Dialogue as world-building, leadership as facilitating connection

Harnessing relationship as the root of all systems change (part 4)

Sophia Robele
14 min readFeb 16, 2023
Art by Sophia Robele

This is the final post in a series (previous ones: part 1, part 2, part 3) on the question of what it would mean for development actors, particularly in multilateral institutions or government, to treat human connection as the foundation for systems transformation. It offers five ‘entry points’ to consider where and how we might better recognize and harness the relational drivers of change in mainstream development processes.

The previous entry points spoke to some of the ‘tools’ to help us engage head-on with relationships in development contexts and intervene more intentionally with the invisible forces that shape change (beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, collaboration, courage, knowledge, etc.). They also unpacked the role of ‘community’ as the container through which we can transform the quality of relationships in order to reimagine and redistribute power at societal scales. I wanted to finish here with some entry points pertaining to the channels and capabilities through which the formation of community — specifically in service of development impact — is made possible.

4. Treat every space of dialogue as a potential site of world-building.

If we agree that community matters, we might be asking what are the mechanisms that enable us to create, sustain, and harness its power to effect change? What are the spaces where we not only build new worlds in our imaginations, but collectively practice those worlds into existence?

If we take a relational lens to transformation, where community is seen as a fundamental resource, I’d argue that dialogue is one of our most indispensable social technologies for world-building [or ‘systems transformation,’ ‘innovation,’ or whatever other language is most popular for describing the ways by which we depart from the practice of tinkering within/holding up the rules of unjust systems and actually work to overhaul/transform them to their core].

But dialogue, similar to the word community, is a concept we generally strip of its rich meaning, and subsequently fail to recognize and leverage its full potential as a catalyst for transformation. Among the prime evidences of this watering down is the dichotomies we tend to erect between words and action. It is a dichotomy that arises often in development, appearing for instance in the ways we structure our measurement frameworks or accounting structures to assess ‘value for money,’ with value ultimately equating to acts or products of ‘doing,’ and doing specifically meaning some kind of visible transfer of goods or services — thereby relegating the many forms of value creation that reside in the realm of the invisible (relational shifts, emotional shifts, expansions in perception, etc.) as the stuff of ‘not doing’.

With this kind of structural devaluation of dialogue, like other tools of the invisible, built into the fabric of mainstream development, maybe we need a new word for it — something to help break it free from the conceptual shackles so intent on keeping it in its place (i.e., far from the places where the real time- and investment-worthy ‘action-oriented’ stuff of development is). Instead of dialogue connoting the inverse or precursor to action, we need some fresh language to help apprehend and take more seriously — so that we can properly wield the power of — what is really at play in true dialogue. For instance…

Dialogue as source (of mental models, of action, of community-building, of systems changing), as bridge and connector, as generative disruptor of beliefs and assumptions, as expansion of Selves, as way to even fully see and know one’s own Self (by way of having it reflected back from many angles through the eyes of others), as how we hold each other, as hope manifested in action, as expression of love and care, as generous curiosity, as means of knowing the world, as courage-cultivator, as belonging-builder, as societal medicine, as idea and innovation incubator, as the practice of world-building, as microcosm of alternative worlds.

Clearly, this definition of dialogue I’m getting at is distinct from simply discussion, or talk or conversation. It is about a specific form of human exchange bound by a shared purpose (like community), where the ultimate goal of the exchange has nothing to do with self-gain, competition, or notions of separateness that even make it possible for someone to ‘possess’ any thought or idea as fully their own/divorced from the social. It is an act of creation — a way of arriving at novel forms of meaning that can’t be found in the minds of a single person, but are forged at the moving frontiers and intersections of the worlds that each person carries. As David Bohm describes it, what emerges from dialogue is “something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative. And this shared meaning is the ‘glue’ or ‘cement’ that holds people and societies together.

