Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Basic dialogue skills

On this and the following page are some tips for your own investment as an individual to help you prepare for and get the most out of dialogue.

Build your vocabulary

Ideally, you want to articulate your views and contribution in a manner that invites consideration of possible new perspectives, without putting anyone down and triggering resistance. This is hampered if we have a tendency towards certainty and a habit of sharing facts and certainties rather than exploring possibilities. See What is dialogue.

Habitual words and phrases often used by people with ‘knower’ tendencies include

I think you’ll find that...

No...

You/we have to/must/ought to/should.

Habitual phrases that are often used by people with a problem focus rather than solution focus include

The trouble is... (this negates a positive offering)

But... (instantly makes what the other person has said wrong).

Some phrases that might be useful to you during dialogue include

Your point intrigues me – can I just check I have your meaning correctly? (if they affirm you, then go on to make your point)

I like your idea, and I would love to build on it by...

I can see why you have got that impression, given what you have shared. I’d like to offer an alterative...

Thank you for explaining that, and that leads me to...

Practise self-reflection: for example, notice the balance between the proportions of statements versus questions in your interactions.

Learn to listen

Rogers discovers the paradox that forces of action and change are stirred up or released by active listening.

Levin (1994) on Carl Rogers, the father of client-centred psychotherapy

The quality of our listening can determine the quality of our contribution to dialogue. It is a real challenge to listen well. It requires keeping an open mind and really hearing what the other person’s experience is. It is a challenge because our minds are sense-making machines, and we tend to make sense by comparing what we see and hear to what we have seen and heard (and categorised) from our own experience in the past. However, we can be a long way off the mark in the assumptions we might make when we listen to another – what they initially present can appear familiar on the surface, while in fact it may be fundamentally different in content and structure. We need to train ourselves to notice what is similar, but also to be incredibly curious about what is different. We must be open to being surprised, to our assumptions being incorrect, and to expending extra effort to get our heads around something new.

Here are a couple of tricks to help you keep open and listening well.

  • Summarising

Practise summarising what you’ve heard back to someone in your own words and asking them to correct you if you’ve got anything wrong or missed anything.

  • Reflecting back

This is similar to the above in that you reflect back something you have heard the person say, though maybe not in words. For example ‘I heard some concern in your voice when you said...’ The intention is not so much to check your own understanding as to help the other person hear themselves: there may be something that you’ve heard in what they’ve said that you think might be significant for them in terms of dealing with whatever issues they have presented.

If listening is the art of opening oneself to what lives in another’s spirit, dialogue or conversation on the same high level adds the communal art of shaping the life evoked by listening and, through group effort, bringing out its fuller possibilities.

Marjorie Spock (1983)

Learn to advocate

This is about putting across one’s views. There is an art to doing this constructively in a dialogue environment:

  • Acknowledge other’s maps – in other words, their way of seeing things, their beliefs and values
  • Offer, rather than impose your thinking and views
  • Discriminate between fact and opinion –when you are sharing, make it clear which is which.

Learn to enquire

This is about exploring one’s own and others’ mental maps, of understanding more than you can see, and seeing through other’s eyes.

  • Appreciate the ladder of inference; in other words, what people believe may well have been reinforced by their unconscious selection of evidence that supports their underlying assumptions. If so, they may need to be led carefully to explore what they have missed.
  • Explore your own assumptions and the facts underpinning them.
  • Be open to discovering other facts you have missed.

Essential tools for enquiry are questions. Ask a question and it is almost impossible for anyone listening to stop their brain thinking of an answer.

Open questions

Open questions are particularly useful in dialogue. These ask the why and what questions, and open things up for fuller exploration. Who, when and where tend to be more specific questions, so focusing on what and why is a good capability to cultivate. It is more difficult than it sounds, as open questioning requires a mind that stays a level higher than problem-solving and is more about understanding context and issues in depth before plunging into solution-mode.

Unless used carefully, closed questions – for example, ‘Are you...?’, ‘Did you...?’, ‘Is it...?’, ‘Does it...? – can shut down dialogue and transform it more into discussion. They tend form in our mind when we have an emerging model of the issue at hand and we are checking to see if we are right. They can be very useful for establishing key facts, but beware of the possibility that you may just be testing your own theory before the full picture has emerged.

Good manners matter

Peter Drucker mentions the value of manners as the oil that lubricates the machine of organisation.

Bright people – especially bright young people – often do not understand that manners are the ‘lubricating oil’ of an organisation.

If the analysis shows that brilliant work fails again and again as soon as it requires cooperation by others, it probably indicates a lack of courtesy, that is, of manners.

Peter Drucker

Be aware of your body language

Notice your body language as you participate. When you lose interest or find you disagree with or judge what is being said, what happens to your eye contact with the speaker and others in the group? What happens to your posture? Even if you don’t realise what you are doing or if you think it inconsequential, others pick up the clues of your wandering focus and attention. Lack of eye-contact and the shifting of someone’s body back and out from the group speaks volumes to others – and they can get the wrong message.

Sometimes you may find yourself sitting back simply because you are thinking hard about the issues being raised, but it can appear to others that you have disconnected and are possibly at odds with the points being raised. So it is important to signal positive connection and involvement. Where possible, stay connected by maintaining eye-contact and keeping your body tilted inwards to match that of others.

Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication (NVC)SM is a simple, yet powerful process that can help you to understand yourself and others more deeply, communicate more clearly, and resolve conflicts more effectively.

It will provide you with further tools and understanding to dialogue effectively. See the topic on Nonviolent Communication.