Photo credit to Jordan licenced through Creative Commons

The Quality of the Dialogue is Everything

It’s the quality of conversation in your organisation that determines the quality of everything you create, and how everyone feels about it.

When you’re making a cake, you usually pay a lot of attention to what goes into it.

And depending on what the cake is for, you might make slightly different choices.

If you‘re in a hurry and very hungry, you may just chuck in whatever you have in the cupboards and hope for the best.

But the chances are, you won’t get amazing results.

You might fill that hole in your stomach, but maybe you won’t stay full for long or you might feel a little bloated afterwards.

If instead you’re hoping to impress your guests, with a delicious, rich, or maybe super-healthy treat, you’d do things differently.

You’d probably take your time, source high quality ingredients and make sure you’ve read the recipe properly.

And the care and attention that goes into it will be totally apparent to the people who you put it in front of.

This (slightly overblown) metaphor is typical of what goes on in most organisations around conversation.

We pay a lot of attention to getting things done — ticking tasks off lists, holding meetings about important decisions, responding to emails in time, delivering reports to stakeholders.

But we pay very little attention to the most critical ingredient of every aspect in organisational life.

The quality of the dialogue.

Beyond the quality of our thinking, it’s the ultimate determinant of the quality of what we produce.

In fact, even the smartest thinking is meaningless if we’re not taking care over the conversations we have with our colleagues.

From the quality of the decisions we make, to the level of trust between members of a senior team, if we can’t take time to develop our ability to have conversations that matter, we’ll see it in the results we get.

Ironically, while we invest a lot of time and energy in trying to shore up results that we’ll have little-t0-no influence over, communication is one of the very few things where we have total control.

Here are a few aspects of what I think creates high quality dialogue.

Valuing healthy conflict vs seeking consensus

It’s natural to try and avoid conflict — but it’s not productive. Conflict comes from difference — of opinion, personality type, values etc. An organisation is the sum of it’s differences and its success relies on the ability to harness the value of that difference.

All our ideas need direct critique and analysis. Innovation is only possible when we can hear and integrate challenging new perspectives. Complex problems can only be solved through gathering seemingly opposing points of view and being able to hold them in balance.

In short, we need to be able to argue well, without it getting personal.

If we instead constantly seek agreement out of fear of conflict, there are two major consequences:

  1. Valuable insight and information gets missed, which would come out if more time and respect is given to being in healthy conflict.
  2. People aren’t able to fully commit to the decisions that are made, as they haven’t been able to fully air their concerns.

Healthy conflict — as opposed to unhealthy —is where we’re focusing on the issue, not on our opinion of other people, and when we engage in debate because we’re genuinely passionate about the outcome, not because we have to ‘win’ the argument.

It requires a level of maturity and trust, that has to be nurtured.

Allowing silence vs moving quickly things on

Just as with healthy conflict, we need to get comfortable with our discomfort around silence.

Space is one of the biggest missing components in organisational life. And unless your team is one where everyone’s happy to spend the first 15 minutes of any meeting meditating, then just being able to allow silence (however awkward it might feel) when it shows up is a critical skill.

There will always be times where everyone in the room is unsure of what to say next, nervous about speaking first, or feeling tension in the air.

If you can stay with it — holding that space open instead of rushing to fill it — it will be filled with something far more meaningful, whether that’s valuable reflection time, or someone finding the courage to name the elephant in the room.

Allowing silence means recognising that any discomfort you feel belongs to you, and it’s not an indication that things must be moved on. It means trusting that nothing bad will happen as a result, and trusting that whoever you’re with can handle it perfectly will (because they can).

Respecting difference vs shutting other people down

There’s nothing like other people to set us off. We all have our triggers, and in conversation we can find our buttons being pushed harder than ever.

When we do find ourselves reacting it’s usually because someone’s telling us something we don’t want to hear, or behaving in a way that threathens our needs and values.

We go into fight-or-flight mode, our brain is flooded with stress hormones and we essentially shut down our capacity to connect and understand, in favour of problem solving. And in this case, problem-solving means making the other person go away — whether that’s by ending the conversation early, or mentally rebutting everything they say.

