Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

In a nutshell

1. What is dialogue and why is it so important?

Dialogue is the group process of thinking together to create greater meaning and possibilities. It is an opening-up process of exploration rather than the closing-down that typically results from discussion and debate. It particularly lends itself to messy, tricky problems that have no one right answer and that need the input of a wide range of people who have an interest in their resolution. It is important because

  • At the outset of such problem-solving there may be poor definition of the issues, multiple viewpoints, conflicting agendas
  • A collective understanding is required for true collaborative progress to be made
  • It enables greater insight into, and appreciation of, the likely consequences of any course of action and so results in more robust decision-making
  • Participants lend genuine support to changes they might otherwise have seen as difficult and/or unpalatable
  • Getting things wrong can have a high price – poor decisions can affect many.

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2. What does dialogue look like?

Dialogue is an in-depth conversation between two or more people that may at times look slow, disjointed and unstructured to the uninitiated. Nevertheless, much may be happening and there is an overall structure. What you will see is

  • Deep listening, questioning in an open manner, checking meaning, an openness and sense of enquiry, advocating views while clearly sharing underlying assumptions and facts, people being patient with one another (even if feeling frustrated)
  • People holding their positions lightly, easily letting go of their ideas and opinions when these are found to be incomplete or beyond their usefulness
  • Leadership moving around the group, dependent upon who at any time is sharing their questions, or bringing people on a train of thought, or sharing an insight
  • People taking responsibility for themselves and their own reactions and choosing not to blame
  • People staying unattached to a specific outcome or personal agenda.

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3. Why is it so rare?

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 expect hasty resolution of issues and often fail to appreciate their complexity and their time requirements.
  • Our education system teaches discussion rather than dialogue.
  • We may have been encouraged by our parents to develop as ‘knower’-type adults.
  • We may find it difficult to let go of the need to be right.
  • People may be dominated by the leader/boss.

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4. Diversity and dialogue

During dialogue, people learn to listen to what others bring and to respect that another’s reality is not the same as their own. Gradually the group begins to assimilate the pooled realities, creating a collective ‘field’ or richer reality, which forms the backdrop for the dialogue going forward. The more diversity in a group, the richer the potential for dialogue.

  • People bring extrinsic factors with them – their national culture, their experience of local and world events, and their family background.
  • They also bring more intrinsic factors (their natural traits and preferences) and the sense they have made of their accumulated experience – in other words, their values, beliefs and stories about what is real for them.
  • Men in our culture tend to hold forth on views in a discussion mode.
  • Generally speaking, women in our culture (and possibly more so in others) prefer intimate talk with small numbers or one-on-one, so participating in a large group can be a challenge for them.

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5. Dialogue and playing your part

A ‘systems-thinking’ mindset is very advantageous:

  • You will look for a greater whole into which the issues fit
  • You will seek to understand the interdependencies between the components of the issues
  • You will understand that the symptoms which present themselves have their roots in underlying causes that may not be immediately obvious
  • You will welcome hearing other versions of the system described by others, as these will enrich your own understanding.

In interactions, we can adopt one of four roles, switching roles as appropriate:

  • Movers initiate action and direction
  • Followers are those who agree and follow
  • Opposers challenge
  • Bystanders observe and share their observations from an objective standpoint.

Here are key behaviours that facilitate quality dialogue:

  • Listening is about accepting what is being said by another without giving in to one’s own bias, opinions, judgements and impulses
  • Respecting is about legitimising the other person, rising above any likes or dislikes
  • Suspending is about sharing openly and being transparent about our thinking and its underlying assumptions
  • Voicing is about what we choose to express and being authentic about our experience.

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6. Dialogue and the group journey

When a group convenes to engage in dialogue, according to Isaacs (1999), it will go through the following four major phases as it grows in capability.

  • Initially the group will act with ‘politeness’ and caution, ultimately creating impatience as participants realise that you can’t make dialogue happen.
  • The ensuing crisis serves the progression to the ‘breakdown’ phase, where people challenge and tend to say what they like.
  • Next, where the group resists collapsing into blame, comes the phase of ‘enquiry’, where people start talking more about themselves and their assumptions, not about others. Beliefs are loosened and insights arise leading to a shared motivation.
  • A collective identity emerges. This then leads to the stage of ‘flow’, though groups rarely make it this far.

