The Art of Dialogue

How to improve your conversation skills by becoming a better speaker and listener.

What's the secret of good informal conversation? Bill Isaacs, 41, the author of "Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together" (Doubleday, 1999) and a consultant with Dialogos, says that people need to build specific skills and to appreciate the separate stages of a good conversation. Here are a few key skills, followed by an outline of those stages.

Find your own voice — and then speak with it.

Say what you think, not what you think your organization wants you to say. Productive conversations are necessarily subversive: They challenge the existing order. But speaking in your own voice doesn't mean that you should purposely offend or provoke. Learn to offer your thoughts in a nonthreatening way — a way that invites responses and reactions — and make sure that those thoughts are your thoughts. "Effective leaders," says Isaacs, "have the courage to say what they're thinking — and that usually turns out to be what everyone else is thinking."

Listen generously.

We project our own opinions onto everything we hear, says Isaacs. We interpret — or misinterpret — what others say, often without realizing it. This "rumbling in your own head," as Isaacs calls it, clouds our capacity to hear what people are actually saying.

Listen respectfully.

Assume that speakers know what they mean to say, even if they're not clear about saying it. This behavior is antithetical to Western business culture, which rewards us for capitalizing on others' mistakes, but it's key to having productive conversations. Instead of looking for reasons to discredit a speaker, try looking for coherence and meaning — and try to bring those qualities out of the speaker. "People think that this means wimping out," says Isaacs. "But granting respect is one of the hardest things to do in conversation."

These skills fold into an overarching structure of conversation, or into what Isaacs calls the "architecture of the invisible" — four phases that a conversation moves through as it evolves from the cursory to the creative. The catch: Moving from one stage to the next requires passage through a transformative crisis.

Stage one is polite talk — conversation dictated almost entirely by social rules. Office-party chitchat, for example: banal bantering that adheres to conventions of courtesy, civility, and authority.

A conversation will remain stuck in polite talk until the talkers have what Isaacs calls "a crisis of emptiness," in which "you get frustrated with small talk, and you want to tell someone what you're really thinking." Now you've moved into stage two: breakdown. This is the stage at which a lot of business conversation takes place, and it isn't terribly deep or reflective. Breakdown is, however, marked by conflict, as the talkers adhere to their positions and battle over whose meaning has precedence or power. (Breakdown conversations often stall out and slip back, or recycle, into politeness.)

If speakers can let go of their positions — by undergoing what Isaacs calls the "crisis of suspension" — they will proceed to stage three: inquiry. This is where real dialogue begins: "This is where people begin to ask, 'Why are we talking this way?' "

Next comes the "crisis of fragmentation" — which, if it can be navigated, leads to stage four: flow. In flow, conversation works so smoothly that individual voices seem to fold into a group voice. But, like all forms of near-perfection, this one eventually comes to an end: Few groups can remain in flow for long. Temporarily, at least, conversation must recycle back into politeness via the "crisis of reentry." People "are really reluctant to go back," says Isaacs. "They want to preserve the groove their team has found. The important thing is not to try to hold onto a particular experience but to recognize that the process is cyclical. True power lies in being able to gather momentum and to move yourself and your team around that cycle."

Isaacs warns against using this list of stages as a road map — and against trying to skip the first stages or the crises that separate them. "Each of these spaces is necessary and okay," he says. "Try not to freak out when you find yourself in one."

You can reach Bill Isaacs by email (honu1@aol.com) or visit Dialogos on the Web (www.dialogos-inc.com).

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