How do we Design with Dialogue? (Revisiting the MIT Dialogue Project)

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April 2014 DwD – DwD as a core practice: How do we (actually) Design with Dialogue?

Where can we find design in dialogue? How might we design more productive dialogue and how does dialogue shape design?

Donald Officer and Natalie Zend shared with the community a meta-inquiry into the core practices of dialogue as a method for design and design as an orientation guiding dialogue. These questions were explored and experience within the frameworks of William Isaacs’  four fields of conversation — from downloading and debate to reflective and generative dialogue. (See the inset figure for the shift from normative politeness and “expected conflict” of discussion to the practice of reflective and generative dialogue.)


We live in an era of pervasive communications technologies where it seems infinitely easier or smarter to retrieve stored thoughts than to think on our own in real time; to download from a vast image bank than to imagine for ourselves.

Is it possible we might recover the capacity to both think mindfully and envision creatively by rediscovering how to think and feel together?  Don related the possibility of dialogue practice to David Bohm, the quantum physicist who saw how science forces us to perceive the universe as comprising disparate parts and an integrated whole at the same time, we can come to appreciate how much more we know than we think.

William Isaacs, working with colleagues like Otto Scharmer at MIT, translated Bohm’s core insights into the four-field framework and context we will explore together in this reflectively interactive session. We anticipate during this DwD you will appreciate how through dialogue our true connectedness becomes much more than aspirational idealism.









Bringing the four core practices to life: Listening, Respecting, Suspending, Voicing
Natalie and Don used a talking stick to guide the group through the dialogue process. Natalie prepared the group through a short contemplative practice and Donald briefed us on the various components of dialogue. The process was very intentional with the taking stick being passed around the entire circle over a period of an hour. The discussion was prompted by the question, how can we design with dialogue? What is your experience in designing with dialogue towards a common goal? What challenges have you faced?

Several common threads emerged through our own reflection on the role of design in dialogue, and the role of dialogue in design. These included our own experiences as designers, the role of dialogue in our own professional work and how the current design of our political system prohibits dialogue.

In our final reflection we discussed whether reflective or generative dialogue occurred in our circle. We discussed on whether we through the stage of downloading – “talking nice” and debating – before we reached reflective dialogue. We reflected that by one participant contributing a challenging view, it allowed the group to deeper into their own experience and the conversation became more reflective. One participant observed that the quality of her participation was determined by her own awareness of her reactions, and self-reflection.

The challenge with our circle is that we did not have a final goal or problem to solve. Although, we were weren’t sure if generative dialogue occurred, we agreed that the conversation would have become richer with more time or if we were focused on a particular issue or problem to design for. Thanks Natalie and Don for teaching us the core principles of dialogue and illustrating through our collective experience how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


Live sketch created by Patricia Kambitsch as visual reflection of contributions in circle dialogue.

 Hosts Bios

Donald Officer, MA, helps organizations, leaders and individuals engage in processes they rely on to work and live effectively to full potential. With his 30 plus years of experience providing education, technology, business and public sector organizations with both strategic and practical support services, he turns to a kit of skills including coaching, facilitation, training and consulting. As a strategic thinking practitioner, Don melds consulting, facilitating, dialogue practice, and emerging research models to cross many disciplines in helping clients anticipate unprecedented scenarios, dilemmas or opportunities.

Natalie Zend, MA, is an international trainer and facilitator with 15 years’ experience in international development, focusing on human rights approaches to programming for children and youth. She facilitates processes and holds space for local and global change-makers working toward a just, sustainable and thriving society, empowering and inspiring them to co-create with each other and with life as it wants to sustain itself through them. She is a co-founder of Unify Toronto, and co-organizer with Peter Jones of the Unify Toronto Dialogues, a monthly gathering to nourish, connect and inspire Toronto change-makers.

Playing to Change the World: The Oasis Game

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How can we play to change the world? How can we, in the process, help a collective socio-cultural, environmental and economic dream materialize?

Returning from Warriors Without Weapons – a 32-days intensive leadership training program in Brasil, Dona Geagea shared the philosophy and magic behind The Oasis Game.

The Oasis is a game and, today, a movement that is emerging out of Brasil, based on the Elos Philosophy that practices 7 disciplines: Gaze, Affection, Dream, Care, Miracle, Celebration, and Re-evolution.

A transformative process that begins with the self and extends to community, the Oasis is designed on the premise that our world is full of “deserts”- areas where social and environmental vitality have been destroyed- and where change can offer hope, stability, and refuge for weary travelers crossing the desert. How can this game open space for personal and collective transformation, effectively, quickly and with the engagement of all players?

Thirty brave souls found us for this session to put their beings into The Oasis Game and experience its underlying philosophy first hand through storytelling and activities to practice the seven disciplines.

