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

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.