“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” — Peter Drucker
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.
Skilled communicators and effective executives look for ways to create better dialogue so they can learn faster, improve their worldview and make better decisions.
Dialogue, Debate and Discussion
Ann offers 3 labels for conversations that you can use to help understand what’s going on:
- Dialogue – A dialogue is listening with an open spirit.
- Debate – A debate is a verbal “fight.” It’s about winning an argument.
- Discussion – A discussion is the “breaking apart” of issues. It’s about pushing a winning idea.
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 a 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.
4 Principles for Better Dialogue
Our worldview is our attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking. It can get in the way of dialogue. The irony is that dialogue is a way to improve our worldview.
According to The Dialogue Group, there are 4 principles for better dialogue:
- Suspend judgment
- Identify and Explore Assumptions
- Inquire and Reflect
Suspend judgment – By releasing our tendency to label and judge, we are freer to listen and expand our understanding. When we agree not to judge, we create a safer space in which others feel more willing to engage in the conversation.
Identify and Explore Assumptions – You’ve heard the one about “seeing the forest through the trees.” It is difficult to understand the whole by focusing on the parts. Often, our problems occur because we are blind to the beliefs and assumptions which have caused their occurrence. Dialogue can help us uncover these assumptions and recognize connections, solutions, and evolving “big picture” that are difficult to see alone.
Inquire and Reflect – Asking open-ended questions is a key to explore assumptions and beliefs. It is a way to unlock creativity and broaden perspective. Asking and answering questions helps to transcend the black/white, right/wrong, competitive, expert, teacher, hierarchical, and us vs. them frame of mind. Inquiry works best when we understand that we are building meaning together.
When dialogue is successful, information sharing, ideas, questions, and creativity emerge rapidly. Reflection provides the opportunity to review and connect what has been said. Reflection also provides the opportunity to slow down and collect our thoughts.
Listen – Good listening is both an active and passive skill. It takes effort to really hear and digest what is being said. Dialogue specialists encourage us to listen to our own thoughts and mental responses as well. Genuine listening builds trust and respect.
5 Better Behaviors for Better Dialogue
Here is a short set of better behaviors for better dialogue according to The Dialogue Group:
- Focus on learning – Our intention in dialogue is to learn to from each other, to expand our view and understanding, not to evaluate and determine who has the “best” view. When focused on learning we tend to ask more questions and try new things.
- Suspend status – No one perspective is more important than any other. Dialogue is about power with, not power over or power under.
- Listen non-judgmentally – When we listen and suspend judgment, it is easier for others to listen and participate. Some times it is helpful to “hold the tension” of apparently contradictory ideas without judging or trying to resolve this tension.
- Respect differences – Mutual respect rests on the knowledge that everyone has an important and essential contribution to make and is to be honored for their unique perspective.
- Balance inquiry and advocacy – Dialogue seeks to discover and understand perspectives. Because we tend to advocate our positions, it is suggested that we bring more inquiry into the conversation.
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.
The Guiding Idea for Better Dialogue
Here is a quote by John Adams, a consultant, that captures the essence of better dialogue:
“Dialogue is people truly listening to people truly speaking.” — John Adams
And David Bohm, Physicist, challenges us to explore taking dialogue further for real culture revolution:
“Suppose we were able to share meanings freely without a compulsive urge to impose our view or to conform to those of others and without distortion and self-deception. Would this not constitute a real revolution in culture?” — David Bohm, Physicist