Dialogue Walks (for Gender Equality) (incl. 4 Levels of Listening)

What is this method?

During our first cycle of the Social Lab on SDG 5 (Gender Equality) we learned that this method can be an impactful way to increase understanding and engagement for this topic. The purpose of a dialogue walk is to engage in deep dialogue, that means authentic listening and sharing.

The Intention of this Method

A dialogue walk is, from a process and method perspective, pretty straight forward. It’s two individuals taking the time for a walk where they commit to the intention to share and listen deeply for a longer-than-usual amount of time. In our journey of applying the Theory U to the challenges of Gender Equality in Switzerland it turned out that the dialogue walk was a simple yet powerful tool that the Labs Explorers used successfully in their work. Hence, the suggested process below is about giving you an idea of how you might initiate such a conversation in general but also specifically targeted to the challenges of Gender Equality.

The Process

Think of a situation, person or happening that you feel would benefit from a space of sharing and listening authentically that, in whatever way feels relevant to you, had to do with Gender Equality. It might have been something that made you feel insecure, uncomfortable or in other ways inadequate.

  1. Define a Question that you would like to genuinely explore with the respective person. Take some time to go through that situation again with a perspective that is slightly stepped back and observant, this will help you to formulate a question that will also feel open enough for the other party (to not already now have a question that puts the other person in a defensive attitude). Depending on what the situation was about, this may take a some effort from your side - stick to it as you will have the chance to share your frustrations later on. Some aspects you can take into consideration when thinking about a question:

    • Open question: Is the question really open or does it already have implicit assumptions in it? Will it invite the other party to become curious?

    • Genuine interest: Are you genuinely interested in the other parties point of view? This process is not a debate of right or wrong, it’s an exercise in relating to each other, hence it requires your genuine interest. What aspects of the other person's experience make you curious?

  2. Invite for a dialogue walk and explain the purpose and principles. This can happen through whatever means feel adequate to you (email, phone-call, SMS, …). Our invitation is for you to see if you can choose to communicate in a way that feels a little bit more out-of-your-comfort-zone than usual. This is about taking responsibility to create the atmosphere you want.

    • Genuine invitation: People are more sensitive than we think and can be suspicious about other people's intentions. Be proactive about this by being genuine in your invitation. Genuine doesn’t necessarily mean soft; genuine means you communicate in coherence with your feelings, thoughts and intentions.

  3. Create the atmosphere you would like to be in. For instance you may want to think about where and when to meet. And if you want to, where you could have a (re)generative conversation after the walk. Also you may want to think about how to frame again the conversation and be clear about your intention of sharing authentically and listening with an open heart.

  4. Enjoy!

    • Repeat the question you are wanting to explore. Mention again the purpose of listening and sharing for uninterrupted 7-12min each person. Set a timer and enjoy listening and being listened to!

  5. Follow-up

    • Either agree on the spot to follow up on your conversation within one or two weeks. Alternatively, you can first let it sink in and reach out for a follow-up later on. The follow-up can be anything simply from a thank you to an ongoing conversation and exploration where both support the other’s learning journey in this complex world to become the people we know in our hearts that we can be.

About Listening and the Experiences from the Gender Lab

Listening is probably the most underrated leadership capacity today, but listening is really at the source of all great leadership. When we see leadership failures, and today we see have many opportunities to see that, very often at the source of these failures is a lack of listening. A lack of connecting to what is really going on in reality right now.
— Otto Scharmer, Theory U

As with all of the fundamentals of human existence, there are different approaches and theories out there that have meaningful teachings about listening and speaking (think, for instance of Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent-Communication). Here, we want to use the 4 Levels of Listening from Otto Scharmer’s Theory U for reasons of consistency. Theory U is an encompassing framework, approach and practice to systems change that we, at collaboratio helvetica, use to inspire our Dialogue Evenings and Social Labs as well as our overall theory of change. The purpose of this section is for you to have some background about listening that might support your experience.

4 levels of Listening - poster -page-001.png

1. Level of Listening: Downloading

This first level of listening is characterized by listening from your habits, from what you already know. So basically you “download” your assumptions into the present situation, hence you also listen to what you already know. The result of this kind of listening is that you reconfirm your existing opinions and judgements. Now in general this can be a very helpful way of attending to the world outside. If you think for instance of an apple, you know from experience that it is a healthy and tasty item to eat, so it saves you time if you can use your previous assumptions about apples so that you don’t need to reevaluate every single time if an apple is healthy or potentially poisonous.

On gender equality

But now take the case of Gender. If you haven’t in your life had the opportunities or reasons to investigate more about gender, you may have a less nuanced understanding of it. If from you now download your existing habits of thought (e.g. there are only two genders: man and woman) into a conversation, you are going to miss out on much of the information that is more nuanced. This on the other hand will increase the chances for your conversation partner to not feel heard. Now you may start to see how quickly - and in many ways unintentionally - a situation is created that isn’t supportive of a meaningful conversation on a topic as sensitive and important as gender equality.

