“Between what is said and not meant,
and what is meant and not said,
most of love is lost.”
It hardly needs to be said that the world needs better dialogue right now. Without good dialogue, love is lost between partners, teams, organisations and nations. With fruitful dialogue, collaboration replaces ruthless competition or entrenched conflict. New possibilities arise when people can find a way to talk and think together, including about their differences.
The workplace, and the world, is hungry for this shift. The runaway success of the podcast, The Rest is Politics, which regularly tops the charts in the UK, reflects the appetite people have for discussing what matters in a world of online echo chambers, constant distractions, and culture wars. Hosts Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell launched the podcast in February 2022, and their in-person events consistently sell out in record time.
“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg
When Campbell and Stewart reflect on their unexpected success, chief among the reasons they give is their ground rule to ‘disagree agreeably.’ This creates an energising and engaging atmosphere. Their dialogue, which stretches across the traditional political divide with Stewart inhabiting the ‘right’ and Campbell the ‘left’ – is rich with insight. So much communication in the public space (and organisations) is stilted, stale and scripted. As Stewart and Campbell say, a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ is pervasive. It is impossible to make change happen when people stick to a script of talking points and take fixed positions.
What gets in the way of productive dialogue
A key stumbling block to making dialogue happen is our unwillingness to experience discomfort. As soon as a conversation starts to get uncomfortable, one of three things typically happens. People:
- Avoid the tricky topic and switch the focus. Many of us prefer to be ‘polite’ than be ‘real’ and take risks to say what we really think.
- Stop the disagreement and stay on the surface. We ‘agree to disagree’ but never address the real issue, which gets pushed to one side.
- Defend their position. We become more assertive and more convinced that we’re right and others are wrong.
With all three scenarios a tense atmosphere fills the room and pushes out the possibility of new insights emerging. What can we do about this all-too-common pattern?
Getting comfortable with discomfort
Dialogue does not mean that we need to agree. In fact, dialogue works best when there is diversity of perspective and when people are willing to speak with one another about something they care deeply about. Dialogue is distinct from debate, negotiation or argumentation, with its emphasis on generating a shared understanding, which may or may not involve parties agreeing with one another.
As William Isaacs, author and senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan’s School of Management, writes in his seminal book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together:
“Dialogue fulfils a deeper, more widespread needs tham simply ‘getting to yes.’ The aim of negotiation is to reach agreement among parties who differ. The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act. In dialogue, one not only solves problems, one dissolves them. We do not merely try to reach agreement, we try to create a context from which many new agreements might come. And we seek to uncover a base of shared meaning that can greatly help coordinate and align our actions with our values.”
Having a clear set of ground rules is invaluable for dialogue releasing this potential. Having a framework at the outset provides a ‘clear and firm footing’ for a conversation that is open, fruitful and collaborative, according to Reinhard Stelter (author of The Art of Dialogue in Coaching.)
In my experience there are five key ground rules that build a safe and energising ‘holding environment.’ These ground rules create the conditions not for agreement but ‘containment.’ In dialogue, we aim to be truly inclusive so that all voices matter, all participants feel respected and all parties leave the conversation feeling more lucid than at the start.
Research in the nuclear industry has shown that even in the context of divergent and diverse opinions, it is possible to create the conditions for constructive and generative dialogue when five qualities are present. Through establishing a climate of inquiry, inclusion, spontaneity, possibility and freedom, people feel more connected, have a stronger sense of shared identity and agree to the better utilisation of resources.) The five ground rules are:
- Use ‘I’ statements. When people slip into using ‘you’ (‘you get fed up when meetings start late’) or ‘we’ (‘we’re terrible at making decisions), dialogue loses juice. Invite people to speak from ‘I’ so that they ‘own’ what they say and bring their unique perspective (‘I see X as our main priority.’) This brings the quality of possibility.
- Welcome uncomfortable moments. When teams talk about what matters, it’s likely that people’ trigger’ one another. Expanding tolerance for discomfort – even with this simple statement – makes room for curiosity. The deeper learning is often at the edge of our comfort zone. A climate of inquiry is invaluable.
- Be present and listen fully. Dialogue cannot be scripted (unless it’s for a play or a book.) A real conversation is a co-creation. It emerges in-the-moment. Acknowledging this reality sets expectations and brings a sense of spontaneity.
- Share equal airtime. Conversational turn-taking is vital for a productive dialogue. A group that tolerates egocentric, blabby individuals will never do its best work. If you allow others to be habitually silent, the whole group misses out on their wisdom. This brings the quality of inclusion.
- Nobody gets to be wrong. Encourage whole-hearted participation by saying that everyone has a unique voice that others are to respect. Acknowledge the opportunity and challenge of having diverse perspectives in the room. If you get triggered by something someone else says, pause before you speak and consider the possibility that they’re not wrong. This brings freedom.
Talking together is vitally important when there are misunderstandings, stand-offs and conflicts. Dialogue becomes possible when we find ways to manage discomfort, disagreement and diversity of perspective. Ground rules that generate curiosity, inclusion, spontaneity, possibility and freedom create an environment where people can solve problems together. Instead of getting stuck in avoidance or aggression, people can say what they mean and feel respected even when they are differences of opinion. This shared understanding might even allow us to experience a little more love in the world.
 Ferdig, M. A. and Ludema, J. D., (2005) Transformative interactions: Qualities of conversation that heighten the vitality of self-organizing change. In Research in organizational change and development (pp. 169-205). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.