By definition dialogue is a shared inquiry in which the participants seek greater understanding of each other and the truth. The ability to engage in dialogue is a key skill required by leaders for building and maintaining relationships. Leaders who neglect this ability do so, George Kohlrieser advises, only at great risk to the health of their organisation.
Dialogue is much more than plain conversation. Dialogue is the seeking of a greater truth. In dialogue we experience ourselves as bonded to the person with whom we are speaking, making understanding and meaning flow beyond words. Shared meaning is the glue that holds people and organizations together. Good dialogue involves talking with our body, emotions, intellect, and spirit. Listening is a crucial element of dialogue.
To have authentic dialogue, it is necessary for participants to be in a mindset of discovery. Such discovery, however, takes work, and it is often easier, especially in a business environment, for people to get into a debate or an argument, either seeking the right answer or to prove a point.
Dialogue is about shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting. It is not something you do to another person; it is something you do with another person. It requires a shift in mindset about what the relationship with the other person means. The focus is on understanding the other person; not only on making them understand you. Dialogue is an exchange in which people think together and discover something new. It is the seeking of truth together. The depth of dialogue brings the participants to a different level, where they come to a deeper understanding of each other.
In dialogue, we want to keep a connection with the person to whom we are speaking. True dialogue also involves questioning and sharing doubt, as opposed to debating. Debating is when we keep looking at the issue that is most important to us, which can easily lead to disagreement. In times of constant change and increasing complexity, we need to take into account our growing interdependence, and dialogue takes us there. Dialogue is an important means of developing a culture of collaboration, and creative dialogue can also be used as a means to search for new ideas, ultimately leading to innovations in any field. Perhaps most importantly, dialogue, Psychologists believe, is key to resolving differences and conflict.
Kohlrieser opines that in reality, no one person has “the truth.” But when people believe they already know everything, they derive no benefit from dialogue. One can have only a perception, an interpretation, or a subjective part of the truth. To move beyond subjectivity, leaders must have the skills to engage in dialogue, to decide, and to act all the while bearing in mind that one needs to know when to limit dialogue. The ultimate question is whether all viewpoints especially opposing or minority opinions, have been heard.
Many people have no idea how to express themselves in a dialogue, and someone unable to build a positive bond may speak with words that carry fear, anger, or sadness. How can you tell when someone is doing this? Social psychologists believe that it shows up in behaviour and words, and comes out as coercion, aggression, anxiety, low energy, and detachment. People unable to build a positive bond are argumentative; they interrupt without listening, defending, and thinking ahead, and the end result is that dialogue is blocked. For others, talking becomes a habit, a ritual rather than a personal exchange. When we are actually aware and thinking while talking, something different happens beyond just reporting a memory or repeating memories to fill in silence. Thinking is about seeing something new, and seeing the potential or the possibilities.
Blocks to Dialogue
Blocks are ways to stop a discussion and thereby rupture the bonding process inherent in real communication. All too often, however, we are not aware of blocks that can interfere with dialogue. Whether voicing a statement or a question, the responder needs to link directly to what preceded. That way, it is possible to follow the exchange sentence by sentence to the point at which any block intrudes.
The research of Kohlrieser shows that in organisations, about 70 per cent of communication is filled with blocks to dialogue. This reflects a major problem in communication and indicates why many meetings take so long without adding any value to anything. In dialogue, bonding is strong. When dialogue is blocked, bonding is limited or broken. Accordingly Kohlrieser believes dialogue can stumble by running into any of four primary blocks: passivity, discounting, redefining, and overdetailing.
Passivity: This occurs when a person displays and uses language of withdrawal or nonresponsive behavior. The focus of the person is on self-inhibition rather than on engaging in problem solving. Silence itself is not necessarily passivity when used constructively for reflection or adding impact. When silence is used to avoid a response, it is passivity.
Discounting: When people say something to deflate, inflate, disrespect, or put down another person or themselves in some way, they are discounting. The words “Yes, but . . . “ are usually a discount of whatever was said before. In organisations, managers and team members alike may fill conversations with discounts, thus blocking any chance of a useful dialogue.
Redefining: This block involves changing the focus of the transaction by manipulation to avoid something that may be uncomfortable or emotional. It might be a form of defensiveness to maintain an established mindset about oneself, other people, or the world.
Overdetailing: Simply put, the speaker gives too many details, overwhelming others with so much information that the important point is lost or hidden. Overdetailing is common in business, where leaders give presentations that have far too many slides and far too much detail for any one person to reasonably assimilate. The speaker and the listener both have a responsibility to helping each other know the important points in the transaction.
Social psychologists discern that dialogues can also run into six secondary blocks, which may or may not occur in conjunction with one of the primary blocks just described. These are: being too rational, being too emotional, overgeneralising, theoretical abstraction, lack of directness, and lack of honesty.
Blocks to dialogue are significant on two levels. First, they break the flow in content, or subject matter. Second, they rupture the fundamental emotional bonding needed in dialogue. The basic reason people block dialogue, it is believed, is to keep themselves or others at a distance through a disrupted or limited bond. People who block dialogue often have trouble making attachments, staying engaged, and maintaining bonding in a relationship. Blocking dialogue is usually a habit, sometimes learned in the family. The experts believe that it is perfectly possible, however, to rewire the brain and learn to speak effectively, directly, and without blocks.
The art of leadership hinges on knowing when to speak, when to be silent, and when to listen. All are part of the essential ability to engage in dialogue. In essence, no dialogue can take place without the accompanying willingness to at times be silent and listen.
True leadership means dealing with conflict effectively. Dialogue can help resolve everyday issues large and small in the business world. Dialogue creates an atmosphere in which mutual needs are recognised, common interests are understood, and solutions to conflicts are discovered. Everyone, leaders included, must express what they want, feel, and think, and also listen to what others need, want, feel, and think. By learning to recognise and change blocks to dialogue, we can move our conversations into productive, efficient, and respectful dialogues.
By Captain Sam Addaih (RTD)