Dialogue with Obreau

Exploration for Understanding, then Action


Dialogue with OBREAU refers to a structured, facilitated, process for a group – large or small – to achieve greater understandings of a vexing issue, ordinarily in preparation for subsequent action. The issue might be thought of as thorny, contentious, or as a wicked problem. A key is that there are differences of view between dialogue participants, as well as potentially others outside – though with at least a willingness of participants to engage across their differences. The power of a Dialogue with OBREAU lies in the scaffolding enabling participants to focus on data and evidence, to examine the possible perspectives of other stakeholders, and – with these factors in mind – to share what matters to them. A dialogue with OBREAU can be thought of as the ‘front end’ of a strategic thinking or planning process. The output is ordinarily three focus areas for further action or consideration. A particular benefit for individual participants is likely to be in development they experience personally in being prompted to reflect on their own assumptions and mindsets. For groups and organisations, there are potentially major benefits both in fostering improved relationships and dynamics, and a deeper quality of joint thinking on difficult issues.

A process available for anyone, anywhere in the world, to use subject to the provisions of Creative Commons Licensing: CC BY-NC

Dialogue with OBREAU: Exploration for Understanding, then Action

Dialogue: A conversation between a group of people (potentially, even just two)

OBREAU: A conversation model based on three practices – Working from Observation, Attributing Reasonableness, and Speaking with Authenticity

Exploration: Emphasis on joint inquiry, learning more about an issue/challenge, especially through working from observable data and contemplating different perspectives

Understanding: An aim of a Dialogue with OBREAU is for all involved to gain a richer, fuller appreciation of the topic, and as far as possible to build common understandings, while recognising differences will likely remain.

then Action: One output of a Dialogue with OBREAU is ordinarily the identification of three focus areas for further work, or at least additional consideration.

Dialogue with OBREAU


Don Dunoon’s Introduction to Dialogue with OBREAU

“As a graduate student in Organisational Behaviour in the early 1990s, I became fascinated with dialogue through reading works of David Bohm and F. David Peat, and Peter Senge especially… Now, I want to make the Dialogue with OBREAU approach broadly available for anyone, anywhere in the world, to use under Creative Commons licensing: CC BY-NC.

“As the 1990s progressed, and following my graduate studies, I had the opportunity to experiment with dialogue in extended leadership programs I was conducting, as well as in my consulting practice. My interest was particularly in helping groups better make sense of strategic and other issues they faced. This was, admittedly, a more focused approach than that proposed by Bohm and Peat. Their emphasis was on dialogue as an open exploration between participants without a particular topic as the focal point of attention – ‘a free flow of meaning between people in communication, in the sense of a stream that flows between banks’[1].

“In my consulting work, though, I heard repeatedly of significant questions that executive groups and teams seemed either unwilling or unable to engage with. Examples included: ‘We say we value innovation in this organisation but little of it seems to be happening. How can we understand this?’ and ‘Our largest client seems to be slowly pulling away from us without making this explicit. What is going on in our relationship, and what might we do about it?’

“Over the years I have found it helpful to have an overarching question to help shape the dialogue, while recognising that the process of exploration in dialogue may lead the group to see the original question in a larger context and in a different manner than anyone in the group anticipated. For instance, the ‘lack of innovation’ question broadened into the group contemplating why it was that several of their stated values, such as respect and trust, were often not observed in practice.

“In the early years, one thing that struck me in dialogues I facilitated was that while many appreciated the power of dialogue in helping open-up different angles for thinking about thorny issues, some found the experience frustrating and difficult. They often struggled with holding their own opinions lightly, found the lack of structure disconcerting, and wanted to go directly to solving problems and proposing solutions.