Similarly, you may think of the gender expert, who has invested lots of thought in gender biases and inequalities. That expert has, through training, formed an opinion about “how things are and why they are the way they are”. Now to a large degree these assumptions may be, generally speaking, very true and important. If you however, meet a person downloading these knowings onto the way you listen and therefore curate the conversation. You similarly can see that the person is not going to feel heard for their perception of truth and a defensive behavior is likely to happen. Therefore the main take-away of listening from our habits is the realisations that we have a worldview, opinions, judgments and thoughts and that if we don’t pay attention the only data that we will collect in our listening will result in re-confirming our existing habit of relating to the world.

Our lab experience

These kind of ways of listening, including their unintended negative outputs were quite present at the beginning of our collective journey. When gender,something so close to the core of our identity, is being conversed about, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to be detached from our habits of truth in order to open ourselves up to a different way of listening and learning from each other. The key ingredient was to build trust between people and safety in the space so we could feel more comfortable in letting our walls come down and embrace our vulnerability.

2. Level of Listening: Factual

When listening from level two we are starting to open our mind. That is, we start to pay attention to what is different from how we thought it is. We start to pay attention and collect disconfirming data. This level of listening is embedded in our scientific paradigm, all good sciences teaches to pay attention to disconfirming data as it is the source of innovation. The main driver of this kind of listening is curiosity.

On gender equality

In regards to gender equality you may think of factual listening this way: You are not asked to let go of your assumptions of what is happening, but you are invited to “suspend” them. To loosen the grip of what you think and to attend to what is different to what you would expect. The challenge with this kind of listening in regards to gender equality is the complexity of the topic as well as the subjectivity of perceptions. As an expert in the field you are used to a specific kind of language and analysis that allows you to interact with people that have the same background in an meaningful way. Often though, even when both are experts, our theoretical, conceptual and other backgrounds differentiate and as in any given situation there are a multitude of “truths” happening, some more interesting than others, it is likely for the conversation to turn into a debate. Now if both conversation partners are not highly attached to “being right” that debate can be fruitful. The more likely outcome however in the dynamics of debate is that we don’t end up feeling understood.

From a perspective of a non-expert in the field of gender equality being part of a debate may turn out in ways where you hold on to the facts you know and start creating “theory” around the knowledge that is available. Now imagine the classic white-male-manager who has learned in his life to defend his point of view in a culture where debate is the most present level of listening and speaking. What is the most likely pattern of behavior this person will turn towards in a topic where feelings of insecurity are very likely? The suggestion here is that while there are multiple reasons why people behave the way they do, there are some reasons you can actually do something about to achieve your purpose of having an impactful conversation. Simply put, for highly complex social issues like gender equality this source of listening is simply not good enough.

Our lab experience

It is safe to say, there was a lot of debate during the Lab. We were confronted with the way debate is hardwired in our culture. Also, it is not that easy to move to a different way of listening when there are perceptions in the space that the content of the conversation is lacking information. From the perspective of us facilitators we learned that a shared basis of data is crucial to facilitate the process of moving from factual listening to a more empathic listening. Additionally, through the intense process and given frame of four retreats of multiple days the social field started to naturally flow towards a different kind of relating to each other, partly because not doing so would have kept the group stuck. It was a very intense yet beautiful phase in which the uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity of the U-process could be experienced in a very palpable way. I think everyone involved had somewhere the question: “should I really stay or would it be better to leave?”. It speaks to the group, to the cause and to the power of our collective intention that we somehow steered through this phase. This wouldn’t have been possible without a significant shift of our quality of listening.

3. Level of Listening: Empathic

Empathic listening is where we start to see the world through another persons eyes. It is only from this level of listening where our center of attention starts to move “outside of us”. When I engage in downloading, my center of attention is within me, not noticing what is going on outside. Level two is still centered within me, but I am starting to pay attention to what is going on outside and I notice the differences to what I assumed to be true from my own experience. When practicing empathic listening the center of attention is from the experience of the other person. In fact, this allows you to gather much more information about the situation than what we might think. When seeing a situation from another persons perspective and experience I may experience feelings and thoughts I would otherwise not have connected with. It is through experiencing those feelings and perspectives that a deeper connection can unfold as the other person will start to feel heard, understood and seen as who he/she is. These levels of listening are so far well known, which doesn’t mean that we always truly practice it, but many theories and practices teach these three different ways of listening.

