Though we often think about dialogue as a simple conversation between two or more people, it is better defined as the medium through which people with different viewpoints may voice and share possibilities. It requires a number of skills beyond talking: setting aside ego, listening without judgment, creativity, and problem-solving. The idea is that people with alternative perspectives work together so that everyone may attain a deeper collective understanding of the issues. It's a pretty tough ask.
Research on dialogue at work, however, suggests that the concept has become trivialized and its accomplishment made to seem routine. Many organizations boast of having an "open" environment where members are encouraged to participate in dialogue, but we rarely see businesses using dialogue transformationally — to dissolve long-standing stereotypes, unite people in a common purpose, inspire fresh thinking and amplify creativity. It's a missing skill.
Why is genuine dialogue so rare? The hard truth is, dialogue is interpersonally tough and unfamiliar — only a handful of people do it well. Some personalities will find opening up to other viewpoints challenging, and may struggle with making observations, not demands. Some will find the act of synthesizing conflicting opinions psychologically disconcerting. And others will resist giving critical feedback. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see how organizations might pay lip service to dialogue without really creating the conditions for it to work effectively.
How then, do you foster respectful, mutual dialogue in the workplace? Here are four tips.
#1: Break down barriers
Building bridges between workers of different personalities, generations and backgrounds is essential if they are to talk and learn from each other, find ways to communicate, and understand why it is not always easy to find common ground. A good way to bring people closer as a team is to assign a non-work related topic such as a book or a movie, and gather people to talk about it in a structured setting. People feel safe when expressing their opinions about a fiction book since the dialogue is unrelated to work goals, achievement or performance. Encouraging people to explore the subject from all angles gives participants the chance to learn far more about one another than they might have otherwise and builds a foundation for honest and meaningful interactions.
The idea behind this exercise is that it makes debate second nature. Employees who previously might have felt uncomfortable engaging with a co-worker may be more willing to strike up dialogue, because they have had a meaningful conversation with that person before.
#2: Establish the rules
Rules are an important part of dialogue. They create a safe space for people with diverse views and impose a rigorous discipline on the participants. Indeed, honoring a set of rules that foster civility, openness and respect is what makes dialogue so different from traditional back-and-forth discussion or adversarial debate. Suggestions include:
- Seek to understand, not to persuade
- Listen carefully and without judgment
- When others are speaking do not interrupt
- Do not pressurize anyone into speaking
- Treat others with the respect you expect yourself
- Everyone's views have equal value.
You may draw up a set of ground rules and ask participants for their comments, additions and approval, or you may task team members to come up with their own set of ground rules. Either way, it is important that everyone has a say in establishing the rules that will make them feel safe and productive.
#3: Create spaces for spontaneous dialogue
The physical design of the workplace can support dialogue and collective reflection between team members. Sofas, break-out rooms, and leisure areas encourage staff to meet informally and stimulate dialogue as part of daily work routines — some managers discourage workers from eating lunch at their desks, for example, so they meet with co-workers and discuss things.
Technology can be used with great effect to open new communication channels that actively encourage dialogue. Instant messaging, group chat systems, intranets, virtual communities and wikis can help staff who find talking through technology less intimidating than holding a face-to-face conversation. These tools give workers multiple in-points to each other and serve as a basis for knowledge-sharing, problem solving and debate.
#4: Practice what you preach
If you want to promote better dialogue, you need to make sure that senior managers are following through on the initiative. In practical terms, this means breaking down the corporate hierarchy and insisting that managers engage with employees on equal terms. This can be challenging for managers who were brought up never to question a leader's authority.
Training may make a difference, especially if participants are given the opportunity to practice workplace dialogue and gain experience of consulting with each other on real-life issues. Developing a training program will depend on the specific needs of the organization; some early topic ideas include: how to capture dialogue across the entire workforce, engaging in reflective listening, how to encourage dissenting opinions, and showing employees that their ideas are heard and respected.
Consultative leadership may never come naturally to some, but the process should move leaders away from individualism and develop dialogue to the stage where collaboration becomes an integral part of the organizational culture.
Dialogue makes our workplaces more human. It helps us to recognize the perspectives and experiences of our colleagues, break down stereotypes, strengthen teams and transform our ideas in ways that seem almost magical. Respectful dialogue isn't something that can be forced, however. It takes an astute leader to make the first move by creating programs and a physical work environment around these ideals, setting up the framework for an open-dialogue culture to naturally prevail.