Constructive Dialog

This is an adaptation of a few articles edited together here. Some folks in the guild will know these techniques well, others less so.

Introduction

While differences of perspective contribute to a healthy decision-making process, they can also lead to interpersonal conflict that spirals into dysfunctional relationships. This often occurs when someone doesn't have all the facts, intentions are misunderstood, or people react out of feelings unrelated to the the issue at hand.

Misunderstanding occurs particularly when an individual is uncomfortable raising an issue, feels intimated by someone with greater authority or position power, suspects a personal agenda or just doesn't want to sound argumentative. As well, we are hardly without psychological triggers that can bring out reactions in one person that cause others to go huh?

An emotionally charged situation often results, and as the issue is bandied about in cyberspace, layer upon layer of faulty assumptions build up into the proverbial house of cards. People form camps or divide into in-groups and out-groups. Positions become fortified.

Here are some do's and don'ts:

  • When someone makes a statement that leaves you feeling uncomfortable, clarify what message was really intended before jumping to conclusions.
  • Don't make assumptions based on second-hand feedback about someone. Go to the source and get the facts even if it makes you uncomfortable. Find out if what you heard is an accurate representation of what was said. Use lead-in phrases such as: "Tell me more about…" "Help me understand…" "I'd like to hear more about your perspective…"

Forums are a great tool for information sharing, but not for problem solving or collaborating on complex issues. Collaborative problem solving can only occur in an environment of trust. And trust building in turn requires dialogue. Individuals need dialog time to bond, form relationships and set role boundaries before they can work together effectively. Forums cannot replace this person-to-person trust-building process; it can only serve as a tool for sharing intelligence and follow-up actions once there is a common understanding of a decision or for fine-tuning implementation strategies.

Used inappropriately, forums perpetuate misunderstandings and encourages debate rather than dialog and contributes to entrenched positions. You can't test assumptions - it's not interactive enough.

In cyberspace, dialog is essentially interactive chat technologies like IRC and instant messaging (MSN, Skype, Yahoo).

Preventing interpersonal difficulties and dysfunctional relationships comes down to one key principle: Go directly to the source and dialog.

Discussion vs Dialog

OK, we go to the source, and start to interact. How we interact now becomes important. It is important to actively listen to understand others' points of view, and speak to describe their point of view while working to build a shared understanding. Dialogue can describe the kind of conversation which builds a synergistic new and better understanding of an issue. Discussion describes the kind of conversation which only presents and compares current points of view.

Dialogue is about what we value and how we define it. In Dialogue we do not try to convince others of our points of view. There is no emphasis on winning, but rather on learning, collaboration and the synthesis of points of view. It is about discovering what our true values are, about looking beyond the superficial and automatic answers to our questions. It assists in creating environments of high trust and openness.

To make this clear, here are some basic differences between dialogue and discussion.

Dialogue creates a community-based culture of cooperation and shared leadership. It moves groups from the dependency, competition and exclusion often found in hierarchical cultures to increased collaboration, partnership and inclusion.

Discussion is basically an activity where we throw our opinions back and forth in an attempt to convince each other of the rightness of a particular point of view.

The intentions of dialogue and discussion are quite different and are contrasted below.

Dialogue

  • To inquire to learn
  • To unfold shared meaning
  • To integrate multiple perspectives
  • To uncover and examine assumptions

Discussion

  • To tell, sell, persuade
  • To gain agreement on one meaning
  • To evaluate and select the best
  • To justify/defend assumptions

How to Dialog

There are four basic elements to effective dialog.

Suspension of Judgment

Our normal way of thinking divides, organizes and labels. Because our egos become identified with how we think things are we often find ourselves defending our positions against those of others. This makes it difficult for us to stay open to new and alternative views of reality. It is hard to listen when we are engaged in a heated battle about "who's right and who's wrong!"

When we learn to suspend judgment, to "hold our positions more lightly", we open the door to see others' points of view. It is not that we do away with our judgments and opinions - this would be impossible. We simply create a space between our judgment and our reaction, and thus open a door for listening.

Suspending judgment is also a key to building a climate of trust and safety. As we learn that we will not be "judged" wrong for our opinions, we feel freer to express ourselves. The atmosphere becomes more open and truthful.

Assumption Identification

Identify means "to recognize, to pick out from your surroundings, to feel one with." Assumptions are "those things which are assumed or thought to be". So to identify assumptions is to recognize, or identify, that which we think is so.

It is probably obvious to most of us that our assumptions play a large role in how we evaluate our environment, the decisions we make and how we behave. Yet, it is just this aspect of our thinking that we consistently overlook when we seek to solve problems, resolve conflicts, or create synergy.

Why do we overlook the obvious? Our assumptions are transparent to us. They are such a built-in part of our seeing apparatus that we do not even know they are there. We look right through them.

When we examine the underlying assumptions behind our decisions and actions we are able to identify where there are disconnects in our strategies and take more effective actions.

Listening

Take a minute, right now, to ask yourself for your personal definition of listening. Think about that activities you identify with listening? How do you know you are listening? Being listened to? What does listening feel like? How could your listening be enhanced?

The way we listen, has a lot to do with our capacity to learn and build quality relationships with others. When we listen deeply we are willing to be influenced by and learn from others.

Listening also involves developing our ability to perceive the meaning arising both at the individual level and within the group. What assumptions are we hearing, which ones are shared? Listening for shared meaning presents us with the opportunity to see a choice emerging as consensus, and pursue it.

Inquiry and Reflection

Inquiry and refection are about learning how to ask questions with the intention of gaining additional insight and perspective. Inquiry elicits information. Reflection permits the inspection of information and the perception of relationships. The combination of reflection and inquiry enables us to learn, to think creatively, and to build on past experience (versus simply repeating the same patterns over and over again).

Questions that lead to new levels of understanding often begin with "I wonder…", "what if….", "what does xxx mean to you?" As we ask these questions and listen, we gain greater awareness into our own and others' thinking processes and the issues that separate and unite us.

Closing Thought

All the elements are interrelated. For example, as we begin to draw aside the curtains of our judgments, we develop the capacity to speak and listen without the automatic coloring of past thought patterns. We become less reactive, more aware of the assumptions through which we filter our observations. Choosing to suspend these assumptions, we may experiment with expanding the horizons of our perceptions, increasing the number of points of view available to us. By creating space to reflect on what we are perceiving, seeking the next level of inquiry, opening up our senses and listening deeply, with the intention to discover and understand we enter into dialogue.

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