This glue or cement is also the stuff of culture: this thing that not only holds groups together, but what becomes the mold for the institutions and structures and laws and economic frameworks that either serve to maintain or transform our social reality. In this way, all our macro, systemic issues and inequities are intimately linked to the many small-scale interactions happening for the most part through words spoken or listened to: challenged through the new connections and ideas and ultimately, cultures, created via dialogue, or perpetuated by the many forms of communication too often masquerading as dialogue (or democracy) but really replicating the hierarchical protocols, zero-sum games, or power structures of the dominant systems. As described by Margaret Wheatley (2006) on applying a “quantum view” to systems change, acting locally means we are “more likely to be sensitive to the dynamics of this system.” This matters for changes at the largest of scales, as “every small system” — i.e., what every dialogue group has the potential to be — “participates in an unbroken wholeness. Activities in one part of the whole create effects that appear in distant places. Because of these unseen connections, there is potential value in working anywhere in the system.”

Getting to a place where we recognize dialogue as action and words as events (à la Ursula K. Le Guin), or where we see that what goes on in a dialogue group is a “nucleus of what’s going on in all society” (à la David Bohm) and in this, apprehend the ways new cultures — and through them, eventually and cumulatively — new worlds are built via the norms and beliefs and actions advanced by these many intertwined nuclei of society, is an important first step for development actors. Because with that recognition comes the equally necessary recognition that dialogue doesn’t happen by chance. It is not an inevitable outcome of bringing a bunch of people together around a table.

We talk so much these days in development spaces about co-creation, or participatory this or that, or collaboration, or solidarity. But so little still of the quality of the spaces we build for co-creation to happen, or the mechanisms by which we share our thinking, and share ourselves, with each other, generally via the act of dialogue, or the [mental, emotional, psycho-social, relational] conditions that dictate all of this. Co-creation doesn’t just happen because we want it to, or because people have been convened for that purpose, or even because we’ve given them scripts or step-by-step processes for their ideating. Or, maybe it is more accurate to say that yes, something might be created out of these intentions and the convening of people — but generally, what is created when we don’t examine the design of the holding space for the interactions — is innovation that ends up supporting or making minor tweaks to a status quo, or otherwise some amalgamation of discordant, individually-held ideas stacked together to look like a joint vision or agreement about how things are or should be.

There’s no pre-packaged set of protocols or singular framework for how to enable dialogue; it is ultimately a factor of the amount of intentionality we bring to it (which, though it sounds vague and minor, is kind of necessarily as specific as this work gets — requiring us to learn what it is to marry uncertainty with systematic forms of action, courage and continuous contextual learning). Intentionality is less about having a silver bullet solution or single right way: it is about being clear-headed and explicit (whether with a group or just in your own heart and mind) about the conditions or relationships or culture you are working to create, and trying things (related to the way you set the tone, ask questions, listen, invite people to know each other in new ways, etc.) until you see signs of those conditions or relationships come to fruition.

It is not a linear process, and it will look different for each context and group of people. It may involve applying some pre-made tools, techniques, practices, etc., but more important are the kinds of questions being brought to the table to start: questions about what is currently happening in a dialogue group, where and how power shows up, whose ideologies or beliefs are guiding the reasons for and modes of gathering or ways that different ideas are welcomed, what messages are being conveyed about the purpose of sharing and listening, and whose voices — or, non-verbal modes of communication — carry weight in what ways and why. It will entail questions about what safety and authenticity and belonging mean and look like for a group. And any technique or method or other intentional practice brought in will derive relevance from the extent to which it either helps build some of these conditions or helps the group to learn more about the barriers and how they might be disrupted.

As Grace Lee Boggs has said, “Both for our livelihood and for our humanity we need to see progress not in terms of ‘having more’ but in terms of growing our souls by creating community, mutual self-sufficiency, and cooperative relations with one another. Should we strain to squeeze the last drops of life out of a failing, deteriorating, and unjust system? Or should we instead devote our creative and collective energies toward envisioning and building a radically different form of living?”

