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Dialogue is a much used term. It seems that it is often used as a synonym for conversation. While this is in part accurate, dialogue is in fact a form of conversation that is distinct from other forms of conversation. The attachment Dialogue continuum Dialogue continuum.pdf positions dialogue at the opposite end of the conversation continuum to debate.
It is important to note that debate, polite discussion, skilful discussion and dialogue are all legitimate forms of conversation. Our perspective is that most people are highly skilled at both debate and polite discussion and poorly skilled at skilful discussion and dialogue. Debating is when each person in a conversation has a view that is un-moving and they seek to sell their view or ‘to beat down’ opposing views until their view ‘wins’. People often use their positional power to win debates which is one of the reasons why many people become very skilled at debating.
Polite discussion is when people have the appearance of agreeing with a particular view, but do not actually support the view. For a range of personal, cultural and organisational reasons people choose not to be honest. Instead, they nod their heads in agreeance or acceptance but then let others know when they are in the office kitchen that they really hold a different view. Our perspective is that polite discussion is a damaging form of conversation and should be minimised as much as possible. At least in a debate people’s positions are clear. With polite discussion, no-one other than the person themself knows their true position.
Skilful discussion is what most of us achieve when we are trying to use the skills associated with dialogue. It is a highly productive form of conversation and is the result of the generally low dialogue skills that most of us possess. Like most skills, if we haven’t practiced them very much throughout our lives we tend to be fairly poor at executing them when we first begin to use those skills. However, many of the benefits of dialogue such as learning, deeper insights, innovation, shared understanding and a deeper understanding of vision, purpose and values can be achieved through skilful discussion. In other words it is a highly desirable form of communication which demonstrates the value in practicing these skills even when we may be poor at them.
Dialogue is a form of conversation where people genuinely try to access different perspectives to enable a new understanding to emerge. Unlike debate, dialogue seeks to discover a new meaning that was not previously held by any of the participants in the dialogue. While difficult to achieve, the seven skills of dialogue can be practised at any time. Through practice, dialogue skills can significantly enhance skilful discussion and dialogue itself when the opportunity arises.
The seven skills of dialogue are deep listening, respecting others, inquiry, voicing openly, balancing advocacy and inquiry, suspending assumptions & judgements and reflecting. Each of these skills is explained below.
1. Deep listening
In its most simple form deep listening derives from the conscious choice to listen. It involves quietening the voice in our heads so that we can hear the true story of the person to whom we are listening. As we listen to understand their whole story we literally stay quiet and just listen. In exercises that we conduct on listening, people often report that they are amazed at how much they can hear when they know that all they have to do is listen. Instead of readying themself for their turn to speak, the listener focuses on understanding the speaker. Deep listening can occur anywhere, anytime. It could be with a team member while walking down a corridor. It might be with a customer in a busy department store or on the telephone. It might even be with our own partners! Imagine the difference that enhanced listening could make in that domain! The common element in all listening examples is the genuine choice to listen. It is both powerful and important if deep listening is to occur.
2. Respecting others
Voltaire, a French author, humanist, rationalist and satirist is reported to have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This perspective lies at the heart of respecting others. Clearly this is particularly difficult to do when we interact with people who have contrasting views to our own. Practicing this dialogue skill therefore becomes imperative if we are to develop the true capacity to dialogue. While respecting others does not mean that you have to agree with them, it does mean that you will allow them the time and space to have their say and you will see it as a perspective that while you may not understand it, it is a perspective that is valid in the context that it contributes, even if only in a small way, to our understanding of the ‘complete’ picture of whatever is our area of focus at the time.
This is the capacity to ask genuine questions. As such it encourages the use of open questions that enhance our understanding of different perspectives, or assist in the deeply held mental models that lie behind many perspectives to come to the surface. The blog The Art of Skilful Questions provides a range of insights and suggestion to assist with developing improved questioning skills.
4. Voicing openly (advocacy)
Many of us are quite talented in this skill, at least in part. Voicing openly is the capacity to say what you think and to be able to explain why you think what you think. Unfortunately many people struggle to share their view. All views, if they exist, are important for the development of a true understanding of a situation. If those views are not shared, then a part of the picture is missing which is why voicing is so important in the context of dialogue.
5. Suspending assumptions & judgements
The capacity to explain why we hold the views that we hold lies at the heart of suspending assumptions & judgements. Much like we hang our clothes on a line for them to dry, suspending means that we ‘hang out’ our reasons for our views. This allows people to look at them, question them and assist us in developing a deeper understanding of our perspectives. To suspend your assumptions & judgements illustrates a willingness to be vulnerable which is a key attribute of servant leaders (see the blogs Dee Hock – an example of a Servant Leader and The Paradoxes of Servant Leadership if you are not aware of servant leadership). Should we discover that our views are not useful through the act of having suspended them before others, we have the opportunity to adopt new ones. This experience is often described as true learning.
6. Balancing voicing (advocacy) and inquiry
This is as simple and complex as balancing sharing our view and why we have it with asking genuine questions to better understand another person’s view, or to allow the group to talk about issues that will enhance the whole group’s collective understanding of a topic. To practice this skill involves utilising all the skills listed above; deep listening, respecting others, inquiry, voicing openly and suspending assumptions & judgements. Even if the other people with whom you are conversing are not trying to dialogue, practicing this skill significantly enhances the quality of your contribution to the conversation. People will notice your enhanced communication skills because the quality of the conversations within which you participate will be enhanced by your contributions to them.
Our fast paced world offers little time to reflect. However the capacity to reflect is a big rock (see the blog The Rocks and the Jar) and enhances our communication skills and capacity to dialogue through considering how we have just practiced our skills. In team environments it is worth holding a reflection at the end of an attempted dialogue to recognise where the skills of dialogue were used effectively and where they could be improved. The blog Conducting an End of Meeting Reflection provides some pointers for such a conversation.
People often recognise that practicing dialogue is not easy. It isn’t. But the various skills of dialogue can be practised at any time in any form of communication, and providing they are used for the purpose of genuinely enhancing communication, practicing these skill will provide immense benefits for all involved and result in improved team/group performance.
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