How To Build Dialogue

This week I spent some time talking to a client about building dialogue and what it means to be a good communicator. We tend to take our communications skills for granted, assuming we are good communicators while at the same time complaining about the skills of others. But being a good communicator means promoting dialogue that enables people and teams to solve their own problems and challenges. Here are the four basic components of dialogue.

Turn taking
Dialogue is interactive, meaning taking turns to speak. Monologues and lectures have no part in effective team communication. You learn about your team members and base your interventions through the give and take of dialogue.

Your responses should connect with what the other has said. Active listening seems such an easy concept that you may wonder why it is given so much focus in communication skill training, but it is amazing how many people fail to listen to one another.

Mutual influencing
In productive dialogue, both parties are open to being influenced by what the other person is saying. Leaders influence their team members and open-minded leaders are influenced by their team. Effective dialogue should challenge you to change your behaviour and be open to new points of view.

Creating outcomes
Ultimately, good communication is primarily about creating outcomes and results. I believe that good leaders act a catalyst for team members to manage their own problems and develop their own solutions. In true dialogue, you shouldn’t already know what you are going to say to one another before you say it.

Active listening – the foundation of understanding
Carl Rogers, one of the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology, described active listening as:

“It means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meaning which flow in the other person. It means temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments”

Putting it all together – developing a listening framework
As a coach, I spend a lot of time active listening, and it is a hard skill to master. If I allow my thoughts to wander off, even for one or two seconds, I could miss something important that my client has to say. The goal is to be able to thoughtfully process what someone is saying and search for the meaning behind their story. Professor Gerard Egan in his book ‘The skilled Helper’ suggests that one of the best ways of doing this is to use a listening framework since people tend to share their challenges as a mix of experiences, thoughts, behaviours, and emotions.

Listen for experiences
We tend to talk a lot about what happens to us when discussing our challenges. I generally hear experience focused stories that have the implication that others are to blame for their problems. Of course, people may be treated unfairly, but many times people don’t solve their challenges or manage problems because they are too passive. As a leader, you’ll need to identify negative experiences and help people realise that they are capable of taking control themselves.

Listen for points of view
Points of view are valuable because they reveal beliefs, values and attitude. The implications for someone’s point of view is, “I think this way, why don’t others think this way?” Or, “This is my opinion and I don’t care what you think.” As you hear points of view, you’ll need to understand which ones are relevant to your dialogue and which ones aren’t.

Listen for decisions and plans of action
As people speak they will be sharing decisions or plans of action. Helping people review these fully will add value. Decisions and plans usually have implications for the decision maker and others, and all too often, they aren’t fully thought through.

Listen for behaviours and patterns
Most people will talk freely about their experiences and what happens to them but will seem reluctant to talk about their own behaviours. Mainly because it is hard to talk about our behaviour without thinking about our own personal responsibility. Obviously, some behaviours and patterns are beneficial, and others aren’t. All of us do things that get us into conflict and fail to do actions that help us develop our opportunities.

Listen for emotions
We are emotional creatures. Emotions colour everything we do, greatly affecting the quality of our lives. People driven by frustration and anger can do more harm than good, while happy, enthusiastic people can accomplish more than they thought possible. People’s experiences, points of views, decisions, plans, and behaviours are influenced by their emotions. You should listen carefully to how they give meaning, which means you need the experience and vocabulary to do so. You can use resources such as Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion or Parrots’ Classification of Emotions, both shown below.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion
Parrots’ Classification of Emotions

Listen for strengths, opportunities and resources
If you only listen for problems then you’ll end up only talking about problems. Instead, try listening for opportunities and strengths, then focus on talking about these solutions and opportunities. Poor leaders and managers will focus only on problems while successful leaders encourage others to discover their own resources and help them solve their own problems.

Of course, people don’t share their stories in nice, easily defined blocks, as above. They weave a narrative containing all elements of a listening framework, jumping about from one experience to another. Non-verbal behaviour will modify meaning, normally adding intensity through eye contact, facial expressions and hand gestures.

Context will need to be understood along with all the things that make people different, culture, personality, education etc. Sometimes it’s better to reflect on what is missing and what isn’t being said.  And you must constantly listen to yourself, your own biases, and your own non-verbal behaviour to develop your internal second channel that helps you direct the dialogue and pose questions.

Developing your listening and dialogue skills require practice, practice, practice. One of the best ways is to pick a public place and listen to the conversations going on around you. Have your listening framework in mind and see what you can pick out. At the same time, listen to your internal dialogue. What are you thinking or feeling as you hear people’s stories? Try to suspend judgement and instead, provoke curiosity. What would you say next?

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