What is at the Heart of Creative Dialogue?

What is creative dialogue?

When we refer to the term “dialogue” we are usually suggesting a richer and deeper outcome to a conversation; one that is open and sincere. We expect more from dialogue than we do from an ordinary conversation, discussion or debate. In dialogue, we expect the means to be collaborative and the outcome to be a new sense of mutual understanding as a result of the exchange of giving and taking.

Rather than resolving conflicts, which is when dialogue is usually invoked, in creative dialogue we enter the exchange with the intention of getting to the nub of a problem so we can frame our creative questioning around it. We do this to avoid barking up the wrong tree and generating creative ideas around the symptoms of a problem and not the problem itself. Finding the right problem to solve is the purpose of creative dialogue.


What are the skills involved in creative dialogue?

When we engage in creative dialogue we enter into the conversation fully expecting to release any hold an idea may have on our ego and identity. We agree to release it when a better idea comes along. We examine our assumptions and biases and, willingly admit, “Oh, that’s something I need to correct.” We re-examine long-held beliefs and become aware of their foundations. When they are faulty we replace them with wiser, truer, more relevant beliefs. That’s hard. We also listen without judgement. All we want to do is understand and bring to the surface of our awareness that which challenges us. That’s even harder, but, in the end, it’s so worthwhile.


How is creative dialogue different from other forms of conversation?

Dialogue is about learning from others. It’s about finding a basis for agreement: “Yes, that’s the real problem we’re trying to resolve.” We aim to find new possibilities and opportunities. One doesn’t “win” a dialogue; one seeks to contribute a little piece of an idea to help contribute to an eventual answer and together arrive at a shared meaning. As Herodotus said, “When two go together, one sees before the other and both are wiser in thought, word and deed.” The funny thing about dialogue, however, is, it’s not about talking at all. The heart of creative dialogue is listening.

Not just tuning in but deep listening where we let go of the needy noise that’s simultaneously going on in our heads as others speak. “How am I going to respond without looking foolish?” “I don’t like his attitude.” “I feel slighted by that comment.” “Who does that bag-of-donuts think he is?” Listening involves letting go of that insecure chatter and forcing ourselves into the moment with a freed mind —nothing should be there to interfere with what we’re hearing — that distracts us from what is actually being said. We become empty. And that’s scary.

Here’s what has happened in my life with that emptying. And it’s not so bad. If I’m going to spend a few hours or weeks with a group, I like to know who’s out there. So, when they enter the room for the first time, I’m there greeting them, introducing myself and meeting each one. I repeat each person’s name to confirm I’ve got it right. Then, before we start our work together, I’ll go around the room, naming everyone. The largest group I’ve ever “named” was in a course on Entrepreneurship with eighty-eight students.   I’ve never tested myself on a larger group. I had fun with that one year by giving a challenge to the person who could repeat my ‘trick’ and get more names right than I did. One young woman came close.


What are the benefits of deep listening in creative dialogue?

Now, I don’t mention this story to brag to you, but, rather, to explain the benefits of the skill of deep listening. Students would ask me how I did it. Did I use mnemonics? Location in the room? Associations of any sort? And, honestly, all I did was empty my mind of the chatter, and release my desire to impress with something witty in reply. I literally surrendered to an empty mind trusting that I’d know what to say ‘after’ I listened to what the person had to say and not before. And, the odd thing was, which was and still is incomprehensible to me, I remembered. Deep listening enhanced my memory.


What is the role of the leader who wants to lead creative dialogue through deep listening?

Relinquishing the psychological attachments we tend to create around the ideas with which we align requires safety. If I concede to another’s idea, I need to feel secure that I’m not going to be left feeling rejected as a result of ‘losing an argument,’ but rather, I need to feel I have contributed to reframing an idea. Since everyone or anyone might have a significant slice of the truth, my leader has to make sure that I have an opportunity to hear everyone’s thoughts. Everyone must have an equal voice. If some people are too shy, they must have an opportunity to reflect, write down their thoughts and offer them up in a format that suits their contributions. Nor do I want my idea to be judged too soon. When I offer it, I want it to dangle for a moment. If it resonates with another idea, then someone might pick it up and build upon it. If not, we simply move on without inferring I’m a knucklehead for having offered it. It’s that judgement thing rearing its ugly head again.


What is the role of the participant in creative dialogue?

As a participant in a creative dialogue it is up to me to pay attention, to empty my mind and to listen to the verbal as well as non-verbal expressions of intent, to follow, and be actively silent. It’s also up to me to reflect upon what I’ve heard, affirm I understand, discover themes and underlying patterns, ride through the messy stage of ambiguity, check my assumptions and arrive on the other side, no matter what we create together


How might we engage in creative dialogue?

The following ground-rules prove useful for getting results through Creative dialogue. [adapted from the work of Herdes and Stockton.]


Ground –Rules for Creative Dialogue: The Mobius Model[1]

  • When others speak, listen to understand, not to agree or disagree.
  • If you don’t understand the viewpoint of another, ask questions of clarification (not a challenge) before offering your own point of view.
  • When you speak about a difference you have with another, first say what you agree with, and then how you understand their point of view. Ask if you have understood them, when they confirm that you do, offer your own viewpoint.
  • If you are tempted to repeat yourself, or to withdraw, because others don’t seem to understand, first check your understanding of the others’ viewpoint. (Very often, when you feel misunderstood is an indicator that the other feels misunderstood as well.)
  • When everyone agrees mutual understanding is present, look together for new possibilities. If you see a new way of understanding the situation, express it and ask if others see it too.
  • Explore new commitments for action that may now be possible.



[1] Herdes, Marjorie and Stockton, William, Ph.D., (May 4, 2011). “Ground-Rules for Creative Dialogue,” Mobius, Inc.: Partners for Strategic Change.

2 thoughts on “What is at the Heart of Creative Dialogue?”

    1. Hi again David,
      Another great source if David Bohem’s slim volume called, “On Dialogue.” Enjoy.

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