Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Dialogue and the group journey

As a group embarks upon a journey into dialogue it evolves through various phases of maturity. Ideally, the group has the time and consistency in its membership for this journey to flow and even be catalysed. Understanding the stages and not being concerned at the first signs of discomfort can help the group move forward bravely through each. They are all necessary and each has its purpose and place.

Phases of dialogue

From C Otto Scharmer 1998

Phase 1 - politeness

This phase is typified by civility, maintaining face and repression of free expression among the members of the group. People begin to realise that you can’t just make dialogue happen. Those who are action-oriented experience a high degree of frustration.

This frustration leads to crisis and breakdown, but the crisis serves as a turning point and a gateway to a time of deeper silence and deeper listening. The crisis has to be gone through if the group is to come out the other side. Resistance can stop real change taking place. Serious conversation will bring on the crisis as it challenges our sense of beliefs, values and even our identity. It can be triggered by someone commenting on what Senge called the ‘undiscussables’ or the elephant in the room. Or it can be triggered simply by commenting on the process.

The crisis leads us to realise that our expectations are not going to be met. No one person has the answers; on the contrary, knowledge arises from the shared experience of the collective. We alone cannot fully control the outcome – we are all, together, responsible. No expert can help here. We enter stage 2...

Phase 2 - breakdown

In this phase people begin to say what they think. By now there is a container that can begin to hold the intensity and pressure; the instability can be handled. People adopt move-oppose sequences, taking of positions and battling. This can be either a time of creative challenging or one of recycling of old memories and viewpoints. The group faces the challenge of changing the meaning of the trauma that arises, both individually and collectively. They need to find a way to cool down the exchange so that the entire group can move into more fluid enquiry and reflection.

Some groups get stuck here and revert to politeness. There is a quest for new rules and ways of operating, but instead there is breakdown. The dominant emotion is anger, because people find they can’t make dialogue happen and can’ get anyone to agree with them. And there may be some deeper sources.

But this anger is a fuel for change. Self reflection is required to stop it collapsing into blame and to help move it forward. People need to come to the realisation that ‘I am not my point of view’ – I can make space for others without jeopardising my inner stability. Suspending personal views opens the space for more advocacy (putting views across) but, more importantly, enquiry (seeking to understand others).

Phase 3 - inquiry

In this phase, the quality shifts. People stop talking about others or the group and share more of themselves. Not so much about their stance, but about how their thinking got them there. They are reflective about themselves and about the impact they are having. People become more aware of their assumptions and are willing to share them. They see each other as people, not as positions, as they did in Phase 2. New meaning can unfold collectively, which leads immediately to a shift in people’s intentions to act. Insight leads directly and effortlessly to a shared motivation. The crisis in this phase centres on overcoming fragmentation. There is a loosening of beliefs about who one is and what the group is about – separateness becomes wholeness. A collective identity emerges and the group moves into a space where there is more fluidity and creativity than ever...

Phases 4 - flow

Groups rarely get to this phase, but when they do there is an experience of ‘flow’ and there is heightened alignment and connection. People speak their thoughts freely and are heard without judgement. One person happens to think of something and another says it. Creativity is high. People feel and act as part of a whole. The group generates new rules for interaction and new possibilities come into being.

People are both servants of and participants in the emerging flow of meaning. They learn to access the parts of themselves that have not yet had a voice and to speak more presently, from the heart, than from recorded memory. According to Bohm (1996), ‘people are ...participating in this pool of common meaning which is capable of constant development and change’.

The final crisis is in returning to the world one left to join the dialogue, to a space that ‘does not have the magic that dialogue has’. But it is necessary and important. And it is possible to bring back with you the self-reflective capability from Phase 3 so that you can be more aware of what is happening between people and appreciate the structures of people’s thinking – rather than jumping in and trying to fix.