“Skipping ahead a decade or so, and while writing my book, In the Leadership Mode, I framed ‘Three guidelines for safer intervention: Work from observation, Attribute reasonableness, and Seek to act authentically’ (p. 101). Later still, these became known as OBREAU – for observation, reasonableness and authenticity. While the OBREAU elements were initially framed as a structure for aiding leadership action by individuals, it progressively became clear to me that OBREAU was a powerful construct to support dialogue, in helping overcome some of the difficulties I had encountered earlier.

“Over the past decade, I have presented on dialogue using OBREAU at conferences of the Australian Facilitators’ Network in 2015 at Ballina/Byron Bay and 2017 at Stanwell Tops, both in New South Wales, as well as used the method many times in my own consulting practice.

Don Dunoon Presenting 2015

Don Dunoon presenting at the Australian Facilitators’ Network Conference at Ballina/Byron Bay in 2015

“Now, I want to make the Dialogue with OBREAU approach broadly available for anyone, anywhere in the world, to use under Creative Commons licensing. CC BY-NC

[1] David Bohm and F. David Peat, 1987, Science, Order and Creativity, (p. 241), Bantam Books, Toronto.

Why a Group Might Use DIALOGUE with OBREAU

The Dialogue with OBREAU process is designed to foster informed awareness and understanding of complexities and subtleties relating to the topic at hand, to provide a basis for further action. Specifically, the process:

  • Helps the group anchor its deliberations in data and evidence, rather than starting from opinion and interpretation.
    • This supports participants in being open to different possible interpretations and can reduce a tendency of some to be strongly attached to their own framing of the issue, seeing themselves as ‘correct’ and others as misguided or misinformed.
  • Assists participants in expanding their appreciation of the dialogue topic by explicitly focusing on the possible perspectives of other stakeholders, consistent with available data and with those stakeholders as reasonable (their actions and thoughts make sense to them)
    • As well as assisting those involved to see the issues more broadly, one result can be that participants express some empathy for other stakeholders they had previously judged negatively.
  • Through the emphases on data and considering other perspectives, fosters a safe space for participants to share their own views and be heard by others, helping minimise the risks of ‘blow-ups’ and defensive behaviours
    • The processes earlier in the dialogue of centring on observable data and the possible perspectives of others can prompt participants to reflect upon their own assumptions and mindsets. When it comes time to share their own perspectives, this can be a more nuanced, reflective account than other participants have heard from them previously.
  • Creates a sense that the conversation is progressing as it moves through the five phases (refer next section) and that it’s not just an exercise in people rehashing their established arguments
    • A sense that the conversation is going somewhere is vital to retain energy and enthusiasm. Similarly, the identification of three focus areas for further work (towards the end of the dialogue) provides reassurance that there is a tangible result at the end, which also helps keep energy levels up.

The dialogue process can potentially enable group members to see an issue in a new light, as none of them has done previously. This is collective intelligence at work! To the extent that group members do find common ground, this can be potentially a huge impetus to action. The energy released through participants finding that they are thinking along similar lines can prompt a level of confidence which might have been lacking before the dialogue that the group has a way forward.

It’s true that some disagreement – maybe a quite a lot – will likely remain. Yet it can be that the dialogue assists people to clarify where they agree and where they disagree, enabling them to work on – or work around – their differences. This is important as often disagreements between group members are not made explicit and can be acted out implicitly over extended periods, thereby hampering the group’s ability to achieve its goals.

The Structure of a Dialogue with OBREAU

A Dialogue with OBREAU ordinarily has five phases, as outlined below. The structure outlined here is for a face-to-face dialogue, though the process can be used virtually as well (however; hybrid versions involving some people in the room and others online can be difficult to facilitate and are not recommended).

