When approaching communications, we generally bring our hidden values, assumptions and intentions to bear. These covert elements influence our behaviors and lead to personality and cultural clashes before we’re aware what’s happening. As a result, we miss golden opportunities for collective learning and shared understanding.
Dialogue is a powerful tool for understanding our thoughts, actions and interactions. By building bridges, instead of chasms, dialogue enhances our awareness of the world as we strive to make sense of our relationships, organizations, communities and our lives.
The word dialogue derives from two Greek roots: dia logos, which means “through meaning.” Dialogue is about creating meaning that connects us all at the core level of humanity through mutual respect, shared destiny, constructive action and goodwill.
Unlike discussion and debate, dialogue is non-confrontational and emphasizes deep listening to promote understanding. Our usual communication processes emphasize individualism and winning, whereas dialogue emphasizes learning and connectedness. Dialogue encourages discovery and mutual understanding by inviting us to share our personal stories, express our interests and perspectives, and clarify our viewpoints. Having insight into another’s fears, challenges, limitations and successes creates a deeper sense of common ground and belonging than our usual interactions will allow.
The art of dialogue teaches us what it means to create together and enhances relational bonds. It is a fundamentally deeper form of communication that builds mutual trust and respect. Through dialogue, we can surface underlying assumptions that hinder our progress. Without mutual knowledge, there is no mutual understanding.
The Process of Dialogue
Dialogue is not just about communication, but action. Being able to make clear distinctions between what we say and do is the basis of true solution-based dialogue. While most conversations integrate both discussion and dialogue, you want to be clear about the context and intended outcomes before engaging either form. For example, if your goal is to immediately solve a problem, it will likely require discussion to examine the various sides of that problem before taking action. However, if your goal is to understand the nature of that problem, you would engage in dialogue to amass diverse perspectives and broaden your perceptions. When the latter is deemed appropriate, here are some ways to create a dramatic shift in communications through the gift of dialogue:
1. Create space. Clearly establish your purpose and objectives for the dialogue session. Define the problem or issue that you want to explore. Create a welcoming space and safe environment and communicate to everyone what it means to participate. To expand awareness, create community and reach shared understanding, participants should maintain a spirit of openness, integrity, curiosity and empathy. Participation is shared, so there is no leader, but a facilitator. Maintain a flexible agenda by being responsive to emerging needs. Define key questions. Do not rush to action, but “sit” with the process to allow hidden conflicts to surface, as well as any creative alternatives that may not be readily apparent. Two things to keep in mind: (1) dialogue requires group introspection, which can be exhausting, so know when it’s time to bring closure; and (2) every situation is different, so your process for dialogue should be adapted accordingly.
2. Listen actively. Trust is built when we take the time to listen to others. As we become more skillful listeners, we are better able to understand how we perceive our environment. To listen actively is to listen with all of your senses — not just your ears — for deeper meaning and understanding. Active listening means intentionally focusing on the speaker by empathizing and giving them space to express their views; setting aside your opinions and prejudices and suspending judgment to gain a different perspective; being aware of non-verbal and verbal messages; and checking for understanding by restating, summarizing and asking questions about what you think you heard.
3. Communicate your assumptions. Our beliefs influence the selected data that we pay attention to. Therefore, it’s important to share with others our internal frames of reference, so they know what we envision as truth or reality. Take ownership for your thoughts, beliefs and assumptions by letting others know what you think and feel and how you arrived at certain conclusions. Sharing your mental models and reasoning process not only enhances self-awareness, but promotes accountability, authenticity and mutual understanding.
4. Appreciate diverse perspectives. None of us holds the whole truth. We all hold a piece of the collective puzzle we are trying to solve. Dialogue assumes that there is not one but many right answers, so it frees us from our own social conditioning and exposes us to new experiences. Embrace and leverage multiple perspectives to expand your access to a wider variety of experiences and improve your ability to gain diverse insights, reach consensus and achieve more extraordinary results.
5. Be curious. There is transformative power in questions. Asking the right questions at the right time can change the direction of our lives. So engage in collective inquiry to surface new information and new realities. Ask a series of questions such as, What do we want to do, have, be or get that is different? What would it mean for us to create change on this issue? What is stopping us from obtaining what we want? What can we do together to achieve a different outcome? When faced with problems or issues, asking questions helps us to compare points of view, uncover relevant themes and patterns and gain deeper insights. Questioning also helps us to identify more creative strategies for addressing those problems or issues.
Dialogue expands our capacity to learn from and with one another. While the process takes time, its powerful effects can lead to personal and social transformation. In its deepest sense, dialogue inspires hope and confidence by restoring us back to our shared humanity. Commit to a higher level of growth and evolution by harnessing collective intelligence to chart new direction, uncover new opportunities and surface new meaning and understanding.
Until Next Time,