“Consider any complex, potentially volatile issue: Arab relations, the problems between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, corporate decision making, getting control of the U.S. deficit or health care costs, labor/management relations and so on. At the root of the issue we are likely to find communication failures and cultural misunderstandings that prevent the parties from framing the problem in a common way, and thus make it impossible to deal with the problem constructively” – Edgar H. Schein, Professor MIT Sloan School of Management.

Trainers Simma Lieberman and Kate Berardo discuss the basics of dialogue and its power as a communication tool to allow parties to frame a problem in a common way.

What is Dialogue?

Dialogue is a communication tool that allows people to understand other viewpoints without pitting themselves against different perspectives. In dialogue, there is no defending of opinions, and no counterpoints. Instead, you let someone talk and present their viewpoint. You let them finish their idea without interrupting or asking questions. You listen to understand, not to defend your own point of view. Your goal is to get in their head, and understand their perspective, not to prove they’re wrong and you’re right. When it’s your turn, you talk and are allowed to finish your thoughts. And here’s the key: when you give your viewpoint, you don’t give your viewpoint relative to theirs. Dialogue is not a back and forth discussion, not a debate or rebuttal. It’s a chance to frame a problem collectively by both independently voicing your perspectives on an issue.

When should dialogue be used?

Dialogue should be used when, as Edward Schein points out, two parties have framed an issue differently. When individuals or groups have different perspectives and see issues differently, dialogue can be employed as a effective communication tool to help the parties understand each other’s point of view. Only from this common understanding can change and resolution grow.

What does dialogue do?

Dialogue brings people together who would not naturally sit down together and talk about important issues. It is a process to successfully relate to people who are different from you. Their differences can include gender, religion, work departments, cultures, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, or age.

Does dialogue solve problems?

Dialoging isn’t a problem-solving process directly. It is instead a process that builds bridges of understanding between groups that naturally helps to reduce misunderstandings, conflict, and tension and therefore to dissolve problems.

What are the signals that a dialogue process is needed?

Whenever differences are the root cause of problems in an organization or on a college campus, dialogue may be a helpful process. These problems can be interpersonal, such as misunderstandings, tension, or increased polarization and division or organizational, such as low levels of productivity, high levels of stress, and high rates of turnover.

How can you spot opportunities for dialoging before problems arise?

Whenever you have the opportunity for people of different backgrounds to interact, dialogue can be a useful tool to help build a foundation of understanding and set guidelines for effective ongoing interaction. Work Groups with different functions and priorities who must work together but know little about the day-to-day activities of the other departments would benefit from the dialoguing process, as would college campuses that have some diversity, but generally little interaction between individuals of different backgrounds.

What can you expect from a dialoging process?

Dialogue promotes better understanding and more creative cooperation between different people and groups. The process will help to reduce misunderstandings and tensions and help ensure more successful interaction in the future.

What are the basic requirements for a dialogue?

Both parties must be willing to engage in the dialogue, trust the process, and agree on a set of guidelines for the process. Because the stakes are high and emotions are often involved, only a skilled and experienced facilitator should be used for the dialogue process.

Simma Lieberman works with people and organizations to create environments where people can do their best work. She specializes in diversity, gender communications, life-work balance and stress, and acquiring and retaining new customers.