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It is sad that with the advent of social media and the reality that we spend a sizeable amount of time each day communicating with others, we still seem more separate and disconnected than ever. Our communications and engagement with others often feel robotic, superficial, and mechanical. It is as if we are talking past each other or at each other. Here’s the problem—what passes as engagement today is actually more like cross-talk or a monologue, and not true dialogue. Real dialogue—real engagement—is just not happening.

The History of Dialogue

From the Greek dia logos (meaning “through” and “word or meaning”), dialogue is about the flow of meaning. Dialogue is a living experience of inquiry within and between people. Dialogue seeks to harness the collective intelligence of people around you. The practice of talking together constituted the foundation for democracy for the ancient Greeks; however, one Greek philosopher noted when voting started, democracy ended.

Dialogue can be traced back  to the tribal rituals of people around the world. Few practices lie more at the heart of human communities than talking and telling stories.

As we move through times of accelerating change and strive for our businesses to succeed despite continuous uncertainty, we need to rediscover how to talk to one another—how to partake in real dialogue at work and beyond. As leaders, we have not yet learned how to create ways for our people to actually think together. The secret is to unlock human potential by learning how to think together in groups and teams. Here are six key insights for ushering in an environment where dialogue can become the oxygen of engagement and change.

Six Ways to Ensure Dialogue Thrives at Your Organization

1. Keep in mind, dialogue is shared inquiry by equals.

A true dialogue is an opportunity for people to think and reflect together. Effective dialogue at work requires all participants to have equal standing, engage with empathy, and share a spirit of inquiry where issues are explored openly and without judgment.

2. Take individual responsibility for listening.

When participating in a dialogue, you need to suspend existing opinions and conclusions. In many cases, people don’t listen—they reload. The key is to listen to understand and explore, and not listen to respond. Here is an interesting question: When was the last time you were truly listened to? If you are like most people, it may be hard to recall. When was it? How did it feel? What would be required for you to do this as a leader and lead inquiry with others?

3. Be prepared to accept the fact that your point of view is not the only thing that matters.

True dialogue exists when you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your firm grip on certainty and consider the possibilities that exist by simply being in relationship with others. Of course, this is not as easy as it sounds. We are usually defending our positions and looking for evidence that we are right and others are wrong.  This way of thinking won’t lead to a productive two-way conversation. The roots of the word “conversation” are “con verse,” and it is about taking turns speaking.

4. Recall a time you participated in a great conversation.

Ask yourself: What was unique about it? Most likely, it didn’t involve arguing a point of view or defending a set of assumptions. What it did likely include was a sense of reflection, where we are open to the fact that our initial perceptions may be colored by our cultural learnings and past experiences. It may be a moment in time when we caught a good glimpse of a personal blind spot or bias. This is often the moment that we unfreeze or suspend our impulses and judgments to see what might surface from ourselves and others that is worth rethinking. It is the rethinking that can create the memorable “aha” of the conversation.

5. Develop shared meaning.

Dialogue holds the potential to help groups or teams to reach a higher level of consciousness and arrive at a point of shared meaning. Shared meaning starts with an evolution from being sure of our individual convictions to a position of thoughtful uncertainty where we slow down our thinking and allow ourselves to be more inclusive, fluid, and tentative in our thoughts. Shared meaning also means that the words we use mean the same to each of us; at a deeper level, it means we each understand the values, beliefs, and emotions that we give to, and associate with, words.

6. Start with the questions.

The only way to engage the hearts and minds of our people is with conversations and not presentations. The first step is to ask, “What are the most critical questions we face today that we must address for our success?” Questions like: How do we better connect the patients and providers in our care process? Or, how do we encourage the care, judgment, and discretion of our people, while we have common standards of performance? Such questions exist in each of our organizations.

Now is the Time to Think Together, to Engage in Dialogue Together, And to Achieve Greater Success…Together

Too many of us have lost the fire of great conversations. When we talk, it is rarely deep, and in most conversations, we trade information or points of view rather than capturing the collective intelligence of our people. The problem that most organizations have can be traced back to people’s inability to think and talk together, especially at critical moments.

Dialogue, then, is at the root of all effective engagement and group action. Of course, thinking together is not as easy as it sounds. The opportunity to reflect, be heard, to reconsider, to unfreeze, and to land in a new place can all start with one question: What conversations do we need to have to start the process of thinking together and uncovering the sleeping giant of human potential in our organization? This single question can be all it takes to move from talking at each other to creating a true dialogue at work that leads to greater success and real engagement.

December 15, 2021

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