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Written by Julie Drybrough and David Goddin on 1 February 2014 in Features

Julie Drybrough and David Goddin make an argument for the power of taking time to think and talk well together

The context and experience for most leaders and managers is that they are asked to operate in a world in which change is seen to be necessary, normal and inevitable. With change comes the potential for new thought and discovery, along with the potential for disruption and disagreement. This means our leaders and managers need to be well equipped to deal with both. It is against this backdrop that the practice of dialogue becomes a critical component for sustaining change and successful collaboration.

Working in organisations of all shapes and sizes, we hear a broad range of development needs and an equally broad range of potential solutions. Over the years there has been an increasing awareness that the learning and development of people, teams and organisations pivots on the ability to speak and listen well.

Dialogue deepens that process, giving clear insights into how to create the space and ability to listen well, to speak more freely and openly. Practising dialogue offers an encouragement to truly reflect on what is being said and take action.

Organisations are already recognising the importance of this, as demonstrated by the move away from 'chalk and talk' towards stronger engagement with learners, giving space to share and think. The use of coaching and action learning approaches are good examples of the way that L&D has moved toward a more facilitative learner-led approach, helping ourselves and others give voice to our questions and challenges.

We see that learning about ourselves and learning from others comes about successfully through the ability to give voice to our thoughts and actions. This is the essence of what we mean by dialogue: to create a collaborative environment that allows us to express what we mean; to think well; to listen well; to understand well; together.

When we look at how groups, teams and organisations function, we see a huge opportunity to use dialogue as a way to develop these skills and create positive impact in the workplace.

What is dialogue?

We define dialogue as an invitation for teams and individuals to talk with (not at) each other.

This definition is grounded in the writing of thinkers such as David Bohm, who describes dialogue as "a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us"1, and William Isaacs, who offers a beautiful turn of phrase to describe what we mean by dialogue2 - that is the notion of holding "a conversation with the centre, not the sides". The focus is on what is co-created and mutual, rather than that which is separate or fractious.

Firstly, in defining dialogue, it's useful to highlight the difference in origins of the words 'dialogue' and 'discussion'. Bohm draws a deeper understanding of the word 'discussion' as he explains its common roots with 'concussion' and 'percussion'. How many times do we find conversations as he described as though they were ping-pong matches, where the ball (the issue or topic) is batted back and forwards from opposing sides?

In essence, what we mean by dialogue is not what we experience or could take to mean from the word 'discussion'.

Neither is dialogue debate - during which people argue their case and score conversational, moral or intellectual points off each other. Nor is it conversation: enjoyable interactions that may be without purpose.

Dialogue is not negotiation - which is more about reaching compromise, or gaining advantage - though it is often an important part of any negotiation process.

Dialogue is an experienced phenomena in which people speak out their dissent, their disquiet or their delight, typically in a group setting - this leads to a richer understanding of the issue, more consideration in the process of reaching a decision, but ultimately produces quality outcomes that people are attached to.

How do you use dialogue?

Dialogue doesn't 'just happen', but there are some key components to ensuring good quality, challenging conversations occur. In this article, our aim is to help you understand the practical foundations so that you can practice dialogue.

In many ways dialogue is an art - its potential and, indeed, beauty develops with time and practice. Here are some key points to ensure you have the right studio and materials to make conversational masterpieces:

  • build a container for conversation
  • understand intent vs impact
  • balance advocacy and inquiry
  • understand the context.         

Build a container for conversation

Dialogue occurs in a space - in meeting rooms and across tables, between people and whole groups. In this physical space there also exist a number of non-physical conditions and attributes including context, purpose and expectations. This whole space is referred to as a 'container'.

To create the conditions necessary for challenging and supportive conversations, it's critical to build a 'container' that is clearly understood by all participants. In order to talk well and hold different points of view effectively, dialogue practitioners must consciously work on this container - building it to be robust and strong enough to hold the conversation. The stronger the container, the more authentic and effective the conversations will be.

In order to create this container, it is essential to establish the following basic 'pillars':

  • respecting The quality of respecting yourself and others who are involved in the conversation
  • suspending judgment Can you understand your own and others' assumptions and work through them? Can you understand that which seems disagreeable?
  • listening This is active listening - listening to understand others and to the rhythm and flow of what is being talked about. Who speaks first? Who never speaks?
  • authentic voice Can you speak with a voice that is genuine and adult to contribute to the overall dialogue? Can you raise concerns or doubts with confidence and clarity? Can you ask for the pace of the conversation to slow down or speed up? Can you ask for what you need?

With these pillars, the container is created in which challenging and profoundly changing dialogue can take place

Understand intent vs impact

Everyone contributes in dialogue. Even silence is a contribution of sorts. Arguably you can never fully understand the impact you have on another person or on a group of people, but you can be clear about your intent. Are you seeking to be clever? Seeking to improve relationships? Seeking to move the dialogue forward? How do you go about that?

If the impact you have is aligned to your intent, your contribution will be clear and authentic. It is when we hide our intent that people become confused or suspicious. When you are in dialogue, it is useful to ask yourself what you intend for:

  • yourself in this conversation
  • the outcome of the conversation
  • your relationship with others in the conversation
  • the overall system/environment in which you are working.

Balance advocacy and inquiry

In any dialogue, the balance of advocacy and inquiry is essential - teams need both. Too much advocacy and assumptions come into play, things are rushed through and important consequences are missed. Too much inquiry and there is a risk of paralysis by analysis.

Some people err naturally to being advocatory in their conversations, while others lean more to inquiry. In a learning context, we ask leaders and managers to understand both skilful advocacy and skilful inquiry. These are interventions that move a conversation in a positive or purposeful direction.

