A practical approach to better dialogue
“Facts don’t care about your feelings” is a popular meme attributed to Ben Shapiro, the American writer, political commentator, and self-described member of the Intellectual Dark Web: an emerging cadre of new media public intellectuals. For some, he is a fearless speaker of truth. For others, he’s a regressive provocateur. It depends on one’s sensibilities.
And that’s the starting point for this blog. When Ben lays out an argument he often says that he genuinely doesn’t care how others may feel about it. I think it’s fair to say that (in the public sphere at least) he elevates rational thought above all else: an idea that seems alien to many people.
In the workplace too, there are people like Ben. There are people who are the polar opposite of Ben. And there are people who sit somewhere in between. But an indisputable truth is that, in any enterprise, it’s people who drive outcomes. And people are motivated in different ways: some more by facts and some more by feelings. So it’s self-evident that adopting a more agile approach to people-motivating skills can deliver better outcomes.
Most people want to be heard and understood. As a leader at the sharp-end of delivering results in a complex organisation, it can be tough to find the time to dialogue effectively. Or often enough. Especially with people who are not like you. I get that. But however busy you are, it’s worth creating some extra time for some other people (and you know already which people I’m talking about in your sphere).
Here are a few dots that I’ve connected over the course of my life, and my career as an executive coach and adult educator; some of them may be helpful to you.
1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood1
This is a concept that has echoed throughout the ages of mankind. The central idea being that most people talk too much, and don’t listen enough.
2. Take some time to let the tale unfold
If you give a person 30 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak, you will learn a lot about them. Listen actively, don’t judge, ask clarifying questions, but let them speak. Eventually you will hear something along the lines of: “…which doesn’t seem right to me”. That’s a breakthrough moment which will reveal something intimate, and very important.
3. Tell me more about that
Stick with curiosity in that moment. Your own thoughts and feelings about the things that don’t seem right are irrelevant. Did anybody ask you to agree yet?! You’ll recognise this moment when you notice the words “Yes, but” about to come out of your mouth. Swallow those words! Simply say: “Tell me more about that.” And continue to listen actively.
4. Simplify, Clarify
When it’s an appropriate time to speak, here’s a good way to begin: “If I understand you correctly, what is important to you is X, Y, Z. Am I right?”. And if you are not right, do like it says on the shampoo bottle: rinse and repeat.
5. Read your vital signs
At this point you will have broadly heard one of three things: a) “that’s not fair”, b) “that’s not accurate”, c) “that’s not actionable”. This is a potential danger zone; a moment when your own interpretation of the ‘stuff’ could cause you to feel triggered. Pay attention to your ‘gut’. That Fight or Flight or Freeze feeling is invaluable data. High performance people know how to bring that data into dialogue.
6. May I share?
People with strong dialogue skills will take this moment to ask permission to share. Describe the ways in which your own thoughts and feelings diverge from those that you have heard and understood from the other person. But this isn’t an opportunity to dismiss what you have heard, or to use your ‘senior power’ (if you have any). You are merely asking for the same listening courtesy to be extended to you.
7. Where are we now?
By this time you should each have a better understanding of what makes the other one ‘tick’, and where your differences lie. Spend some time to clearly articulate the ‘gaps’ that exist between your respective thoughts/feelings, without judging or criticising them. Treat them as a phenomenon; your individual realities are not the same. It can be helpful to imagine this bundle of differences as a fish on the table between you. It’s not you, it’s not him/her. It’s a fish that you have co-created.
8. What are WE going to do about this?
We don’t often get to choose our clients or colleagues, and differences are bound to arise. But if you have gotten this far it’s fair to assume that you care about your relationship with this person, and vice versa. But you need to clean and gut that fish2, or it will begin to stink and decompose!
Occasionally I have heard people say: “This isn’t personal, it’s purely business.” And that’s actually a very well-intentioned thought. But it ignores a reality that, for some people, business is entirely about the personal. A subtle, but powerful alternative could begin something like this: “I really value my relationship with you. How can we move forward in a way that preserves that, and still achieves a good business outcome?”
If you put the above steps into practice, I guarantee that you will take much of the heat or awkwardness out of your difficult conversations. You may easily, naturally, create a better dialogue towards a better outcome. And if you need some practice with the techniques, or are interested in a workshop for your team, get in touch with Dramatic Difference. Our dynamic theatre-led learning style has helped many clients to build high performance teams through effective dialogue.
Reposted with permission from Dramatic Difference (www.dramdiff.com)