I’ve noticed some conversations just go a lot easier with some people, but I wasn’t sure why. Recently, a colleague pointed me to an article, Dialogue: The Power of Understanding by Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper.
The article has a nice way of framing types of conversations. Some conversations are about exploring ideas, while others are about a winning argument or a winning idea. Once you know the nature of the conversation, you can adapt the conversations, adjust yourself, or avoid it altogether.
Dialogue, Debate and Discuss
Ann offers 3 labels for conversations that you can use to help understand what’s going on::
Dialogue is Listening with an Open Spirit
A dialogue is listening with an open spirit. There’s no set idea. It’s about listening with an open mind and asking questions that lead to understanding (the goal is not to win.) Ann writes:
“The first and most difficult task of dialogue involves parking the ego and listening with an open spirit. From this receptivity can come questions which lead to understanding.”
Debate is a Verbal "Fight"
A debate is verbal "fight." It’s about winning an argument. Ann writes:
“Dialogue is the opposite of debate, a verbal "fight," the goal of which is to win an argument by besting an opponent. The focus is on listening for flaws in the "opponent’s" argument rather than listening to understand something new or from a different perspective. Ego is typically at the center of this win-lose conversation.”
Discussion is the "Breaking Apart" of Issues
A discussion is the "breaking apart" of issues. It’s about pushing a winning idea. Ann writes:
“Dialogue is also different from discussion, the "breaking apart" of issues, individuals or situations to gain agreement. Discussions tend to be fast-paced, persuasive conversations in which one person tries to convince the other of a point of view or solution. Ego, control and power over others are often at the forefront of this style of talking.”
How To Change to a Dialogue
If you need to shift to a dialogue, you can ask yourself, how might that be true, to get curious and park your doubting mind for the moment. If you need to shift somebody from a debate or discussion to a dialogue, then first listening until they feel they’ve been heard (empathic listening), and then shift to solution-focused questions. Ann offers 3 questions that can help you shift to dialogue:
- What is it you see that I don’t?
- How do you see this differently and why?
- Please help me understand from your perspective.
Sometimes it’s just too personal, and you can break the loop by either putting it on a whiteboard (it takes the focus off of you and puts it on the whiteboard), or by using a facilitator who can help make sure everybody’s ideas are explored. I’ve successfully used facilitators for some politically charged meetings.
Characteristics of High Performing Teams
Ann provides characteristics of high performing teams that achieve effective dialogue. I’ve summarized some of them here:
- When tempers flair, people look for ways to build bridges.
- Restate strong, toxic statements to clarify meaning in a respectful manner.
- When two people get in a shooting match, a 3rd party steps in to find a 3rd alternative, or capture the best of each perspective.
- Rather than sweep issues under the rug, surrounding partners clarify meaning, calm emotions, and introduce respect for differences.
- Take a time out when there’s strong differences, and resume to collaborate instead of compete.
- Clarify the different points of view and then sleep on it.
- Posing good questions to open up thinking and slow down polarization.
From experience, I can say these techniques work in practice. In fact, they can be surprisingly effective. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of feeling heard or understood.
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Photo by pasukaru76.