Warrior Gaze

Learn more at: Warriors without Weapons

Warrior Circle“On the warrior’s path, it is up to you to discern which threads have been woven by divine hands and which have been woven by human hands.  When you begin to discern the difference, you become a Txucarramae- a warrior without weapons… When you discover what you have been doing with your life and how it is you dance through the world, little by little you let go of your weapons, those creations made to kill creations. Suddenly, you discover that when we stop creating enemies, we extinguish the need for weapons” – Kaka Wera, Guerreiros Sem Armas











Dona opening the circle after bringing all participants in, one by one.










Everyone plays together for 10 minutes, creating a totally new environment in Lambert Lounge .


Dona Geagea is Hub Manager with Waterlution Canada and social entrepreneur behind Beyond the Jar.  As a facilitator and change-maker, Dona pushes her own creativity and innovation through what she offers to the community, and her experience in the Warriors Without Weapons international leadership training program was part of this spectacular and transformative learning journey. With a Master in Globalization Studies and a Graduate Diploma in Water Without Borders from the United Nations University (Institute for Water, Environment and Health), Dona is continuously engaging the water community in multi-stakeholder dialogue, locally and internationally, and hosting inspiring spaces to encourage systems-thinking. Through developing her own capacity at promoting creative disruption, she hopes to motivate others by the power of innovative ideas to change the water space and beyond.  She is thrilled to be able to share with the Design with Dialogue community stories and processes from her transformative journey in Warriors Without Weapons/ Guerreiros Sem Armas.


Bridging Polar(ized) Perspectives

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Enabling a productive dialogue on climate change

How do we have productive conversations about climate change with people whose views are different from our own? Can conducting the climate change conversation at a local community level help to forward the national dialogue?

For some of us the implications of climate change are so urgent that they demand immediate action. For others of us, global warming produces a wide range of responses including apathy, guilt, fear, boredom or vigorous opposition. How do we restart a conversation that has become so polarized?

February’s session (our third now at The Moment studios) started with an exercise to identify values and principles concerning climate change to discover how our selected language might distance others.  In groups we explored barriers to communication and countering these barriers with questions and bridges. A variety of strategies were explored for effective climate change communication.

The Host: Sheila Murray is a writer, documentary filmmaker and communications specialist.
She has an MA in Immigration and Settlement Studies where her research focused on climate change migrants. Sheila believes that climate change can be a catalyst for significant social and cultural change. Her communications model encourages individuals to engage in small-group dialogue about climate change with people like themselves. As they engage they will connect with others who are already working on numerous climate change issues and solutions and may even become part of a civic community that supports those actions.

Deep Democracy

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Deep Democracy: Transforming Conflict into Collaboration

By Leah Snyder -  Mixed Bag Mag

Idle No More made Canadians more aware that there is some tough dialoguing to be done around the historical as well as the present day impact of broken treaties and residential schools. Many people have become entrenched around the issues of land and resources. As someone who writes about contemporary Canadian culture, including both Immigrant and Indigenous perspectives, I am interested in exploring how best to facilitate spaces of understanding between disparate positions which is why I was drawn to Design with Dialogue’s January event.

Deep Democracy is well…deep! Because of the complexity of the methodology the evening’s facilitator, Violetta Ilkiw, was only able skim the surface as to how it works. Violetta explained “facts don’t convince people.” If they did geopolitical spaces would easily shift to become more humane places.

So if facts don’t motivate people towards solutions what does? In a nutshell Deep Democracy is about emotionally moving people towards a place “where the polarities drop away momentarily”. DD is about arriving there to then sit with intent, hold that moment and use it as a way to bring us (safely) out of our entrenched positions. This is where I believe DD shows promise as a tool for facilitation – it understands the role that the dynamics of energy play and offers a methodology to shift the energy.

It sounds simple, and in a way it is. It has a lot to do with storytelling and having people share their own stories in order to find common ground – children, homeland, loss and abandonment. When storytelling is combined with the acknowledgement of the importance of energy dynamics, DD facilitators can work to move pain, trauma, and fear out of the body quite simply by moving the body. Subtle, unconscious, non-verbal cues are monitored by the facilitator and participants are encouraged to physically move during the sessions. One such exercise is the Soft Shoe Shuffle.

“involves a group standing around and someone makes a statement, typically in response to a powerful question put to the group. When someone makes the statement all other people either move towards that person if they agree with it, or move away from the person if they disagree with it…” (The Art of Hosting website)

During the exercise the participants may ‘shuffle’ back and forth between the person making the statement and someone else offering a counter argument. The purpose of the Soft Shoe Shuffle is to demonstrate that our positions are not fixed – we can be fluid and also truthful about how we feel. This fluidity allows us to understand our pliability around varying perspectives including those that arrive from inside ourselves.

