Have you noticed? News networks and social media platforms are flooded with vitriol. It’s almost as though people go out of their way to be nasty and insulting. Civility is clearly on the decline.
But if you’re serious about building a strong social network and a thriving career, dialogue skills are an absolute must.
Let’s consider what dialogue is not. Dialogue is not pie-in-the- sky, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing stuff. Neither is it a touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy, soft-headed approach to thinking and interacting.
True dialogue dates back to Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and others who discovered its power in helping people build deeper and deeper layers of trust and understanding.
True dialogue is the preferred communication model of some of today’s toughest-minded—and most successful—business practitioners.
True dialogue enables people to blend and synchronize their ingenuity and work in ways not otherwise possible.
True dialogue is the antidote to the poisonous “discussion” and debate tactics that characterize so many interactions in so many organizations.
Fortunately, there are some tried-and-true behaviors that can help you practice true dialogue.
Simply put, true dialogue cannot occur in an atmosphere where anyone is inclined to exert power over another. Command-and-control is the antithesis of an open and honest sharing of meaning.
Of course, outside the context of dialogue there may be significant status differences. Asking people to check their titles at the door does not erase the reality that they have different titles, different levels of authority, and different power bases. But during dialogue itself, equality must reign supreme. For the occasion, participants must remove their badges of status and resist any temptation to pull rank. Before participants can open up honestly with each other, mutual trust must be present. And an atmosphere of mutual trust is impossible to establish if any of the participants are perceived to be holding their power ready for an ambush.
Here’s an all-too-common scenario. The big guy organizes an executive retreat to discuss strategic planning, an acquisition, a new training initiative, or something else that will impact the life of every person on the team. He invites his people to dress casually for the occasion. At the beginning of the meeting, he reminds everyone that he expects straight talk with no holds barred. He says all the right things. But somewhere lurking in the shadows is his “boss” persona, ready to pounce at the first idea that’s at variance with his. And lame attempts to lighten the moment—I actually heard one CEO ask his team, “Does anyone care to make any career-limiting comments?”—can make dialogue even less likely.
Inviting people to dress casually and to talk candidly are empty gestures if not accompanied by a genuine (albeit temporary) relinquishing of power.
In the movie First Knight, King Arthur is portrayed as a person of truly noble character. He proudly displays his Round Table, which he says is designed so it lacks a special place of privilege for him. Yet it is Arthur who either makes or disproportionately influences every decision reached at the table. Despite the furniture arrangement, there’s no ambiguity about who’s the boss.
During a visit with one of my clients in the nuclear power business I was invited to observe a meeting of about 20 people. The participants were from several different levels on the organization chart. They were planning for an upcoming outage during which a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment was to be replaced. Schedules were tight. Budgets were sacrosanct. Reputations, and even careers, were on the line.
These were the perfect ingredients for self-indulgent power plays. But after an hour of observing the interchange, I still couldn’t tell who the top dogs were in the room. In fact, when I later discovered the “official” pecking order, I was pleasantly surprised. The “head man” turned out to be the most deferential person in the room. During the meeting he was the one who most frequently said things like “How do you see it?” “Oh, I hadn’t considered that,” “I wonder if we might combine a couple of ideas that have been offered.”
This “boss” talked tentatively—not at all in the sense of weak confidence, but rather in a way that made it safe for people to continue the open dialogue.
Learn to relinquish power. That simple ask of humility can open the floodgates of good ideas from people who might otherwise just sit and listen.
Next: How deferring judgment can improve your communication—and your relationships.
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