Leadership and dialogue

I often hear (about) leaders in organisations mumbling things like, “We need to get the dialogue going on the subject of . . .” Sounds good, doesn’t it? But what do we mean when we say dialogue? Is it just a hip way of saying we should talk to coworkers?

A monologue only works to transmit powerful messages

The opposite of a dialogue is a monologue. Monologue literally means one (mono) does the word (logos). In other words, during a monologue, there is an absence of interaction: the sender sends. They may think (or like to believe) that their words are affecting the listener – and that may be the case – yet there is absolutely no guarantee or check to see what the effect of that monologue really is. In a monologue, you therefore need to transmit a very powerful message before the listener is motivated to listen to you, let alone actually do something with your message. And unless there is an urgent motivation to listen, the sender of the monologue is violating the listeners’ psychological needs for connection, mastery, and autonomy.

A monologue violates basic psychological needs

Why? There isn’t any real connection, as there is no interaction. A monologue generally ignores what the other is already capable of (violating their feeling of mastery) and tells the other what is to be done, not conducive to them feeling autonomous. So monologue means talking to coworkers. A dialogue means talking with coworkers. And there is no way you can talk with someone else, unless you are prepared to listen to what the other has to say and do something with what they say.

What dialogue is not

Dialogue isn’t a monologue, and it also isn’t allowing the other to make some noise. Dialogue isn’t about lip service or collecting various opinions as input and then still making decisions about the subject at hand on your own. The first important point is: don’t enter into a dialogue with a coworker unless you are prepared to share the decision-making process with them. If something is too important and you feel you must make the (final) choice in the matter, call it what it is: garnering input in order to make a better decision.

Create conditions for dialogue

So a dialogue is about a real conversation. The other (or others) needs to feel safe and know that their ideas are appreciated, that you trust in their competence. This means that the groundwork should already be in place: you are able to listen with an open mind to their opinions, and are genuinely interested in where they are coming from. Rather than first venting all your ideas (which would stem the flow of genuine information from the coworker), always start by asking questions and keep your own communications short, especially in the beginning phases of the dialogue. Rather, use your opinions and knowledge of the matter at hand to pose intelligent questions. Questions which deepen and broaden the conversation lead to new insights both for you and the coworker. Even so, now and then summarise where you’re at or ask your coworker something like: “Given our conversation thus far, where do we stand on this subject, would you say?”

Dialogue leads to consensus.

A consensus is different to a compromise. It means getting to a place where all agree they have reached an adequate solution or point of view. It means you as the leader should also show your vulnerability by expressing what your concerns are, and consult with the other on how to allay these. In a consensus, all parties’ concerns have been addressed to the degree that they no longer stand in the way. A dialogue also means having the guts to suspend the conversation to allow those involved to think matters through. By asking “what can we decide on?” and listening carefully to the other and to your own feelings, you will know when you’re close to a consensus.

In brief: a genuine dialogue means connecting with the other, acknowledging their mastery and embracing a diversity of ideas, thereby also supporting the other’s need for autonomy.

Note: This post originally ran on the Lead Change Group site on the 11th of March, 2019.

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