Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Why is it so rare?

How is it that when dialogue is most appropriate we don’t always do it?
Dialogue sounds easy, but in truth it’s not something that happens naturally. Why?

Generally speaking (despite the fact we are not all specialists), in the culture of the Western world, adults tend to find discussion, the language of specialists and advisors, more natural and easier than dialogue.

We live in a time when speed is valued more than ever before in human history – we expect hasty resolution of issues and often fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues we face and their time requirements. We have also been brought up to value knowledge and to bow to those who have much of it. But in some situations, the knowledge of specific experts is not enough, and there is a danger that for ease we can be tempted to delegate complex decision-making to specialists whose field is too narrow and whose interests by definition are not necessarily aligned with the greater good. We can even act like specialists ourselves and fail to see that what we know is not enough, or that we need to listen carefully to others. This often is not helped by our parenting or by our education system which rewards debaters and ‘knowers’, those who convey an argument with certainty rather than raising uncomfortable ambiguities.

Urgency

This preponderance of discussion over dialogue is, in part, due to time pressures. In a state of urgency, most of us will unwittingly address the big questions around complex, messy issues in a more rapid, closure-seeking discussion style. In essence, we expect hasty resolution of issues and often fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues we face and their time requirements.

Education

In the West, our education develops our discussion skills – in debating competitions at school, for example. Typically, education in the west is founded on evidence-based argument that keeps us within established structures (an exception might be the Steiner approach). Rarely are people encouraged or allowed to be creative when sitting exams. The system does not necessarily support individuals finding out things that are new.

Parenting, superiority and control

Discussion can be the prevalent style of interaction in the home. Parents naturally want to ensure certainty for their children. However, when parents try to be right all the time and oversimplify issues for their children (with the best of intentions), the curiosity and instinct of the child to explore can be inhibited. Rather than keep asking ‘why’, the child may learn that it’s more important to appear certain, screening out anything they observe that doesn’t fit what they have been told by the grown-ups.

These children are more likely to grow into ‘knower’-type adults themselves, who fail to see all there is to see. They can settle for a simpler certainty, an imperfect truth, rather than tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty that would lead them to explore the greater, but messier, richness of reality. When such adults also happen to be confident, eloquent and fluent they may hold forth and win the argument. The danger, though, is that they may crowd out the less sure voices of those who ask good questions but appear less confident. Ironically, the questioner is likely to be more self-secure in their not-knowing than the ‘knower’.

Knowing and learning...

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.

J-John Wooden, legendary Basketball coach

A strong ‘knower’, though well-meaning, can therefore unwittingly block the sharing of the rich perspectives represented in the group. The quality of the outcomes from a group dominated by such an individual may be limited by the breadth of perspective and understanding of just that one individual. This danger is heightened if the individual happens to the boss (due to their positional power, see below), and especially if they are a charismatic character. Synergy may not be harnessed and the latent creative potential of the group can remain untapped. There would be a surface compliance to a particular view, rather than a richer shared understanding which might have provided a solid foundation for future decision-making.

There have been times and situations where each of us has behaved like the ‘knower’ and, without realising it, imposed a discussion on an interaction about issues that really required dialogue. In doing so, we inhibited the magic that might have occurred.

Vulnerability avoidance

For intelligent, competitive people who are used to working things out for themselves, dialogue can be particularly challenging and scary. They have to let go of the need to be right, to be the cleverest and to win. To allow someone else to contribute to a solution can feel like an admission of weakness. Not at all easy for some, especially the competitive alpha-male types (and that includes many females in today’s workplace).

Positional power

If you are in a leadership position, you need to be especially vigilant – people’s inhibition due to your added positional power could quench the valuable creativity and synergy potential of the team. The higher the level in the organisation at which dialogue is or should be taking place, the greater the risks arising from poor decision-making are likely to be.