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May 5, 2012

Essential Dialogues

Reading over the recent blog entries inspired by the Move to End Violence  convening in India, I am in struck by the power and skillfulness of this cohort of leaders. Like many social change leaders, they demonstrate deep commitment towards justice. What stands out to me, however, is their openness to learn and be challenged by different ideas, and their profound inquiry into movement building or, as one of the cohort members described, how to create “a new way of life."

We all know dynamic social change leaders whose passion and commitment to a cause radiates from them, whether it’s advocating for workers’ rights, the planet’s sustainability, or any number of important campaigns. Leaders are seen as the people behind the microphone or bullhorn. The leaders in the MEV cohort also bring curiosity and powerful listening to their leadership individually and collectively. They are not just making a speech advocating for change, but engaged in a deep conversation with each other. And through this conversation able to widen their visions. In her blog, Corrine Sanchez shared, “Meaningful conversation leads to meaningful action."

How the Move to End Violence leaders share reminds me of why Essential Dialogues are an important element of the Initiative and how this exercise can apply to creating effective social change.

“Essential Dialogues” create the space for leaders to reflect on, share and generate insights to forward their work for change, and in the case of MEV, to explore core issues and tensions in the movement to end violence against women and girls. Essential Dialogues provide a container for people primarily to pay attention to HOW they show up in a conversation – their listening and engagement - and secondarily to the content. The cohort has had several opportunities to engage in Essential Dialogues – in India and in their second convening on leadership with Rockwood Leadership.

The purpose of the dialogue is to deepen connections and see beyond the limitations of each of their individual perspectives. People engaged in dialogue are invited to put aside their debate skills to explore ideas and perspectives. In the context of Movement to End Violence, the cohort crafted essential dialogues as a way to explore fundamental questions about movement building and some of the most difficult questions that stop forward motion. Based on her experience in India, Joanne Smith captured some of the core questions in her blog:

“1) How do we remain connected with “the last girl” within our movement when opportunities, education, status, money, and power move us away from the margins as individuals and as activists?

“2) How do we create a revolutionary movement that doesn’t mimic and re-create the same capitalistic structures of hierarchy, power, decision making, and allocation of resources to the “haves and have nots” of nonprofit management and movement building?”

Move to End Violence introduced a few guidelines to support cohort members in the Essential Dialogue work inviting them to:

1)      Seek to understand before being understood. As mentioned before, many social change leaders are skilled at advocating for their organization, often put in the position to struggle to make sure their voice is heard. In Essential Dialogues, leaders are invited to focus on active listening with a deep curiosity. Tom Peters, in Thriving on Chaos, explains active listening as “attending carefully to what another person says, means, intends and feels and responding in a way that lets them know that they are heard and understood.”

Being open requires that we are fully in our resourcefulness, aware of what is causing an emotional reaction (or triggering us) so that we can be present to what is being shared.

2)      Suspend judgment. For social change leaders who have deeply held values and beliefs it’s an important exercise to engage in dialogue – to not immediately evaluate what is being said by others in relationship to our beliefs or ideas.

3)      Contribute openly. Essential dialogues also require risk-taking and courage to offer our experiences and truths into the conversation.

As a result of essential dialogue, powerful, new insights and solutions that transcend core tensions are lifted up for the group to witness. I invite you to make use of these guidelines in your own conversations.

Art by lizar_tistry