Going deep in conversation with insight dialogue

By Martin Vogel

If I’m working with a group that is highly committed to improving the quality of relationship between them, I might reach for Insight Dialogue.

This is actually a meditation practice developed by Gregory Kramer, a meditation that is conducted in relationship with someone else. Its essence is that it interrupts the normal routine of conversation with deliberate pauses and reflections, so that we might connect with the perception that we hold that might otherwise lie just beneath conscious awareness.

There’s a rhythm to insight dialogue, following a pattern of instructions as follows:

  • Pause
  • Relax
  • Open
  • Trust emergence
  • Listen deeply
  • Speak the truth

The idea is to slow down the conversation and listen – not just to what another person is saying but to one’s own responses. By pausing in the conversation, we give ourselves space to relax from what we might be rehearsing in our heads and open to what is happening in real time. As Gregory Kramer puts it:

“It often happens that, as we speak with others, much of our mental activity is taken up with planning what we will say next and, especially in larger groups, how we can interject our contribution. When we pause in Insight Dialogue, we become aware of this microplanning, relax the tension behind it, open to our partner or the group, and – right in that very moment – let go of even these little plans and trust emergence.”

Trust emergence is, for me, the heart of the practice. If we cease the mental rehearsing, we free ourselves to pay close attention to the person before us and what is happening for them. In pausing, we give ourselves the opportunity to connect with what is happening for us. Trusting emergence is the confidence we can have that, when we do this, we will come up with a response that is wise and appropriate to the moment. Gregory Kramer says this is drawing on a deep rooted aspect of our being that we have lost sight of in modern living:

“The human organism evolved to meet the world and not only survive but learn. Ever more mental capacity, however, created both opportunity and obstacle. We developed the capacity to reflect on experience and learn about how we learn. This has helped us learn certain things faster or more thoroughly. This same mental horsepower, however, has become the basis for an intricate sense of self and for confusing concepts and social norms that separate us from what we do best – move through the world with sensitivity, closely attuned to our environment. Trusting emergence, you might say, has been cultivated out of us.”

So in trusting emergence, we create the possibility to listen deeply not only to the other person but to our own processing: not just what our head is thinking but what our body is feeling as we contemplate the conversation. So when it comes to the final instruction, I tend to adapt Gregory Kramer’s “speak the truth“ to ”speak from the heart”. Insight dialogue creates a safe space to articulate heartfelt matters that we frequently bracket out of routine conversation.

I’ve long drawn on insight dialogue when working with people one to one. It informs how I try to show up as a coach and sometimes I will invite a client to adopt some or all of the instructions, to help them reflect more deeply about what they are discussing. In these circumstances, it often elicits high degrees of self-compassion as people recognise the pressure they put on themselves.

Using insight dialogue in groups, people find a partner and take it in turns to speak and to listen. The person who listens speaks back what their partner has said. This often has a profound impact on the person whose words are being played back, as they realise that they have been heard, held and received in a way they don’t often experience. For the listener, it can be unnerving not to speak. But there is also relief in not having to keep inserting oneself into the drama and being able simply to receive.

Practising insight dialogue is an end in itself. But it also builds our muscle for bringing presence and elegance to our conversations in the wild. For example, as Gregory Kramer says:

“We may experiment with stepping courageously into Open when we are in conflict with another or feeling attacked. Aware of the person and his or her hostility without shutting the person out, we may find compassion arising.”

Guided well, groups of people who have never previously met can practise insight dialogue together. Among groups who already know each other, there needs to be a reasonable level of trust before I would consider introducing it. When practised by people who are prepared to take the risk of vulnerability, insight dialogue brings about connection and warmth between them. This provides a foundation for doing great work together. When a group adopts the practice themselves after my facilitation falls away, I’m moved and admiring. They are crossing the threshold to a higher level of leadership.

Image courtesy Stephen D.