From the Greek dia – to flow through and logos – meaning.
Dialogue is a special type of conversation between participants in which the aim is to reach agreement and initiate action through gaining a clear understanding of the position of others. This leads to decisions and actions for which there is a greater degree of buy in as a result of all party’s interests being fully considered. Contrast this with discussion, which seems to be the most common form of interaction between parties; this is from the same root as percussion and concussion, suggesting beating against something. This behaviour can often be witnessed in a discussion where each side tries to batter down the other’s defences with the force of their arguments. There is no room for understanding the opposing position in this type of interchange, the winners get their way at the expense of the losers with a resultant loss of buy in and commitment to any outcomes reached.
We need both dialogue and discussion in our business interactions, they are both useful tools to have in the management toolkit, unfortunately many managers possess only discussion and act a bit like the man who, only possessing a hammer, thinks every problem is a nail. Discussion is about making decisions. Unlike dialogue, which seeks to open possibilities and see new options, discussion seeks closure and completion. The word decide means to “resolve difficulties by cutting through them”. Its roots literally mean, “to murder the alternative”.
Dialogue is about exploration and choice. It is about evoking insight, which is a way of reordering our knowledge, particularly the assumptions that people bring to the table.
In many situations the temptation is to leap into the discussion phase far too early without having undertaken meaningful dialogue. This may result in decisions and choices being made that are deficient for one of several reasons:
All available information has not been shared.Not all choices and options have been explored.The feelings of all participants have not been considered.One side will feel they have “lost”.All parties do not buy into the resultant decision.There is not complete commitment to agreed actions.
The challenge is to recognise at which point in the process to invoke the skills of dialogue and when it may be necessary to turn to discussion. This insight will come with practice and in order to reach this point, first the skills necessary for productive dialogue must be recognised and practised. These skills are as follows:
Listening; gaining understanding of the meaning rather than just hearing the words.Respecting; viewing others as legitimate with something to offer us.Suspending; resisting the impulse to judge, agree or disagree.Voicing; saying what you think, not what you think you should say.
By mastering the four skills above we can move towards more productive interactions with our colleagues at all levels and in all situations. This will lead to improved working relationships, better decisions and higher commitment to agreed actions.