Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Dialogue and why it’s important

Some would say dialogue is simply good conversation, but dialogue has a depth, breadth and purpose to it that is far more than just conversation.

Levine (1994) describes dialogue as the more open-ended activity of a group thinking together; it is a conversation creating the capacity to generate possibilities. On the other hand, discussion is about evaluating options and choices. It narrows and focuses – it is a conversation leading to closure and action.

Dialogue versus discussion

In fact, the word dialogue is from the Greek ‘Dia’ (through) and ‘Logos’ (word) – sharing meaning though words. Contrast this with ‘discussion’. The latter from the same roots as the words percussion and concussion, suggesting that ideas are being aggressively pitched against each other to see which is the stronger.

This is not to say that dialogue is good and discussion is bad. Far from it: they each have their place and value.

When groups gather for what groups can do best as groups (that is, to think aloud together to merge the best of each member’s contribution) then open, receptive dialogue can result.

Larry Levine

But there is an issue about timing and sequence.

Dialogue

Dialogue is appropriate for the messy and complex problems in life that involve a variety of people; where we need to explore together a way forward that has no single right answer, and where it is important to have shared ownership of the outcome.

This is particularly true at the outset of a long strategic review or of a complex problem-solving session in an organisation where context, purpose, vision and desired outcomes need to be clarified (for example, questions such as ‘Why are we here?’, ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is our mission?’ or ‘What might be our priorities?’). In a rapidly changing world, these questions need to be addressed at an appropriate frequency. There are no right or wrong answers. Dialogue allows all opinions/assumptions (often not clearly understood or conscious) to be surfaced, and then carefully considered.

Part of the vision of dialogue is the assumption of a ‘larger pool of meaning’ only accessible to the group.

David Bohm

Discussion

Discussion is more appropriate for ‘puzzles’ – in other words, those challenges that happen to have one right (or best) answer, and which benefit hugely from the input of experts who can lead us to that answer. It works well in the latter stages of strategic decision-making, once the messier issues of context and purpose have been clarified. Discussion allows the various options for fulfilling purpose to be surfaced, explored and assessed. Discussion brings these matters to a conclusion in a specific choice and/or set of actions. In discussion, the contribution of experts with relevant specialist knowledge should take precedence over mere opinions.

Take a wedding. The type of wedding (religious or registry office, local or abroad, traditional or modern, big or small, summer or spring and so on) requires many different perspectives to be assimilated and integrated. These are often messy and sensitive issues, about which the various parties (bride, groom, parents, in-laws, siblings, grandparents and so on) can feel quite passionate.

Once the tricky subjects of type of wedding, budget, location and guest list have been agreed by the couple and their families, then the finer details can be dealt with by specialists (caterers, florists, dress hire/designer and so on). Interactions with these people are likely to be in the mode of discussion – here are the options, this works, that doesn’t, this costs ‘x’, you can afford ‘y’, this colour clashes with that and so on. Clear closure is required, and respect for specialist input is essential.

In brief, when a shared understanding of context and purpose have been achieved, it then makes sense to move from dialogue mode into discussion mode to address the questions ‘What specifically must we do?’ and ‘How do we do it?’

Why is it so important today?

In today’s world of work, characterised by speedy transactions, copious data, fluid organisational structures and expectations of wide stakeholder engagement, there is a high degree of uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity where strategic decisions have difficult-to-predict consequences. There is a growing need for issues to be understood, owned and shared effectively. Being too hasty or simplistic carries severe risk.

Dialogue is particularly valuable where complex and sensitive high-risk issues need to be surfaced and addressed in a constructive and comprehensive way by a collection of the relevant interested parties.