  1. Introduction
    • Welcome; introductions; housekeeping; outline of the dialogue purpose, of the focus question and of the Dialogue with OBREAU process
  2. Grounding the Conversation: Working from Observation
    • The purpose is to centre the dialogue in observable data rather than peoples’ reactions, opinions and analyses.
  3. Shifting Perspectives: Attributing Reasonableness
    • The purpose is to help participants stretch beyond their own assumptions and perceptions and consider the dialogue topic in a larger context by explicitly thinking about the possible viewpoints of others.
  4. From the Heart: Speaking with Authenticity
    • The purpose is to enable participants to respond as they wish to what has come up so far in the dialogue.
  5. Synthesis and Review
    • The purpose is to integrate the deliberations thus far and frame three focus areas for further action (or additional exploration, or important areas in which differences remain).

Below is more detail on each of the five phases of a Dialogue with OBREAU.

  1. Introduction
    • Welcome, introductions, housekeeping, outline of the focus question and of the Dialogue with OBREAU process
    • The introduction might include a brief review of relevant data to inform the dialogue, such as a summary of a relevant report or previous conversations. (Participants could also be provided with such materials as pre-reading prior to the dialogue session.)
  2. Grounding the Conversation: Working from Observation
    • The purpose is to centre the dialogue in observable data rather than peoples’ reactions, opinions and analyses.
    • Individual participants generate, perhaps using sticky notes, what they see as relevant data points (observations, not interpretations) for others to consider.
    • These are shared and individuals select data points proposed by others that are of interest to them – potentially significant, worth talking about.
    • Mixed, small groups explore the observations selected by individuals. The purpose is to delve into possible interpretations and implications – not to strategize, solve problems or come up with ‘solutions’. A scribe in each group takes notes.
    • Groups report back on any themes/insights emerging in their conversations. (If time is tight the report-back might take the form of a ‘gallery’ in which participants can view the outputs of other groups.)
    • Large group discussion on what has been learned from the focus on data and evidence.
  3. Shifting Perspectives: Attributing Reasonableness
    • The purpose is to help participants stretch beyond their own assumptions and mindsets and consider the dialogue topic in a larger context by explicitly considering the possible viewpoints of others.
    • Mixed groups (potentially the same groups as in Phase 2) each focus on one key stakeholder group, imagining the story that stakeholder group is telling themselves in connection with the dialogue topic question.
    • Essentially, the groups are developing hypotheses for exploration and testing. Their hypotheses should be consistent with observable data, including the apparent behaviour of the stakeholder in question, and with that stakeholder as reasonable at least in their terms (what they are doing and thinking seems sensible to them).
    • Small groups report back.
    • Large group discussion focuses on what has been learned from contemplating other perspectives. (A frequent response is that participants felt greater empathy for the groups they focused on.)
    • Note that a resource you might find helpful in assisting participants to contemplate the possible realities of others on an issue is the Reflection Matrix structure, described on p.p. 133-35 of Don Dunoon’s book, In the Leadership Mode. The Reflection Matrix involves contemplation of the possible assumptions, interests, feelings and knowledge of different stakeholders.
  4. From the Heart: Speaking with Authenticity
    • The purpose is to enable participants to respond as they wish to what has come up so far in the dialogue. The prospect is that centring the conversation up to now in observable data and the possible perspectives of others will assist participants in responding in a considered and nuanced fashion, with less rigid attachment to previously held assumptions and mindsets than otherwise might have been the case.
    • Depending on participant numbers and time available, this can be done either as a large group or small group activity. If in small groups, this might be an opportunity to remix the groups or perhaps put people back into their ‘native’ groupings, e.g., departments in an organisation or professional specialities.
    • The process involves going around the group – perhaps more than once – and asking members to share something of a personal nature that has come up for them, perhaps revealing an assumption they had become aware they were holding, or a feeling they experienced in the conversation. The aim is to get people sharing at a ‘heart’ level, not just at a logical, ‘head’ level. They might also be asked to nominate questions arising that they think warrant more consideration.
  5. Synthesis and Review
    • The purpose is to integrate the deliberations so far and frame three focus areas for further action (or additional exploration, or important areas in which differences remain)
    • The process involves inviting individuals to propose focus areas and then working with the group to change/improve what has been suggested.
    • Individuals can also be invited to reflect on what they have learned/gained from the dialogue.
    • Consideration of any next steps.
    • Closing remarks.