What is the stuff of envisioning and building if not dialogue? And if dialogue is the home of this transformative work [that both transforms the interior condition of those within it, and the outer worlds they interact with], why would we not invest the same kind of attention, money, time, learning, experimentation, and rigor into the way we hold space for or facilitate dialogue — the way we construct the foundations of these homes — in the development spaces, communities, governments or in groups meant to be in partnership, that we do for the ways we build a technological or financial system aimed at advancing change?

5.) Invest in leadership as a capability to design conditions and connections.

If communities are the building blocks for systems transformation, and dialogue is the mechanism/channel/seat for forging community and just, flourishing cultures, then what are the types of capabilities needed to guide these processes? Do our hegemonic traditional models of leadership or governance still apply to this relationship-driven orientation to change?

For all our talk these days about systems transformation, it is telling that as institutions, we often still define leadership (explicitly, in fact, in our competency frameworks used to assess managers) as “the ability to persuade others to follow.” It’s not that this definition and model of leadership doesn’t still hold merit and relevance in organizations. The problem is that it has value for specific objectives and contexts — namely those where the goals of a group are clear from the beginning, where there is little uncertainty, where creativity is less important to the end goals than a rigidly defined efficiency, where the type of change or outputs desired are possible through linear, causal relationships between actions and results — and yet we apply this definition universally as the gold standard for any change process or leadership context.

I think we often know that leading that derives power from convincing others to follow (implying a certain hierarchy of influence and value, with one person or group having the idea and direction and others best serving the whole by conforming to and reinforcing that singular vision and direction) clashes with the kinds of principles and values talked about in contexts where systems transformation is the goal. In these contexts, we talk about the necessity of things like plurality of ideas, justice and equity, trust, collective ideation and creation, power sharing, distributed but interconnected decision-making and action, etc., but attempt to cultivate these qualities in our processes via the same authoritarian, command and control, hierarchical leadership styles used to reinforce order, constrain divergent thought, and minimize disruption (again, not as inherently negative things, but things which have their time and place). We feel the tensions of this misalignment when, for instance, we bring a wide diversity of players into a co-creation space and present them with a challenging question or an exercise for collective brainstorm, and see the ways that the same kind of people speak more than others, or the same kinds of solutions or critiques perpetually re-surface. We rationalize this dynamic not as a problem of leadership, but a problem of the capacities or cooperation of those being led.

“Every time people are gathered together, the hegemony of dominant culture is playing out unless there is an intention to be/do otherwise.” — Sage Crump

What’s the alternative?

There’s a proliferation these days of thought leadership and academic publications (often built on the wisdoms of many ancient traditions) in development, public policy or organizational management spaces on ‘new’ models of leadership that might be better suited to deep change work. While I have mixed feelings about the repackaging of wisdom usually originating from systematically marginalized populations into the language and frameworks viewed as most legitimate to hegemonic systems, I also recognize that there is generally some bridge-building required to allow those wisdoms to even be let into the sites of power in the first place, long enough to disrupt the status quo and enable the recognition that alternative ways of being and doing might be more fruitful. With this caveat in mind, I think one useful frame for multilateral organizations and governments to consider when it comes to re-examining the capabilities and modes of leadership useful to processes of systems change is the discipline of “systemic design.”

For me, systemic design embodies a kind of bridge between the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of transformation rooted in recognition of interconnectedness, and the kinds of development and innovation world jargon, and propensity to trust frameworks and principles as more solid and scientific then wisdom that resides in the form of lived experience or storytelling. In practical terms, putting potential judgments of right or wrong-ness aside, if adding some fancy words and academic publications to processes and ways of thinking that have long existed in many communities helps them to be taken more seriously by development actors, it’s worth trying (as long as done in ways that are mindful of origins and compel those with power to reflect back on their assumptions and behaviours, as opposed to reinforcing the extraction from and exclusion of people who practice these epistemologies).

