“When it comes to improving performance, most organizations’ problems can be traced to their inability to think and talk together at critical moments.”– Paraphrased from William Isaacs’s book Dialogue, p.3
What passes as “communication” in most organizations is nothing more than people talking AT each other. Firing different opinions around a room with little structure to productively move any action forward. The dialogue is dysfunctional – meaning that it doesn’t produce a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. Eventually, when a decision must be made, it’s often the person who has spoken the loudest, longest, or with the most conviction that wins – whether it was the best idea or not.
When I share this idea with potential clients they often say, “Yes! That’s exactly what happens in our organization. How can we change it?” My first answer is that it takes time and commitment (and usually help from a professional like me). My second answer is that they can begin the process right now – by exploring their own contribution to the dysfunction. Good dialogue can be boiled down to 5 key elements – Listening, Respecting, Suspending, Voicing, and Inquiring. When dialogue breaks down, it’s usually because one or more of these are missing between the players involved.
Think of an unproductive conversation you’ve recently had. Consider the following questions to see where you might have been contributing to the problem.
1. Listening – Did I truly hear what the other person(s) said?
2. Respecting – Did I respect their opinions – even if I didn’t agree with them?
3. Suspending – Did I suspend my own opinions long enough to create an opening for new perspectives?
4. Voicing – Did I say what I truly thought and felt in a responsible way?
5. Inquiring – Did I probe for clarification when things weren’t clear?
6. When you find that one or more of these are missing, experiment with ways to bring them into the conversation.
Doug Sundheim • Executive Coach • New York, NY