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Is Dialogue the Secret to Success?

Recent literature is laden with information on dialogue. Titles referring to dialogue as "magic" and "better than duct tape" imply that dialogue is the cure-all for the woes of the workplace. Can anything really be THAT good? After all, duct tape not only keeps my suitcase from falling open in the airport, but was also the material that saved Apollo 13 from total disaster!

The truth is that dialogue is that good, but like everything else worthwhile, it has to be worked at. There are no magic formulas here, just hard work on the part of the participants.

I can almost hear the collective groan as I wrote that last sentence. "Why must I always be the one to change?" Well, because the willingness of all concerned to suspend their perspectives and usual ways of thinking is one of the integral steps to eliciting dialogue.

This is not to say you should throw away your own perspectives, and refrain from stating your own thoughts and opinions. It does say that each person should truly listen to the other participants and set aside their assumptions for at least the length of time that the others are speaking. Everyone will get a chance in the barrel to express themselves, so you will get your turn.

Being attentive to others' ideas takes a strong self-image and an openness to be open to changing your mind. The purpose of dialogue is not to win, but to raise the knowledge and understanding of the entire group to a higher level. A collaborative approach must be taken, absent of defensive or self-righteous behavior.

How do you elicit dialogue?

Our industrial society seems to gravitate to competitive, oppositional types of discussion and debate. However, almost everyone has experienced a conversation that goes in an unplanned direction and transformation. Usually, this is attributed to chance, or special "chemistry". However, the environment for dialogue can be created without mystery or chance. To generate real, creative dialogue, it's best to use deliberative systems and methods.

There are three types of basic actions that the participants must be willing to enact to create a true dialogue:

  1. Changing their usual communication patterns by listening to and respecting others' opinions, suspending judgments, and openly sharing their own perspectives without condescension.

  2. Understand that people have alternative perspectives and methods of interaction, that people manage power in different ways, and that their present patterns of action may be self-defeating

  3. Focus on the quality of the interaction setting, specifically the physical setting and "fields of energy" (feelings, memories, hidden agendas, relationships) at the moment of interaction.

These factors are often assumed to be very esoteric and "soft." However, there have been many project teams in which the members did not clearly articulate to each other the issues that they knew could be problems, because they were afraid of being seen as "negative" or not a "team player". This has led to multimillion-dollar mistakes on very concrete equipment issues - never mind the cost to the people working long hours to fix those mistakes under extreme stress levels (more "soft" issues). Sadly, this situation is far from unique. Organizations can cite countless problems and issues that could have had more successful results had there been a different type of conversation - one with more honesty, focus, and "fire".

To accomplish productive decision-making, a facilitator or "process consultant" is often required to ensure that a focused setting, presence, and process exists, so that real dialogue can take place.

What does a "process consultant" or facilitator do?

A facilitator or "process consultant" is accountable for the process as opposed to the content of the interaction between people. There are different skills required to facilitate meetings into dialogue, and these usually depend on the stage of the relationship between the attendees.

These different stages of conversation are healthy and normal, but it's how the group moves through them that is most important for true dialogue. For example, when people come together as a group, they bring their own assumptions about how they are supposed to act. They are usually polite to the point of repression of feelings. Facilitators must challenge the status quo and incite change by making it safe for people to speak their underlying thoughts and feelings.

As the meeting goes on, people start to feel comfortable enough to say what they think, but tend to cling to their own perspectives. Conflicts are necessary in this part of the process, however, and produce the fuel for change. Since opposition is the catalyst for the group to find new ways of working together, the facilitator helps provide an atmosphere of safety and reassurance so that difficult issues can be raised.

From this kind of atmosphere, a reflective type of conversation emerges, and dialoguers start to talk about how they developed their opinions and positions. At this point, ideas tend to flow freely without the need to agree. Each member of the group is now willing to examine the rules that govern how they have been operating, allowing them to see the dynamics of their relationships with other group members. During this phase, the facilitator uses techniques to model self-reflection and inquiry, and listens for emerging themes.

As participants are able to question some of their own positions, creativity and new possibilities begin to be expressed. In this phase, the facilitator seeks paths to resolution and action planning, and reflects on the process so that the group can sustain what they have learned.

The term facilitate is a derivative of the Latin - to make easy. Far from being magic, the road to dialogue is simple - but it is never easy. It is difficult to hear assumptions that are contradictory to one's own. It is difficult to suspend the competitive mode. The role of the facilitator is to at least make it easier for the group to reach its common objectives, with the commitment of each of its members intact.

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