Systemic design, per Bijl-Brouwer and Malcolm (2020), is a discipline that shifts the focus of development processes from the “individual to consider human relations,” looking more at “relationships between stakeholders rather than needs and aspirations of individual participants.” It is a perspective that “focuses on designing conditions, infrastructures, or enabling platforms that promote the emergence of new behavior and learning within human relationships, as well as the behavior and learning of the social system as a whole.” It can be a useful frame in particular for thinking through what is needed from a leader of a systemic design process (i.e., any process that aims to work at the level of root causes or build new types of societal structures), placing much more emphasis on leadership as the work of condition- and possibility-building: as making room for others’ creativity and uniqueness to both flourish and feed off each other to serve a shared vision.

Another articulation of, or reference for unpacking the competencies vital to, systems leadership might be found in the domain of facilitation. In her book Holding Change, adrienne maree brown defines facilitation as “making it as easy as possible for groups of people to do the hard work of dreaming, planning, visioning, and organizing together.” It unsettles some of the implicit myth that permeates so many of places of power (e.g., those in charge of designing policies or services that affect the masses) that the most that can be done to be ‘participatory’ is to invite people to share their visions or dreams or solutions, or call on them to collaborate with each other or those in power. It instead asserts that those who seek to lead have a role in removing the myriad roadblocks that make that work so difficult [especially in such inequitable and unjust societies]. As the Interaction Institute talks about, the kinds of capabilities geared towards navigating 21st century problems might include “building relationships and trust across boundaries (geographic, cultural, disciplines), understanding existing patterns of connection and what these facilitate in terms of outcomes and possibilities, creating space for open conversation and emergent thinking, valuing contributions over formal credentials, and embracing diversity and divergence.”

In other words, facilitative leadership requires a different skillset and way of relating to people and possibility than more conventional notions of leadership that take the individual — and individual empowerment and mindset shifts — or top-down persuasion as the primary mechanisms of influence. Making it not just feasible in theory, but as easy as possible for a group to imagine together, to organize, to learn and build together, means having a pulse on all the invisible dynamics present in norms, culturally-shaped perceptions, beliefs, power differences, fears, and the relational threads that influence all of these. While too extensive a topic to get into here, one value of the emergence of a discipline like systemic design is that it has meant access to more research and papers attempting to capture what some of these skills and mindsets are, based on real world case studies of social change (e.g., see The Dawn of System Leaders or Systemic Design Principles in Social Innovation).

And while not everyone in a development organization, or even every formally designated leader/manager, will or should become a facilitative leader or a systemic designer as their primary or explicit role or profession, immense potential lies in organizations investing much more in the capability and mindsets that underly the practices of facilitation and systemic design. This might for some mean creating more dedicated roles for facilitators, or people who are less subject matter experts, more experts in human connection building. But it could equally mean elevating some of the principles of systemic design via the kinds of expectations and accountability measures communicated to leaders and managers involved in systems transformation work, or through the kinds of trainings and practice opportunities offered to personnel.

I hope this series and five entry points for re-centering what is in fact already central to the functioning and outcomes of systems, whether or not we choose to see and engage with it — human connection and the quality of relationships — has provided a bit of food for thought. In the development spaces I’m in these days, it feels like a topic we are increasingly circling, or like some hunger we are finding harder to ignore but still don’t quite yet know how to feed. I sense that many times it’s that we don’t even have the right words, or common language, to talk about the source of the pangs, and so continue to talk instead about the symptoms. Or we struggle to connect our acknowledgment of the need with the structures and tangible frameworks that govern our work and resource flows. The learning ahead to bridge these divides feels vast, but the growing number of people rejecting the seductive illusion of control promised by development paradigms that obscure the centrality of human connection — even with all the hard conversations and uncertainty entailed in this alternative path — is encouraging.