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7. Dialogue – accelerating group capability

There are many occasions where groups get together to deal with complex issues and they don’t have the time or luxury to go through the four phases in a natural process. In such cases, the following developmental techniques can help:

  • Establish ground rules that set out dialogue behaviours and mindsets, such as being curious, allowing everyone to contribute, asking open questions
  • Spacing, in which a specific time is left for silence after any individual has contributed, helping participants to reflect on what has been said and to assimilate it before the next person speaks
  • Turn-taking – everyone is given the chance in turn to contribute, thus ensuring no-one is left out
  • Facilitation – a facilitator who understands dialogue in depth can observe and offer valuable feedback on their process and contribution, and so raise a group to a higher level of awareness more quickly.

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8. Where can dialogue add real value?

Examples of circumstances where dialogue can add value in organisations include

  • Groups developing to become teams where they have more than a shared purpose, but also share deciding the means to that purpose
  • Management teams formulating vision, purpose and strategy; groups responsible for deciding and leading change management
  • Cross-functional groups agreeing and developing new policies
  • Project teams deciding on restructuring
  • Teams who agree on roles and responsibilities in organisational design
  • Cross-organisational improvement meetings; meetings to resolve conflict between parties present.

Examples where dialogue can add value beyond organisations include

  • Co-opetition – in other words, negotiations between competitors to explore grounds on which they can cooperate for mutual advantage
  • In the public sector, where collaboration is required across many stakeholder groups
  • In communities where different ethnic groups need to agree on issues that affect all
  • Policy-making in government, where issues may have knock-on effects on other departmental portfolios.

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9. Teams becoming ‘real’ teams

A real team is one where the members are bound to a common purpose and share a sense of identity. They genuinely work together to address cross-boundary and complex issues, and together agree priorities and implementation plans. And they hold each other mutually accountable for results.

  • Most teams avoid dialogue and instead treat complex problems more like puzzles with specific solutions that can be argued out or delegated out.
  • Avoiding this requires a leader who understands what dialogue in action looks like and has a vision of how they want their team to be: a leader who can role model the behaviours of respecting, asking great questions, suspending and voicing.
  • Senior managers are often ‘knowers’ and may be most  comfortable in debate or discussion-mode, getting closure on tactical decisions; but management groups that also learn to dialogue – to truly think together – become more sophisticated strategists and winning management teams.

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10. Becoming a good dialoguer – basic skills

There are a variety of things in addition to those covered already that can help you as an individual to play a constructive and skilled part in dialogue.

  • Build your vocabulary – learn to use open language that encourages discovery and possibility rather than closure and certainty.
  • Learn to listen, not just to words but to the essence behind them, and to your own inner reaction.
  • Learn to advocate your own views with clarity, sharing the underlying assumptions on which they are based, without imposing them on others.
  • Learn to enquire, to have a genuine interest in what has lead to the other person having their view. Be curious about how their world makes sense. Ask open questions.

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11. Becoming a good dialoguer – the mindset

  • Suspend your need to be right – right and wrong are mostly subjective.
  • Grow a thicker skin – appreciate that challenges to your views are not challenges to you as a person. You are more than your views.
  • Cope with personality clashes – not everyone will like or accept you as you would wish. This is life, and your sense of self and identity should be based on a healthy self-regard. Similarly there will be people who you find difficult to like. Recognise that this may not be rational and may say more about you than them.
  • Manage your mindset – keep a systems perspective, seeing components of the issues as interconnected and contributing to the whole. Welcome other people’s perspectives as they will enrich your comprehension of the whole. Do not equate symptoms with causes and do not expect that doing the right thing will lead to instant positive outcomes.
  • Develop emotional maturity – be aware of your own limitations and strengths, and learn to accept them. Accept those of others, and treat your colleagues as adults. Be aware of your own feelings and impulses, and be able to choose how to respond to them.

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12. Quick group assessment tool

Here is a quick and easy self-assessment tool to determine the level of protocols currently in place to support team effectiveness. These protocols are useful to facilitate meetings, but not enough in themselves to determine quality dialogue.

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13. Links with other cutting edge approaches

Several novel processes for group interaction have emerged just in the last ten years or so and it is worth looking at each to see their relationship to dialogue.

  • Appreciative enquiry
  • Future search conferences
  • Open space technology
  • Action learning groups
  • Social media and on-line communities: blogs; twitter; Facebook and so on

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