exercise

Here are a few quotes from participants who have practiced this dialogue walk within a gender equality workshop:

  • “These 7 minutes enabled me to get to know my colleague in more depth than ever before in the 2 years that we have been working together.”

  • “The fact that I was listened to for the entire 7 minutes was powerful and unusual.”

  • “It was hard but also relieving to just listen.”

  • “I didn’t realize that gender equality was an issue, until I listened to my partner.”

I hope this exercise will help you to discover a deeper and more personal connection with your colleagues as well as the topic you are dealing with. I’d be curious to hear about your experience with it!


The author:


Anna Krebs works in facilitation, organizational development and gender equality. Through her work she wants to help create ripples of positive and sustainable change. Her aim as a facilitator is to enable equal participation, co-creation and learning. She was a participant of the first cycle of the collaboratio helvetica Gender Lab