As most of you will know, I am really big on dialogue, and both Maria and I teach students how to develop a deeper awareness of dialogue and the conversations they have in their workplaces. And so it was that a few weeks ago I discovered a book called Life Changing Conversations: 7 Strategies for Talking About What Matters Most by organisational psychologist Sarah Rozenthuler.
Of course I was curious and checked out her website, upon which watching her video I immediately realised that this was my friend Sarah who I had studied Psychology with at Nottingham University as the 80s turned into the 90s, and also shared a rather crazy student house, along with three other friends of ours.
And so I dropped Sarah a note to say congratulations on her book, I ordered a copy and I am delighted to say that not only is it is an absolutely excellent introduction to the topic of dialogue, based on a number of philosophers of dialogue such as David Bohm, Bill Isaacs and Peter Garrett (who Sarah has worked with), but it is also deeply spiritual, reflected in the fact that the foreword is written by author Neale Donald Walsch who many of you will already know.
Being of our generation, with no Facebook etc, we lost contact, and so it was funny to read Sarah’s introduction and first chapter, where she shares her story of transition from a teenager wanting to study architecture, to student of psychology, to a street entertainer travelling through Europe and then back into the world of work where she joined the civil service as a chartered psychologist.
In 1990 or 1991 I remember a friend coming round to our house with a video which was an animation of the Mandlebrot set, which Sarah may or may not have also watched. I do remember reading James Glieck’s Chaos, but my memory from this period is etched with the insistence from our professors in the truth of Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker.
Unlike me Sarah took a year out after her second year to gain practical experience working for an occupational psychology consultancy. In chapter one we discover that in Sarah’s final year, one of our professors gave up psychology to pursue research and study in complexity science, a new discipline which was emerging out of the Santa Fe Institute. And so while I just missed out on this growing interest, at this early stage it is obvious that Sarah understood the ramifications for psychology, human behaviour and dialogue, insights which she deftly weaves into her instructional narrative. I love her description of complexity science and chaos theory as “science grappling with life in the real world”.
While Sarah decided not to take up the offer of a PhD but to travel Europe for some years, I became a professional psychologist at BT Laboratories, specialising in Human Factors and customer experience design. I had to wait until 2009 when I studied complexity and chaos on my masters degree at Schumacher College to catch up with Sarah, but herein lies another connection, in that my professor of hermeneutics and phenomenology was Henri Bortoft, himself a post-graduate student of David Bohm.
The work coming out of Santa Fe Institute had clearly had an impact on Sarah’s thinking, contemplations which had allowed her to make sense of the chaos and uncertainty in her life:
In Spain, when I struggled with the messiness of life on the road, I often found myself going back to what I’d learned about uncertainty as a catalyst for accelerated evolution. As my own life teetered on the proverbial edge of chaos, I took comfort from the fact that this is where the true evolution of complex systems occurred. When I framed the fluidity of my life (which felt like a complex system to me) as the perfect environment for learning, I could embrace the experience instead of heading back to England defeated.
Through her continued interest in complexity science, Sarah attended a workshop at a think tank based at the London School of Economics, where a colleague of her mentioned that if she was interested in complexity science, she should also investigate the emerging field of dialogue, since “it’s all about how interactions between people can create new and unexpected futures”.
In the first chapter Sarah absolutely nails the pivotal role dialogue plays in the difference between successful innovative organisations, and those which are not. Time and again I see these dynamics play out, and at this stage in my career it is amazing to me how little time and effort is spent inside organisations dedicated to improving and mastering the art of conversation and dialogue.
Sarah defines what marks a conversation as:
- Everyone who is present participating
- Each person says what’s true for them
- Everyone is listened to
- People talk about what really matters
- No one tries to control where the conversation goes
- People respect each other’s differences
This list seems innocuous enough but clearly we as humans have not yet mastered these aspects of conversation, a situation made worse when there is an absence of human values in the culture of the organisation or group.
The good news, as Sarah says, is that good conversational skills can be learnt. Sarah has many years as a dialogue consultant, working with thousands of professionals over the last ten years. As someone who also participates in the development of organisational dialogue, I can really say that Sarah’s deep professional experience really shines through in her writing.
I know this has been a slightly idiosyncratic introduction to Life Changing Conversations, but this is the nature of my book reviews. In Part Two I will look at some of the insights, describe the seven conversational shifts and talk more about the many practical tools and techniques which Sarah describes.