The nine things underpinning great dialogue
When do we actually stop and think about what dialogue is? My guess is that most of us don’t. We learn to have conversations as children and as our language and vocabulary develops, we learn through experience how to structure our dialogue and what the rules of engagement are. Typically, that knowledge carries us through adulthood.
But if we’re not getting the outcomes we want, or we want to be more skilled in navigating complex or difficult situations, then it’s really useful to know what the foundation blocks for effective dialogue are, and what the different approaches people adopt can be. We have condensed-down four mindsets and five key behavioural skills into nine things underpinning great dialogue.
This is the kind of dialogue most of us unknowingly use. It involves deciding what outcome we would like from a conversation; making a set of assumptions around the fact that we are right and others are wrong; (sub)consciously believing it is important for us to get our way; then choosing a set of behaviours that deliver the result we want. Sadly, it’s a self-serving approach and not a formula for developing good, lasting relationships.
It is true for most of us that self-focused dialogue is what we revert to when we feel under threat or are invested in a particular outcome. We want to get our way but aren’t transparent about this with others. We focus on achieving our goal, winning, behaving in an acceptable manner and being seen to be right.
The behaviour this drives tends to include; not truly listening to others (although we may pretend to), standing our ground, holding back information and not taking on board information that others offer. When these behaviours are adopted by someone with positional power they will often ‘win’ or get their way in the short-term but with consequent negative impact on the health of the long-term relationship.
Evolved Dialogue is what we do when we are operating at our best, it’s a personal choice that can be practiced irrespective of the behaviour of others. It is how we would be all the time if our intent is good, we have the right mindset and have developed brilliant dialogue skills.
So what do we mean by ‘the right mindset’? Specifically, it means having a mindset that believes in:
- Transparency – Sharing all relevant information including data but also what you think and feel
- Curiosity – Being genuinely interested in the views of others especially those with different opinions
- Accountability – Holding yourself and others to account on what you have agreed to do. Being prepared to say the unsaid, to challenge others where necessary and to change your opinion when it is right to do so
- Compassion – Suspending judgement to truly listen and learn from others. Noticing and checking the assumptions you are making and creating an environment where others can perform at their best
Setting out with these mindsets will instinctively drive different and better conversations but there are some specific behaviours that make the world of difference. They are:
- Genuine Communication – This involves being prepared to share your opinion while at the same time remaining genuinely curious about other views. It means clarifying what is meant to check there’s a shared understanding and always stating your reason and intent, so others don’t make their own, usually incorrect, assumptions
- Test assumptions and inferences – You would be amazed how many times we infer something incorrect from what someone has said that leads us to respond in an unhelpful way. Becoming aware of it and checking in on our assumptions allows dialogue to stay on track
- Focus on interests and not positions – One of our greatest conversational pitfalls is when we stick to an opinion and battle it out. By spending time clarifying what interests need to be served by any potential solution we can ‘sit on the same side of the table’ and work through potential solutions together
- Agree ways of working – Having the discipline to apply a structure to our conversations and agreeing a decision-making approach will deliver instant improvements to the quality of all conversations
- Discuss the Undiscussables – We’ve all been there, the elephant in the room that nobody mentions… Learning to talk about and address these issues together, quickly and effectively allows us to move forward in a far more effective way
Adopting these nine principles of evolved dialogue can help us at work and in our personal life. Just making small changes to how we approach a conversation can really make a dramatic difference to the level of trust in relationships and the outcomes we get.
Try it and let us know how you get on!