Meet the man who made a business out of darkness

Posted at 08/17/14 9:17 AM

Dialogue in the Dark founder Andreas Heinecke. Photo by G. Baraniak

MANILA, Philippines - What would you do if you suddenly lost your eyesight? For most people, becoming blind would seem like the end of the world. Some would even say blind people are pitiful creatures.

German social entrepreneur Andreas Heinecke wanted to change that perception of blindness, and blind people, through the ground-breaking workshop series "Dialogue in the Dark."

He founded "Dialogue in the Dark", which is described as an innovative tool for leadership development. Internationally renowned for 25 years, it is a management training workshop that is held in complete darkness, giving participants a feel of what it is like to lose their eyesight.

Participants, carrying canes, are led inside a darkened room where they take part in several activities that are facilitated by blind people.

In losing their vision, Heinecke said participants gain insight into their own lives and rethink their perceptions on what it means to be blind and disabled in society. It also helps people understand diversity and inclusion.

Since "Dialogue in the Dark" started in 1988, these workshops have been conducted all over the world, with participants such as top CEOs, government officials and company managers.

In an recent interview with ABS-CBNnews.com, Heinecke said the workshop challenges participants to face and overcome their fears.

"It's a wonderful experience to understand your limits and to know that limits are a wonderful springboard to go... It is a mind-body experience, very immersive, very emotional. Emotions are the best basis for learning, you can tell your kid 1,000 times that the oven is hot but if they do it once and they will never do it ever again. This means the format of learning is very important because you learn a lot of things in a very short time about yourself," he said.

Most people initially experience fear when they go inside the darkened room, not knowing what is in store for them. But the blind facilitators, with their soothing voices and clear instructions, are there to help the participants navigate the darkness.

"It's important and to challenge yourself to overcome your fears, face your fears and to understand that life is much more than I may sense," Heinecke said.

In the dark, participants of Dialogue workshops can communicate more actively and effectively, and learn to trust other people more. It also has a humbling effect, since the participants' empathy for blind people increases.

Starting Dialogue in the Dark

Heinecke's interest in blindness came after he was asked to interview a blind man for a job at a radio station. The man had lost his eyesight in a car accident.

"My director asked me if I can think how this person can work in he radio station... I said, I had no idea, I never met a blind person before. I met him and I was blown away. At the end of the interview, I was shocked and embarrassed by myself I was so sure this (being blind) was not a valuable life, and I was so sure that being blind was the end of the world," he said.

Heinecke questioned himself, asking why he thought of blindness in that way.

He had always been interested in social exclusion, given what he described as a "strange" family background.

His father, who was born in 1928, and his family were strong Nazi supporters. His mother's family were Jews, most of whom were killed in concentration camps.

"I was 13 when I became aware of this very strange family constellation. From that day on, between the age of 13 and 30, for 17 years I was focused on understanding exclusion and extermination. I studied history, spoke to survivors, I had a PhD about it... Everything was focused on understanding what happened. How it happened, how people can turn from the good side to the evil side," he said.

Expanding in the Philippines

Earlier this month, "Dialogue in the Dark" had a "trial run" at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City. Business executives, managers, journalists, social entrepreneurs, bloggers and AIM students had a chance to experience the Dialogue workshop and "Dinner in the Dark."

Dialogue in the Dark is already present in many Asian countries, including Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Taipei and several cities in China. Around 2,000 participants around the world take part in the seminar every day.

Heinecke said he is interested to see how emerging markets like the Philippines may respond to a concept like "Dialogue in the Dark."

"I see an emerging market here, a lot of prospects on one side. It has a very good, fast-growing economy... Secondly, we have this middle class that is now growing. Very interesting for us to see in this growth, how disadvantaged people are left behind... And of course, the big issue of corruption," he said.

He said they are looking for a partner to help establish Dialogue in the Dark in the Philippines.

Heinecke said blind Filipino people can also be employed by Dialogue in the Dark, not just in the Philippines but in other Asian countries as well.

Why attend?

So why should you pay to attend a workshop held in complete darkness?

Participants who attend a Dialogue in the Dark seminar can see long-lasting effects, Heinecke said.

He cited several key learning points that remain with participants years after they attend the workshop.

Participants have a change in perspective towards blind people. "We are so sure that they can do nothing and are objects of pity, but now you see them as excellent people," he noted.

Participants also discover the importance of active listening, empathy and the need for communication.

"There's a humbling component. We think we are all brilliant... We are so superior but who are we? We are so small.... The humbling experience is very important. This is changing attitudes," Heinecke said.