Understand the context

Context is everything in dialogue - these are the actual and perceived conditions that you are working in and under.

A classic example is we have always done it this way... Within that context, new thinking and innovation can be lost. Inviting people to look at that context and the assumptions that sit under that thinking allows new perspectives to open up.

In dialogue, the context of the conversation affects its successful outcome and how much work needs to go into building the elements of the container. For example, if you are under pressure, the temptation can be to not listen well or be respectful of others.

The benefits of understanding the context well can be far reaching:

  • paying attentions to individual contributions
  • examining the wider systems and the effect of our conversations and decisions
  • challenging long-held assumptions, sometimes unspoken but widely held
  • greater accountability in the group - we are all responsible for an outcome and understand the context of our contributions.

What contexts are you working within, together? Pressured or relaxed? Under scrutiny or in a very open environment? Is your organisation innovative? More traditional? What is valued? What is disregarded? Are there levels of trust in the conversation? What is permissible?

Dialogue in action - an example

The leadership team has been working together for more than five years and has a wealth of technical and operational experience. Robyn is the youngest and newest member of the team and has deep expertise in customer service - something that doesn't appear to have much currency or traction within the team. Robyn is growing increasingly frustrated at not being heard and his new ideas being ignored. On the surface there is politeness and agreement among the team members but, underneath, there appears to be a growing tension.

The established members of the team are open in saying that they trust the known, established ways of working and being, and that Robyn represents a different way of working.

We begin by working to establish an environment in which the team members are free to speak without censure. Using the pillars for building a container, we invite the team to commit to suspending judgment of the current situation, to be respectful of each other and to listen to those around them. Through this, we begin to open up a dialogue that unpicks months of assumptions and miscommunication.

When Robyn talks about a sense of isolation and frustration, there is discomfort in the room. The team is invited to work through that discomfort and keep talking with each other. At the end of the first dialogue session, the dynamic in the team is beginning to shift in a positive way. By the end of the third dialogue session, customer service is being talked about as a key part of the team's offering to the organisation.

Using dialogue with leadership teams

As the example above demonstrates, one of the key opportunities to use dialogue productively is with leadership teams.

Often, even in apparently successful and collaborative teams, the nature of discussions will demonstrate that there are, at times, dominant voices and silent partners in the group. At other times we might observe a more subtle dynamic such as a lack of productive conflict or artificial harmony. Unwittingly, these factors can inhibit the team's performance and potential. If you've observed these dynamics in leadership teams, you'll also know that it's a challenge to raise such observations in a way that creates change rather than resistance.

When teams don't exhibit such dynamics, there still often exists the challenge of creating and nurturing productive and progressive conversations.

Dialogue and the team At the core of any team is the interaction between individuals and the group. Much of this is apparent in the conversations and actions that they can create together. It's useful at this stage to reflect on what defines an effective team.

Professor Peter Hawkins expands on earlier work by Katzenbach and Smith3 and posits that an effective team is "a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and shared approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable. The common approach needs to include ways of effectively meeting and communicating that raise morale and alignment, effectively engaging with all the team's key stakeholder groups and ways that individuals and the team can continually learn and develop" 4.

At the core of this definition lies effective interaction and communication that engages and facilitates continuous learning and development.

We'd go further and state that, at the core of any effective team, is the art and practice of skilful dialogue. That is dialogue in which there is a useful balance of advocacy and inquiry, and which builds on those four pillars of respecting, suspending judgment, listening and authentic voicing.

A model for dialogue in teams In establishing effective dialogue within a team setting, there are four conversational dynamics that must be present in appropriate proportions:

  • direction Establish a direction and set the group in motion (advocacy)
  • correction Question the direction that has been initiated (advocacy)
  • perspective Invites greater reflection to build awareness (inquiry)
  • completion Supports the direction, focusing on completion (inquiry).

…If there is too much direction and completion, you run the risk of dominance without useful challenge or perspective.

…If there is too much direction and correction, you create an environment of constant debate without broad agreement.

…If there's not enough perspective, the team can lose sight of the needs of stakeholders and the system as well as its own processes.

However, with the right balance of each, you establish an environment for dialogue in which you can create, clarify, challenge and complete. With the four pillars in place, you create useful silence and time to think.

The following model illustrates how these components come together in dialogue and reflects well William Isaac's notion of holding "a conversation with the centre, not the sides".

Working with leadership teams, this model can be effective for both diagnosis and building capability and practice in the art of dialogue.

Closing thoughts

What we see in dialogue is the potential for managers and leaders to bring together both advocacy and inquiry in a way that is authentic, purposeful and aids our ability to talk and think well together.

We don't want to give the impression that dialogue is a panacea. It's not. At times there are other approaches that may be more appropriate. However, we know that there are a range of straightforward practices in this art form that can be applied effectively in the workplace to make a difference.

Our aim throughout this article has been to encourage the practice of talking with, not at, each other to show how the use of dialogue can positively challenge the status quo and allow groups the space to think well together.

In a world where change is seen to be necessary, normal and inevitable, we see the practice of dialogue as a critical component for sustaining change and successful collaboration.

We invite you to look at how you can use the art of dialogue in your organisation to build insight, collaboration and performance.


1 Bohm D On Dialogue Routledge (1996)

2 Isaacs W Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together Crown Business (1999)

3 Katzenbach J, Smith D The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the high performance organization Harvard Business Review Press (1993)

4 Hawkins P Leadership Team Coaching Kogan Page (2011)

About the author

Julie Drybrough is an organisational consultant and owner of fuchsiablue ltd; she can be contacted via www.fuchsiablue.com.

David Goddin is MD of Change Continuum; he can be contacted via www.changecontinuum.com


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