In complex systems, no one person or group has sufficient information and perspective to accurately define problems or to design the most creative and effective solutions.
One right answer rarely exists. Different perspectives must be brought together through high quality communication.
Also, the best results arise when people decide to do work out of desire and interest, or intrinsic motivation, as opposed to compliance. Intrinsic motivation arises not through being convinced but through being able to talk about the work and its rationale and contribute to solutions.
But, such open and widely distributed talk about different viewpoints and concerns is very hard to do.
The complexity, pressures, and high stakes of daily life in organizations result in a strong drive to quickly come up with answers to problems. This can shut off adequate communication and cause misdirection, errors, conflict, and passive compliance all of which can hurt results.
Dialogue is a method to elicit different perspectives and manage them skillfully.
Definition of dialogue
Open, honest conversation which elicits commonalities and differences and manages them skillfully to:
- discover what is important to each participant;
- find mutual definitions of problems, mutual goals, creative solutions, and shared commitment for action;
- maintain feedback about what is working and not working in order to sustain progress.
Key practices for dialogue:*
- Explicitly keep separate the times for dialogue and for decision making.
- Make explicit the intentions of dialogue (see above).
- Elicit different viewpoints and explore them. Avoid debates.
- Suspend certainty that there is one right perspective or solution.
- Explore the underlying data and observations on which views are based.
- Assure wide, balanced participation.
- Avoid judgments and blame. Assume mutual contributions to problems.
- Use cycles of active listening, active telling, and checking understanding.*
You can start to use these practices right now. Every conversation is an opportunity to advance mutual understanding and problem solving. The most important enabling factor for dialogue is the first practice—setting aside, on a temporary basis, the push to get to solutions in order to really listen to people.
Example 1: In complex systems, slowing down simply to ask questions is likely to progressively lead to more accurate definitions of problems, better solutions, and higher motivation. It is helpful to think of one dialogue about one issue as potentially spreading out over multiple interactions including even a 5 minute hallway conversation.
In your next hallway conversation or in a meeting with an individual or team, consider these questions:
- How are things going? What is working and not working?
- What do you care most about at work? What makes you most enthusiastic?
- How does this [e.g. change, project, problem] impact what you care most about?
- What are your biggest concerns right now?
- Do you have ideas about how we can mitigate those concerns?
Example 2: If you are in the middle of a conflict, ask if others could set aside the attempt to resolve it just to explore what each person is observing and experiencing. Being able to elicit and explore disagreements rather than debate them not infrequently leads to a whole new understanding of an issue entirely different from what was originally expected.
Make every conversation count toward involving people in identifying and solving problems that they care about.
*To obtain the tool and reference list In-the-Moment Reminders for Dialogue available to subscribers only, subscribe for free monthly articles and blogs by clicking on Subscribe.