Thursday, October 25, 2012

What can a dialogue mean?

A group of working professionals, line managers and training and development specialists
converged atop a hill-station in 2008 to look within themselves and gain insight about the nature of
dialogue in everyday work situations. Here are some nuggets from that set of deliberations, attended by
yours’ truly. Luminaries quoted here are merely associated with the thoughts expressed, and the
mention of them - not at all declarative of their presence at the meet. Conversations have a way of bringing them to the occasion! Let us look at two kinds of conversation - the discussion and the dialogue.

1. A dialogue is useful. So also is a discussion of use. If we know the difference between them, we
can use them in appropriate context. “If you begin to understand what you are trying to change,
then what you are undergoes a transformation.” – J. Krishnamurthi

2. A discussion in itself may not raise the level of a conversation, whereas a well facilitated
dialogue could. “Leaders elevate the level of a conversation, because they see wisdom in the
statement that a critic is your best friend”. – Prof. Ramnath Narayanswamy, IIM(B)

3. Usually people meet to accomplish a task or to be entertained. Dialogue is not discussion in a
gathering of people because, a discussion hammers out a goal or agreement, solves problems,
and determines well in advance the particular direction of the conversation. A dialogue may
solve problems, may help unblock emotional discord, but it emerges from a different root.
Dialogue is like being in ‘impersonal fellowship’ to an idea to develop common meaning.

4. Even if we have clarified our own position statement within ourselves, we may be in danger of
not being aware of the thought processes of others in the gathering. Discussions may stem the
flow of thought, whereas dialogues could free space for learning and evolution of new thought.

Ever wondered, if the words dialogue and discussion were related? Or otherwise? Worth referring the
dictionary, if you have not seen their meanings sufficiently contrasted. And what does your experience
tell you? The last time a team member was asked to attend a discussion he was told that a decision was
taken. Obviously, the ‘discussion’ was to help explain the decision. Rings true? So whatever happened
to the dictionary meanings of these terms? When did you last have a dialogue? And did it really mean to
discuss areas of disagreement frankly in order to resolve them?

Let me then share with you some essential elements of creating a dialogue-conducive culture.

1. Use of Self: - Start with yourself – demonstrate the principles mentioned below in role modeling
a dialogue based culture. Drop, by drop, the ocean rises, they say.

2. Suspension of Judgment: It is not about negating or removing judgment, but about being aware
of judgment that comes in the way of one’s listening. Judgment is an either/or process. In fact
even agreeing with others’ positions may limit listening. It is like being victim of the amygdalla,
the reptilian brain in us that is reflexive, and not reflective. When practicing suspension of
judgment, you will await more information with genuine curiosity.

3. Identification and Suspension of Assumptions: Rationale, rationale, rationale. Or that is what
we think. Thoughts that emerge from unconscious beliefs need deep listening and reflection to
identify with. Proficiency in identifying and suspending assumptions that make our world-view is
like hosting deep fears in our home without being hostage to them. How do you treat a guest

4. Listening: If one has been listened to, there is a clear sense of feeling valued and recognized for
just being. Listening therefore also rings true in the words “I have been spoken for”. Words
cannot overstate the significance of listening. Collaborative partnerships feed on listening. In
dialogue all individuals present add depth to the collective image of the group. Authentic
conversations emerge only when one’s presence is marked by a spontaneity, that is nonjudgmental,
and born of a rapport that synchronizes both the verbal and the non-verbal.

5. Inquiry and Reflection: Reflection is about taking the time to refer to multiple events and
wonder about the connections between them, and thereafter to generate questions that sink
beneath the surface of unquestioned assumptions to the most relevant depth. On the other
hand it is also useful to pay attention to the questions that we do not ask in a group.

6. Non-verbal Communication in Dialogue: Different people relate to different expressions. The
mastery of dialogue is incomplete without sharp access to the use of non-verbals. Whether in a
break-out group that demands sketch pen to flip-chart paper, role-play or still postures of
prayerfulness / meditation, the more profound signals in communication emerge from non-verbals.

Layers of listening cross gender, community, life-histories and such a multitude of sensibilities. Establishing rapport would be a great way to be in dialogue.

Evidently, this is a quick read into a deep domain of human communications. Hope you like it as a
conversation starter. Highlight the contrast between a discussion and a dialogue. A discussion too has its
value. It helps examine an argument, but may not widen its scope.

A dialogue means to ‘cut’ through the center of what may be the object – to get through the entirety, than to ‘shatter’ the parts like an athlete’s thumping discus. Dialogue is a community exploration of how unspoken, almost hidden values and intent can control our behaviors, and therefore potentially unleash an increased sense of harmony, fellowship and creativity.

It can reveal stalemates, inasmuch as it can liberate perspective.

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