An Interview with Karen Ridout, GLP Senior Partner

This is the second in a series of interviews conducted by Joan Dempsey, GLP's Dialogue Education Community Director, with people who believe deeply in the power of dialogue to influence learning that lasts. Today's interview is with GLP Senior Partner, Karen Ridout.

 A quiet mind listens to only what the speaker is saying; a quiet mind does not have its own agenda, does not form its response, does not judge—until the speaker has finished.  ~ Karen Ridout

Joan Dempsey (Joan):  What’s your favorite axiom, and why?

Karen Ridout (Karen):  Among my favorite axioms is THE DESIGN BEARS THE BURDEN. I have found that when I have gone through the process of wrestling with the who, why, so that, what, achievement-based objectives, when and where, going back and forth, creating, revising, refining, capturing new insights during the process of designing the learning tasks, I can (1) sleep the night before the event and (2) be fully present, adaptive, flexible and confident during the event, knowing the design is assuring my accountability. It’s got my back! A cogent design—what a joy.

Joan:  Name 3-5 of your favorite facilitation skills. Describe what you use them for and why they are favorites.

Karen:  OPEN QUESTIONS: Open questions have “universal” use in DE—by their very nature, they invite dialogue; they can be used in every/any situation—one-on-one, pairs, during a mini-lecture whether rhetorical or inviting a response, in a group of 4 or 400, in written or oral material. I use them when I am not the facilitator/leader and the class or meeting leader is not applying DE—I’ll ask an open question of the group to get dialogue started (subtle manipulation!). Works wonders! My response to learners when asked “How do I start introducing DE to my colleagues when they are resistant?” I say—start asking open questions in all of your interactions. (Of course, the questions must be robust and relevant to the topic and the learners.) Open questions are my backup—always ready, always appropriate, always productive!

LISTEN WITH A QUIET MIND: A quiet mind listens to only what the speaker is saying; a quiet mind does not have its own agenda, does not form its response, does not judge—until the speaker has finished. This requires intention, attention and discipline from me—I usually have an agenda and a judgment which I must put on pause in order to really hear what the other person is saying.

SMALL GROUPS: Safety and inclusion—every voice is heard!  And, learning is expanded—more diverse ideas, perspectives, solutions. The buzz of small groups is an indicator of the learning happening—there and then!

TRANSPARENCY: I have found that when my learners  know the what and why of a concept, a technique, an action, a decision, etc., their confusion dissolves, their resistance changes to acceptance, and their learning moves forward (rather than getting stuck).

Two Practices

  1. STAND WHEN PRESENTING NEW CONTENT; SIT WHEN FACILITATING DIALOGUE: This is not a skill—just a practice I use that seems to facilitate the flow. Learners expect a degree of authority from a teacher of new content and standing is a subtle way of affirming that, whereas sitting connotes an equality of members in the group of which I am one.
  2. HAVE AN OUTSIDE PERSON PROOFREAD ALL MATERIALS: Mistakes in materials, no matter how small, are an interruption to many learners’ flow of thought, creating a barrier to his/her learning. No one—none of us—can proofread our own material. Use another set of eyes just prior to printing.

Joan:  Of all the DE principles, which 2-3 do you like the best? Why?

Karen:  ENGAGEMENT: learning at the cellular level—promotes true, sustainable learning

LEARNER AS DECISION MAKER OF HER/HIS OWN LEARNING: Incorporates respect, relevance and safety; the learner embodies his/her own context

Joan:  When you attend learning events that are not learning centered, what’s your biggest pet peeve?


Joan:  Why do you love DE?

Karen:  IT WORKS! Gives me a foundation, structure and principles that generate a confidence in me to enthusiastically trust what I am doing to create a robust, meaningful learning environment/experience for the learner. DE offers a way (to borrow a quote from Carol Folt, newly named chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill) “…to make sure that our students don’t simply learn what we know, but they learn to create what will be.” DE is a foundational attitude, a system, not just a model, approach or method. It is a way of being: "the means is dialogue, the end is learning, the purpose is peace" (Jane Vella).

Joan:  When you think about all of your work as a facilitator/teacher/consultant, what learning transfer makes you the most proud? Share the story.

Karen:  LEARNER’S MINDSET IS TRANSFORMED: Happens in multiple ways with multiple learners. One example—a brilliant, gifted, knowledgeable person with expertise to share exclaimed at the conclusion of her DE training “I now can pass on my learning so others can benefit! I’m so grateful.” Another—a non-profit which has infused DE into their culture as they serve and teach the needy with respect, engagement and skills.                                                                     

Joan:  What would you say to someone who’s new to DE to explain the essence of DE?

Karen:  DE SHIFTS LEARNER’S LEARNING FROM PASSIVE TO ACTIVE LEARNING, resulting in learning at the cellular level—the content has become a part of them. My mantra when designing a class or workshop is always to ask myself at every decision point: “What will enhance the learning?” “How will this (task, activity, content) enhance the learning?” “What in this design or environment will create a barrier/interruption to their learning?” If it doesn’t enhance the learning or if it creates a barrier to learning—don’t do it!


Joan:  What tips do you have for someone who’s been practicing DE for a while?

Karen:  KEEP LEARNING FROM YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH DE: DE is a developing system, a research agenda


ENTER WHERE THEY ARE: Build on the learners’ experiences, knowledge, themes and language

KEEP THE FOCUS ON THE LEARNING: celebrate what emerges, what is created.

Joan:  If you use other teaching methods that you feel complement DE, what are they and how are they complementary?

Karen:  HONORING THE PREFERENCES OF PSYCHOLOGICAL TYPES:  An introvert needs reflection space, an extravert needs expression space; one person needs concrete data, another needs a theoretical context, etc., etc. Our psychological preferences influence our paths to learning as well as barriers to learning. We want our learners to use their energy to wrestle with the new content, not have to spend energy on coping with the teaching method we are using.

Joan:  What else would you like to share?

Karen:  HAVE FUN!  Celebrate the energy you and your learners feel in all your cells and neurons.


Karen Ridout is the co-coordinator of the Learning & Change International Dialogue Education Institute, Oct 24-27, 2013 in Baltimore, MD, USA, where she's also offering one-on-one private consultations. Karen is also teaching several upcoming workshops:

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