How Long Does a Dialogue with OBREAU Require?

There is no set length/duration of a Dialogue with OBREAU but – for a group of, say, 20-25 people – at least 4 hours (240 minutes) is recommended to do justice to each of the 5 phases. The 4-hour provision is based on: 15 minutes for the Introduction (though longer would be likely be needed if there are any opening presentations), 60 minutes for each of the Observation, Reasonableness and Authenticity phases, and 45 minutes for the Synthesis and Review. Any breaks are additional.

For a small group of, again say, 6 or 7 people, 2 to 2.5 hours could be sufficient (without the need for report-backs and subsequent large group discussion).

While these time provisions might seem generous, keep in mind that:

  • Many change efforts (some say 70%) are unsuccessful, and the failure to explore key questions early on may be a factor.
  • Dialogue has other benefits other than the prospect of building more widely shared and more solidly grounded understandings on key questions:
    • The experience can be developmental for those involved, helping them question their own assumptions and ways of thinking and perceiving
    • In experiencing a different form of interaction, group members may grow and develop in their relationships with each other.

If time is tight (and for whom is this not true?), there are potential work arounds.

You can break the dialogue into chunks, with perhaps 3 meetings on separate days. (For a group of 20-25, this implies 3 meetings each of about 80 minutes or so.) As a rule of thumb, the first meeting covers the Introduction and Observation phases, the second Reasonableness, and the third, Authenticity, and Synthesis and Review.

With any less than the suggested times, it’s likely that parts of the dialogue process will be skipped over or feel rushed. Nevertheless, (and again for a group of 20-25) if you can get people together for 90 minutes, you could do the first two phases (introduction and Observation) as a standalone exercise.

This would involve people generating observable data in connection with the dialogue question and, in small groups, exploring these data for their possible meanings and significance. It’s likely that participants will find this a novel and useful experience, and on that basis may be prepared to commit to further dialogue sessions.

Regardless of the length of time you allocate for a Dialogue with OBREAU, do give some thought to possible follow-on work, such as a separate session for detailed action planning and/or convening a small group to take the work forward.

What Types of Topics/Challenges Are Suitable for Dialogue with OBREAU?

A few examples of potential application areas:

For a town or local community – understanding the implications of a mooted major change in land use

For a business organisation – considering what challenges might be faced in implementing a major change to structure, systems or processes

For a school – exploring how the school might better achieve its mission of catering to the needs of every student

For a healthcare service – examining potential safety risks that are perhaps not being given sufficient attention

For an advocacy group – contemplating the potential implications for their people of a proposed change in legislation

For a university leadership studies class – considering campus-related issues, such as differing perceptions of university policies on access for disadvantaged students

For a government agency – contemplating how a proposed policy might impact different stakeholder groups.

What is an issue/challenge on which your organisation or group might usefully convene a Dialogue with OBREAU?

Summary of Benefits

Individual Dialogue with OBREAU participants will gain in these areas:

The organisation/group will gain in these areas:

Invitation to Use Dialogue with OBREAU

I am delighted to be making the Dialogue with OBREAU model available for use by anyone, anywhere, subject to the provisions of Creative Commons Licensing, Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International: CC BY-NC     

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I’m keen to encourage experimentation and application and am excited about the prospect of Dialogue with OBREAU progressively flowering into widespread use.

I’d love to hear about your efforts and experiences and would be especially grateful for any reports or case studies – even brief ones – and photos you might share. Over time, my intention is to make these available via this site to support learning and practice by others. To get in touch with me, please use the contact form on this site.

Similarly, if you have queries or concerns (including about permissions), please make contact and I will do what I can to help. More in depth assistance, though, will need to be on a paid basis. We can discuss that if you’d like.

With best wishes for your practice of Dialogue with OBREAU!

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