However — if we can trust that their intention is not to undermine or harm us personally, then any adverse reaction we notice in ourselves simply confirms that they are different.

They have different needs and values, a different set of preferences and approach to work. And when we become aware of this, we can separate our reaction from the conversation in front of us. We can actually listen to what’s being said, and get real value from the difference between us.

Slowing down vs racing to the finish

We often find ourselves feeling under pressure to deliver results. But the irony is that the faster we get things done, the lower the quality of the output.

Even when it comes to fairly simple tasks, there are a number of decisions involved, words to choose, people with needs that we could consider. And when it comes to meetings, the faster we get to an outcome, the less we’ve heard from the people in the room. The fewer questions that have been asked, the fewer perspectives considered.

Having the courage and skill to know how to slow things down — not simply booking longer meetings, but slowing down the dialogue, creating the right conditions, modelling the behaviour — will fundamentally change the quality of what you create, and how everyone involved feels able to support it.

Inviting through questions vs leading towards our answer

We like to have our biases confirmed. We’re wired for it. In very subtle ways on the thousands of micro-decisions we make, and in the more significant and concious choices.

We often lead others towards confirming what we think we already know, or validating what we’ve already produced — rather than asking them to help us see what we can’t yet see for ourselves.

By putting more focus on asking open questions that start with “How”, “Why”, “What if…”, questions that inspire curiousity or passion in other people, we create the possibility to see new things and have our ideas tested, rather than create the illusion we are interested in other people’s opinions.

Conversations and meetings that are packaged as forums to get input, but are actually about backing up a foregone conclusion lead others to feel unheard, and waste everyone’s time.

Listening to understand vs waiting to respond

It comes up in every communication workshop you’ll ever take, but it’s such a basic skill that it bears repeating.

When we’re listening to others, our minds can’t help but make connections, look for anchors in our own experience, to seek opportunities to sympathise and show we understand.

But if we allow this to take up all of our attention, and don’t keep our urge to respond in check, then we’re not really listening. We can’t hear the true meaning in what they’re saying, we can’t sense what’s being unsaid, we can’t feel the needs and feelings beyond the words.

Of course, we find ourselves in situations where the other wants and needs a respsonse quickly and urgently, but if your intention is to really understand someone, and what they think or need right now, then bringing your attention back to their words, and away from your thoughts, is essential.

Being clear and direct vs beating round the bush

We often feel nervous about how we’ll be perceived, or what impact our words will have on others.

But the irony is that if we aren’t being clear and to-the-point about what we want to say, we leave it up to others to fill the gaps. And most people fill the gaps with their worst suspicions, whether that’s about you, or about them.

By saying what we want to say — while maintaining respect for others — we may trigger a reaction, but it means that we can all work with what’s real.

Together we can work on developing a better understanding of the real issue, instead of investing time in developing more misunderstanding and mistrust.

Taking responsibility vs blaming others for how they react

Of course, open and honest dialogue always has an impact. Sometimes it can help people feel clear and inspired, or sometimes confused, frustrated or even crushed.

While it’s helpful to say what we mean, once we’ve said it it’s equally helpful to own it. That means if someone finds something difficult to hear, taking responsibility for explaining it in more detail, so they can really understand.

It doesn’t mean blaming them for being over-sensitive or not being able to understand you, and washing your hands of the conversation.

Quality dialogue requires everyone involved to stay in, and commit to it.

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So there you go — probably just a small handful of ideas of what it takes to create high quality dialogue.

I’ll reiterate: as far as my experience goes, it’s what’s being said and how it’s being said that is the biggest asset or potential threat to any organisation.
Almost all problems that I’ve seen are the result of not enough time and attention given to conversation, and every single one could have been addressed through better dialogue.

I’d love to hear your experiences. What’s really helped in your team, or in your organisation, to create better conversations? And what have you experienced as a result?

I’m Max and I help people reimagine work for the world as it is now.

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