Horizon at Sandy Point

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The dynamics of dialogue

I am a by-stander, always have been, and likely always will be. I have made a profession out of by-standing. This doesn't mean that I won't occasionally make a move, or oppose a move, but that my natural inclination in interactions, meetings, family discussions, even creative brainstorming is to observe, to process, to playback, to critique, to review. This is also a deliberate, cultivated stance developed over years of practice in which I learned that "only fools rush in." And as a communicator by profession, it is wiser to insert considered commentary and guidance in areas that may already be overflowing with options and opinions. I realise however, that the system, social, family, community or company must recognise this as a valid and valuable role.

The opportunity to self-reflect and understand a persistent position in conversations and discussions, was provided by Peter Garrett in his workshop on creative communications. A Yorkshireman by birth, Garrett has lived in Rhodesia, South Africa and the UK, and worked as a farmer, importer-exporter. He has now turned communications coach through a deep dive and analysis of conversation dynamics. The system articulated by his Dialogue Associates is built on the assumption that we communicate for specific purposes; the highest of which is creative or generative dialogue. "Working up an idea together so that it is owned by everyone involved" is his definition of dialogue (from the Greek dialogos we derive: words across or through; converse and conversation.)

In his field guide and workshops, Garrett lets us know that not all conversations are created equal. The modes of talking and thinking together include: monologue, debate, discussion (superficial "batting ideas back and forth"); conversation (turning ideas over together); and skilful conversation. At the top are dialogue and generative dialogue. Each mode is useful and has a place. And it is the skilful communicator who is able to identify the modes, and use them to advantage.

See yourself in conversations with family, friends, and with co-workers, in formal and less formal but nevertheless purposeful meetings. What are the modes of these interactions? Talking to your children - is a monologue productive? Settling an argument with your partner - you may be debating, but do you really want someone to win, someone to lose? Meetings of the new board, how do you build the environment for consensus?

Being a by-stander is a dialogic action. There are four. The other actions "round the table" are Move (who makes the proposal or takes the lead); Follow (who agrees and supports the idea and the Mover); Oppose (who presents reasons why not); and By-stand (who takes a step back to consider deeply, choosing to insert more information, diferent perspectives). If you can look at yourself in a conversation with others, you will soon realise that specific players are not assigned specific actions. Anyone can Move, Follow, Oppose, By-stand at any time. It is useful to know, though, what is your preferred position (zone of comfort). It is a good lesson to practise self-observing, and choosing to adopt different actions from time to time. Be versatile and take part in lifting your meeting or discussion to a level that is purposeful (or playful) and benefits everyone.

Having learned these modes and techniques, the challenges remain: to have the discussions with those closest and dearest that don't sound like quarrelling (debates); to propose thoughts and ideas so that there is openness and understanding that all views are valid, indeed essential, to progress; to let others know when you are enquiring (collecting information) or by-standing; to help to transform discussions and meetings that have become stuck (the same persons always move, or always follow, or seem to always oppose) into purposeful and enjoyable consensus building.

A peek into Garrett's 'field guide" indicates that dialogic actions and dialogic practices (listening well, with respect and suspension of assumptions) can lead to energised meetings, deeper enquiry, more information, better decision making. There is the asurance that "higher purposes" of collective communications -performance, knowledge, fulfilment of potential - may be achieved. The starting point is the art of dialogue.

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