Generative Dialogic Change



Based upon a year of research, the Generative Dialogue Project has identified a new family of approaches to global problem solving which they call “multistakeholder generative dialogic change processes.” The words “generative dialogic change,” mean that through dialogue–deep conversations among all relevant system actors–a greater level of understanding and awareness is developed about the problem and each actor’s role in a larger system of interactions. By doing so, system actors are able to generate new alliances, collaborations, and solutions that go beyond traditional approaches.

From the website of the Generative Dialogue Project (

The entry point for most people into this emerging field is with the concept of 'dialogue.' This is a well-known process that is characterized by meaningful verbal exchanges. William Isaacs identifies four capacities that dialogue requires:

  • Voicing — speaking the truth of one's perspective
  • Listening — without resistance
  • Respecting — awareness of the impossibility of fully understanding others' positions
  • Suspending — suspension of assumptions, judgment, and certainty

This type of exchange is the foundation for profound 'change' in relationships and social systems. Our use of this word refers to a particular type of change, 'third order' change, which builds on concepts about single-, double- and triple-loop learning.

Single-loop learning involves change within the current rules of the game. For example, addressing declining fish populations by changing the quantities in a fishing quota system describes a single-loop learning model of change.

Double-loop learning involves redefining the rules of the game. This would be like applying quotas to a wider variety of fish in order to avert over-fishing before it happens.

Triple-loop learning, however, has to do with redefining the game itself. In the fishing case, participants in the system would open the whole concept of quotas to reevaluation and thereby create the possibility of inventing a new and different way to achieve the desired outcome. To do this, all the system actors must participate (fishermen, regulators, consumers, etc.) and everyone has to reexamine and change what they are doing-this is the basis for third-order change.

For this type of change to occur, people must be able to connect deeply with one another around their core purposes, their shared values, and even their differences, in order to co-create different futures. Such connection can come from developing a shared sense of current reality, then moving through an intimate process of reflection and mutual inquiry to the point of envisioning a desired future and committing to bring it into being-a state of collective intelligence that involves 'generative' dialogue. The diagram at provides a shorthand for describing our understanding of the differences between generative interactions and others. We do not mean to imply that useful and important work cannot take place without generative dialogue. For example, a negotiation process might, through honest debate, produce significant compromises and resolve a significant crisis or conflict.

Yet some negotiators aspire to a different kind of outcome involving deep changes in perceptions and relationships and, above all, a shift in commitment from the primacy of the parts to the primacy of the whole-the kind of shift we believe is necessary to make headway on complex global problems. Like us, these and other practitioners are focused on those processes that operate in the upper two quadrants-those that explicitly aim to move people from advocacy into inquiry mode, where they open themselves to examining their underlying assumptions in relation to those of others and go beyond achieving a better compromise to creating a collective vision of alternative futures and action to bring a desired future into being.

We are particularly focused on 'multi-stakeholder' generative processes that engage leaders across sectors-what Perlas calls 'social threefolding'and Waddell calls 'societal learning and change.' In regard to the individual and group learning required for societal change to occur, a cross-sectoral approach is vital because it is the only way to work with the social complexity inherent within global challenges. The explicit distinction among the three sectors makes it possible to pay attention to their different mental models, goals, structures and communication patterns. A dialogue that includes people with different mental models, or interpretations of reality, creates the opportunity for a model clash which can prompt deep reflection and create the opportunity for co-producing possible futures that no subset of stakeholders could achieve alone. And, since societal change requires change in the organizations that collectively hold the current patterns in place, it is important that all those organizations be connected to the change process through the individuals participating in it.

This societal and global scale of change requires, of course, considerable time. That is why we emphasize the word 'processes', to distinguish from 'events' which are commonly associated with dialogues. For generative dialogic change to occur, we need processes to support shifting of perception and reorganization that can last for a decade and longer. Looking at current global change activities of organizations like Transparency International, the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council and the Global Compact suggests that they are engaged in developing these very types of processes. It suggests that indexes like the global Corruption Index and certification processes like those of FSC and MSC and principles like those of the Global Compact can be framed as global generative dialogic change processes. We believe that this reframing, to contrast with the current tendency to focus upon technical issues like accuracy of the measures and success of dialogue events, is critical for achieving the breadth and depth of change global problem-solving demands.

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