Again, this may sound simple but when it comes to people taking a position out of emotion rather than making their decision based on facts you are dealing with individuals in a vulnerable state, perhaps feeling that if they show weakness in their convictions they are, in a way, internally threatening themselves. We are emotional beings often engaging in the world through our fears and desires – that’s a fact! If we can find a methodology of facilitation that accommodates this then there is power to move (emotional) mountains.


Sketchnotes by Charlotte Young

About the Session

Conflict is a common aspect of all our lives. Deep Democracy is a conceptual framework for analyzing group dynamics and conflict, and a set of methods for facilitating group interactions. In Deep Democracy, conflict is seen as an opportunity for growth and transformation.

The process of Deep Democracy values diverse leadership, bringing to the forefront voices that are not usually heard or can become lost in traditional decision-making models. The process focuses on the health and quality of participation – not just on how many people participate.

Deep Democracy training relies on building self-awareness, empathy and honesty. It is one of the few methods of facilitator training that focuses both on facilitator development and on tools and methods for facilitating conflict. The process helps us become stronger collaborative leaders, access the strength of any group, surface conflict and work toward more holistic community & group outcomes.

For January, the first event of the 2014 DwD series, we explored:

  • The basic principles of Deep Democracy
  • Ways and steps toward conflict resolution
  • Ways to explore conflict within ourselves
  • How to utilize these basic skills to ground ourselves as facilitators, in working with conflictual situations whether these are interpersonal, in small groups or in organizations.
Violetta Ilkiw brings 20+ years of facilitation experience, with a particular interest and focus on participatory multi-stakeholder processes. Her work is grounded in adult education principles, Art of Hosting & process design, and she is driven by a desire to see fundamental systemic shifts and change, ultimately resulting in healthier communities. Violetta has also acted as senior consultant to the Laidlaw Foundation for the past 14 years, and has been integral to bringing strategic vision, design, innovation and increased collaboration into the Foundation’s work with young people. Violetta is currently in the final year of a 3-year Masters in conflict facilitation and organizational change at the Process Work Institute in Portland, OR.

Framing Four Perspectives on Mental Wellness

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DwD 11.13.13

Adapting a method we call an Innovation Town Hall, November’s Design with Dialogue explored the landscape of campus and community mental wellness, the innovation of responsive care, and the experience of health services. The session was organized as a collaboration with OCAD University’s Health and Wellness Centre as part of their service design to provide a positive, growthful experience with students and clients. Recent campus dialogues and news stories have contributed to deepening our understanding of the student experience of emotional and mental health in learning and dealing with stresses and growth. Partnering with the Wellness Centre in a community-focused DwD, students, faculty, and professionals joined to explore the experience and struggles of mental health and the enhancement of health services.

Several significant questions were introduced as starting points:

  • How can we move beyond the conventional views of mental health and learn from each other?
  • Are there innovations in community and social health that might enhance awareness and improve mental wellbeing?
  • What might we understand together to cultivate empathy and insight about the experience of emotional and mental health journeys?

A visual summary of the proceedings, live sketched by Patricia Kambitsch, illustrates the main issues that emerged from the dialogue:



The Innovation Town Hall engaged the perspectives of four committed presenters who shared about their current, personal and professional issues in mental wellness and care:

  • Canadian society, Mark Henick
  • OCAD / Institutional, Andrea Yip
  • Psychological,  Jennifer Robinson
  • Student perspective, Alicia Raimundo






 aliciaThe four speakers engaged in whole group dialogue, then moved to small groups based on their perspective, and developed contextual stories and health concepts co-created within each groups.







Inquiries by each of the four perspective groups led to unpacking of concerns and issues, including the systemic drivers and experiences in each worldview. The Psychological group, for example, identified concerns and suggested remedies found later to be very well aligned with the student experience. The inclusion of peers and education of faculty and other campus employees were found to be significant opportunities for complementing clinical services with safe, trusted caring relationships in the immediate learning context.








Group moderator Karen Oikonen presents the conclusions from  the Psychological group’s inquiry.




Session Hosts

Peter Jones
Peter is co-founder of Design with Dialogue and associate professor at OCAD University, in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program.

Andrea Yip

Andrea Yip, MPH is the Coordinator of Mental Health Initiatives at OCAD U and Ryerson University and is working to co-design a collaborative mental health strategy between both schools. Working along the intersections of art, social design and health promotion, Andrea is coordinates community-led initiatives that have human-centered impact. ayheadshot

Andrea is an advisor to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Wellspring Centre for Innovation.  Twitter: @andrealyip