Are We Really In “Dialogue?” Or Are We Just Talking?

dialogue or just talking

There’s a sexy word out there that comes up when we’re dealing with the stickiest organizational problems. Touted as the panacea to things like diminishing employee engagement, silo-ed communication, and organizational stress, the word falls from the lips of serious leaders and managers everywhere:

“We should really engage in dialogue around this.”

“A dialogue on this is so important.”

“We need a dialogue to really understand what’s going on.”

How many times have you heard this? And how many times did you leave scratching your head after you vigorously nodded in agreement?

We shout the word and rally the troops around it. It sounds like peace, harmony, love, and all the things that we should strive for in this world. We should all know how to engage in dialogue, right?

Often, we don’t actually know what we mean when we say the word “dialogue,” yet we expect it to work. Are we just talking to people, or does dialogue entail something more? And if it does, what does that look like?

What Do We Actually Mean By Dialogue?

The term has been gaining steam for some time in organizations since it was popularized and outlined by works such as Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. But scholars and practitioners in many different fields studied dialogue for years before that.

Great philosophers discussed dialogue. As the world changed and movements grew from the grassroots of society, dialogue emerged as an important piece of liberation and education. Dialogue is now critical in places as diverse as one-on-one mediations, adult education, the design of public infrastructure, the organization of communities in struggle, and between nations trying to negotiate peace.

There are similarities in the way that leaders define dialogue today that allow us to sum up our understanding of it: dialogue is meant for groups to see each other as complex individuals, to understand each and every side of a problem, and to generate solutions together, once everyone has been heard.

So, when we evoke the word “dialogue” in organizations, we’re implying a much deeper level of relating than typical workplace conversations imply. We’re looking to create something that reflects the full spectrum of opinions from those involved, or we need a deep understanding of a complex problem before moving forward. Dialogue is more than just talking. It’s a messy, often ambiguous, uncomfortable process. And it’s important to know what’s involved.

Moving From Consultation To Dialogue

Most days, we consult fellow employees on different issues. We ask whether something is a good or a bad idea, we ask how new ideas could be implemented, or we “check in” with people on how things are going. In these instances, communication is quick, characterized by a few back-and-forth’s, perhaps some tension, and a resolution.

This is our model for communication in organizations. With the implementation of “dialogue,” the tendency is to think of a longer version of our everyday conversations. Rather than engage in true dialogue, we just talk more.

So how do you move towards dialogue and away from the day-to-day conversations that people are used to?

Get together in person.Dialogue can happen in one-on-one, small group, or large group settings, but a key component of it is that it happens in person. In dialogue, attention to body language, tone, and everything else unspoken is important for deeply engaging. Dialogue needs time and space to happen. Set meetings and allow time in your office support this.

Allow your opinion and assumptions to be open for criticism. Whether you are an executive leader, middle manager, or front line worker, engaging in a dialogue with someone means you first set aside your need to be right and replace it with a need to understand. By all means, say what you mean, but allow others to respond to what you say. In fact, invite it.

Enter with the intention of adopting new positions or creating something new. A dialogue entered with a particular outcome in mind (like the pushing forward of a new company policy, or implementing a specific project) becomes a monologue. People can sense when there are ulterior motives to a dialogue. Prepare yourself to adopt a new position on something by aiming to answer these questions: What new things did you learn? How were you surprised? What might make you consider a new point of view?

Check your assumptions.We all enter dialogues with biases. For some, this means a belief that the initiative brought forth by their department is the best solution to a problem. For others, this is the assumption that certain departments just won’t have much to contribute to a conversation. To get around biases is to acknowledge them. Before entering into dialogue, ask yourself: What do I want to happen? Why do I want that to happen? What do I expect from the other people in the room? Record these. Write them down. And return to them.

Prepare to be uncomfortable. Dialogue isn’t comfortable. If it is, you may not have left the realm of pleasant conversation. Discomfort may mean sitting with contradictions or problems that are unresolved. It may also mean feeling vulnerable for expressing a deeply held opinion or experience. As a leader in dialogue, you can work to make others more comfortable by sharing your own doubts and vulnerabilities. Then, you can sit still in silence while others prepare their thoughts.

Don’t start with solutions.In dialogue, change your tone from “How can we fix this?” to “How do you experience this?” Understanding the experience of everyone in the room helps the group move to a “now what?” that makes sense, rather than glossing over important details in search of a solution.

One Leap At A Time

Bear in mind that these skills take practice. The decision to engage in dialogue means more than just asking for an opinion. It takes time and opportunity for deeper conversations to happen. And with our everyday models for communication, those conversations are a shift in thinking. Take small chances around the office, at home, or in other communities to practice the skills for dialogue.

When the time comes in your organization, make space for a real dialogue to happen. Otherwise, you’re just talking.