On gender equality

Now in the context of gender equality empathic listening isn’t always very easy for a number of reasons. One of them is that gender is very close to the heart of our identity. As such, paradoxically, we are rather blind in understanding how our own gender identity shapes our perception of reality (which is also, why gender studies are so important!). So because it is so close to our own identity it is not that easy to “detach” ourselves from it in order to see the world from another persons perspective. Another reason might also be the emotional depth that might come. Here the suggestion is that there is no meaning in comparing pain, sadness or other emotions. Rather it is part of the beauty that in connection to our own humanity we can experience difficult emotions  together.

Again, connecting emotionally and understanding how things are perceived from another person's experience does never mean that we are letting go of our own truth, though we are always invited to expand our own notion of it.So summarised, empathic listening is about opening our hearts to the profundity of human experience and through that connect with our own humanity.

Our lab experience

Since the beginning there were moments of emotional connection. Every morning, after a reading, short meditation and journaling we would do a check-in. A check-in is a circle-practice where each person would have 2-3 minutes to speak to the question “what’s on your heart & mind right now”. At the beginning this space, as it invites us to share openly about our frustrations, learnings, thoughts and other emotions, was quite challenging. With time however it started to become evident for everyone that this space as an opportunity to connect more deeply to the way each of us experiences the lab was the “kit” holding us as a peer-learning-group together when opinions and preferences differed. As a facilitator I had the chance to observe many moments that, from my perspective, were very authentic moments of sharing and relating to each other. Similarly, I could also see many cases in which we failed individually to overcome our differences, but the beauty was that as a collective we always somehow found our way to integrate each others perspectives, experiences, difficulties and frustrations. At some point, while observing the group facilitate itself, I wondered: “Might this, as an expression of inclusivity and belonging, not be what the longing beyond the issues on gender is about? Might it be that the issues of gender equality are inviting us to discover how to practice inclusivity and respect exactly when faced with what is to me “the other?”

4. Level of Listening: Generative

This fourth level of listening is something you don’t usually find in theories and practices of listening. The key difference here is that there is something happening with the center of attention. It is no longer  located in one specific person, rather the center, or source, from where the listening happens has no specific perspective anymore. It is somewhat “between” people. Otto Scharmer says in the u.Lab course on edX that the source of listening starts to happen from the field. It is in these moments when something really new can happen, as we let go of our own sense of Self and together engage in a conversation where we let come what we don’t yet know. Here we open our will to be changed by the conversation. We are really starting to see reality with fresh eyes. In generative listening we connect to an emerging future possibility.

On gender equality

In terms of gender equality there are many things that such a generative space can consist of. For the expert it may feel as if a mix of different knowings start to “fall in place” as we see what we know in abstract unfolding right in front of our eyes in real time. The mix here is crucial as it is a not a one-perspective kind of thing, but the interconnectedness of different layers of truth.

Another way to look at it is that after listening empathically to another person’s story we may ask what now? And that there is a sense of potential, a threshold, that seems just lingering below the surface. Often, when starting to connect to these kind of “raw” knowings our language isn’t as accurate as we would like it to be. We can’t really express (yet) what we mean. In a generative space people start to help each other in surfacing and concretizing a new sense of possibility. These kind of generative listening is one where after that conversation something in us feels different. The only gender equality specific suggestion that can be made here is to be gentle, forthcoming and inviting so that together you can create a space where it’s safe to express oneself in ways that are not (yet) exactly what you are meaning.

Our lab experience

In all honesty, I am not sure we actually got there. There might have been moments where we were, from my perspective, close to entering such a space. In the books I’ve read so far there is this notion that this generative space cannot be created and happens when the space and people participating in it are ready. This leads necessarily to the questions: “were we ready?”, “was I ready?”.
I can only speak about myself, and my impression was that I had learned so much in this process through which a certain kind of threshold became more and more tangible to me, but I wasn’t yet ready to meet it or cross it. I’m still inquiring into what this threshold is all about and ever since we started the Lab I am experiencing moments of insight, where I feel that a little bit more light is coming through the walls I have (and didn’t know about). If you find this language too abstract, I just now, as I was writing these lines wondered: how beautiful is the word “insight” actually? How profoundly accurate does it, as in “sight within” describe this level 4 listening kind of mystery? In the moments that I felt we were close to such a powerful conversation there was an intensity in the space, a very distinctive feeling that something can or would happen if the conversation was to be continued authentically. What this something could be felt loaded with deep beliefs, emotions and experiences. It didn’t feel like there was “something” after that. Rather it felt as if when that conversation would happen, something would be destroyed or gone. I know that for a reader who has not been part of this experience this must be very hard to relate to and I apologize for that. However, maybe, you find in your own memory and experience moments that in a weird way may have felt similar. These experiences however have teached me a lot about the strength a truly safe container must have for such a generative conversation to happen. This container is built, in my view, by the inner state of being of the intervenors, as this, in a subtle way, defines the quality of interaction between all other individuals that then can move to co-create that safe space together with the intervenors and peers.

Sources and Further Literature on the Topic