Creating space for transformative conversations

Dialogue Spotlight: Diane Finegood

November 28, 2017

Dialogue Spotlight is an ongoing interview series featuring SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue staff, fellows, and associates.

Diane Finegood is an experienced research leader and strategic thinker with an excellent track record of heading national and provincial health research organizations. She served as President & CEO of the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (2012-2016) and inaugural scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes (2000-2008). Diane is currently a Professor in the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and Semester in Dialogue at Simon Fraser University.

As a bridge-builder and systems thinker, she has successfully facilitated the needs of disparate stakeholders to carve out common ground for effective dialogue, collaboration and outcomes. Diane is also an internationally recognized researcher whose work and expertise range from cell biology, physiology, and mathematical modeling, to population and public health, health policy and knowledge translation. She has received a range of awards, which reflect her impact as a leader, scientist, partner and mentor.

In this interview with Diane, we discuss the role of dialogue and engagement in solving complex problems, and the Spring 2018 Semester in Dialogue that Diane will be instructing.

How did you first hear about the Centre for Dialogue?

The Centre for Dialogue caught my eye years ago. I’ve been a faculty member at SFU for twenty years, but I’ve taken a few trips outside the academy to provide leadership at the national and provincial level in health research. On those days when I mused about what I would do next, I often wondered if the Centre would be a good place for me land if I came back to SFU full time. It seems I will now have a chance to test that out!

And [working as the Instructor for the Spring 2018 Semester in Dialogue] is the first time you’re working directly with the Centre for Dialogue?
Yes, this is my first opportunity to work with the Centre and I am really excited about the opportunity to help shape the leaders of tomorrow in this increasingly complex world.

How is the Semester preparation coming along?
Since this is my first time preparing a Semester in Dialogue, I have nothing to compare my experience to, but I think we are nearly ready to receive our students on January 3rd. It has been really fun and interesting to sort out how to put a package of work and a set of opportunities together that will give students a deep understanding of not just health and wellness, but also how to address complex problems. I’m passionate about helping people understand that “complex” is not the same as “complicated”. A key difference is in the frame we use to think about solutions. For complicated problems, we can work out the causes of the problem and find solutions in these relationships, but when a problem is complex this is less helpful and may be a waste of time. People often use the words “complex” and “complicated” interchangeably. But they’re not the same thing and complex problems need solutions that are more nuanced, negotiated and iterative. I think if students get a good understanding of the distinction between complex and complicated and get to see more appropriate solutions for complex problems in action, it will set them up well for the future whatever they find themselves doing.

I agree, it’s probably applicable to all different kinds of areas.
For me, it’s the lens through which I see the world. In fact, I was just on a teleconference where I was invited to sit on a panel discussion about the future of women’s health research. I don’t perceive that I know anything about women’s health research per se, but while I was listening to the discussion about what it was they were looking for, my mind immediately went to a framework I use to think about complex systems, breaking down [the topic] into the various levels of a system. When I talk about levels, I’m not talking about organizational structures; I’m talking about the fact that the highest level of a complex system is the deeply held beliefs people have. And it’s those deeply held beliefs that drive the system. So immediately I’m thinking, “What are the deeply held beliefs about women in health research? This is the discussion we should be having”

Diane explains how starting with the internalized beliefs has great potential for changing complex systems and solving complex problems with a demonstrated example: the change in mainstream culture’s tolerance for smoking.

Forty years ago, we believed smokers were cool. There are pockets of people who still think that, but for the most part as a culture and a society, we’ve moved to a place where smokers are not cool. That’s a big shift in those deeply held beliefs about smoking that likely contributed a lot to help reduce tobacco consumption. Lots of things went into making those changes; you can’t just flip a switch and change it. But it’s important to understand that those deeply held beliefs are there and play an important role.

Why do you think practicing dialogue and engagement changes the post-secondary experience?
I think it’s very different from sitting in a lecture. The skills you probably need most in life are how to listen, how to think, and how to engage and evolve your ideas. That is what a Semester in Dialogue is all about.

I would love to see more dialogue in regular classrooms. I don’t think dialogue is implemented as much as it could and should be in schools.
It's not that hard to use some aspects of dialogue to enhance the classroom experience. Pausing a lecture to ask students a question they spend time discussing in pairs is one way to introduce dialogue to a lecture course. I tried this last week with the MPH students in the Faculty of Health Science and it helped inject real energy into the room.

Why does dialogue and engagement matter and where is it needed most?
It matters because we live in a complex world and most of the problems we’re trying to solve are not “yes or no” or “good or bad.” There are “we can improve things” or “we can make things worse,” but there’s not a right and wrong answer to most of the messy, thorny problems that we have. So if it’s not about getting to the yes or no but to the nuance, that’s all facilitated through dialogue. Building trust is facilitated through dialogue. We live in an age where complex is more dominant than simple or complicated, so I think it’s a critical skill for the future.

What is your favourite aspect about doing work directly in or related to dialogue and engagement?
I think for me, because I am not an expert in the dialogue tradition I will get to learn a lot. I am also interested in understanding the nuanced relationships between dialogue and complex systems and systems thinking.

What is one simple way dialogue can be implemented in the local community?
I think there are likely many ways to initiate dialogue in the local community. Context matters to having a respectful dialogue that builds trust and enables participants to shape a deeper understanding of a particular issue. We need to remember that for complex challenges, individuals matter so using dialogue to achieve perspective is an essential tool to enabling positive change.

Where would we find you on the weekend?
My wife and I have a property on Gambier Island so I like to get there when I can. When I am in the city you can find me at the off leash dog park on the weekend trying to tire out our energetic 7 month old puppy.