How poor dialogue can destroy your credibility
Distilling the work of some of my favourite academics, a few years ago I proposed the simple idea that effective dialogue is characterised by the expression of four sincere attitudes: clarity, connectedness, courage and curiosity (4Cs). Is it a teachable/learnable skillset? Yes, somewhat.
You can take a deep dive into the work of Daniel Goleman on EQ, or Otto Scharmer on the four levels of listening, or the late Judith E. Glaser’s ground-breaking work on the neuroscience of conversations. But as every good leadership coach knows, human being always trumps human doing.
One of my favourite quotes from Epictetus (the 1st century stoic philosopher): “Men are not troubled by things, but by the view they take of them.”
Acquiring and practising some new dialogue techniques will certainly give you greater confidence to tackle the crucial conversations that you’re avoiding (‘fess up; we all have some of those 😢). But shifting your mindset – adjusting your view of challenging situations, and challenging people – is a better route to success.
When your outward behaviour comes from a place of intrinsic motivation; when you are genuinely connected to your spirit of integrity and authenticity; then you won’t have to concentrate so hard on the techniques.
Effective dialogue is just as much about EQ, as it is about putting your thoughts into words. Probably more so. Whatever other great strengths you bring to work, doing dialogue badly can destroy your credibility.
Recently, I was working with a cross-cultural team of senior executives on the topic of authentic leadership; the conditions we need to create to foster high performance; and the impact of poor dialogue on the ability of teams to flourish.
In breakout groups, I asked them to recall examples of ineffective conversations, and to put labels on the worst judgments they had made about the other people in the room. Some are not fit to print; but we chose four words that aroused emotion and might serve as a powerful reminder of how we do not want to come across in dialogue. The antithesis of clarity, connectedness, courage and curiosity.
Fuzzy, Phoney, Gutless and Gassy.
Here’s what the group had to say about each of those labels.
‘Fuzzy’ people come off as lacking an understanding of, or need for, shared clarity about the issues at hand. They often make assumptions that everyone at the table knows the same things that they do. Their ideas or points of view can be hard for others to follow. And they don’t take the time to do a good summing up at the end of a meeting. The impact is confusion and ambiguous next steps.
‘Phoney’ people come off as untrustworthy, and lacking sufficient interest in connectedness. They make promises they don’t follow up on; or they say one thing but do another. They don’t make sincere efforts to build relationships with others and, when the going gets tough, they can only be relied upon to do one thing: cover their own ass! The impact is that we don’t trust them.
‘Gutless’ people come off as lacking in courage. Faced with uncomfortable situations, they ‘drop bombs’ on email and WhatsApp. Or, at the table, they beat around the bush; avoid mentioning the elephant in the room. (Often they make excuses for not coming into the room in the first place!). They lack the vulnerability to say things like: “I’m sorry”, “I was wrong”, or “I don’t know”. They avoid intervening with team members to help fix broken relationships. And they kick the can down the road when rainmakers transgress professed values. The impact is that we can’t respect them.
‘Gassy’ people come off as lacking in curiosity. They talk non-stop; talk over others; and only wait for gaps in the conversation so that they can begin speaking again. They don’t ask questions that expand the conversation or promote divergent thinking. They mostly use a ‘push’ influencing style to browbeat others towards a ‘yes’ conclusion. The impact is that we avoid meeting them.
“Okay,” I said “so those are some pretty damning labels and descriptions we’ve come up with.”
Turning to the group who had considered the courage element, I asked: “Thinking about the people you have labelled as gutless, are these people objectively and consistently lacking in courage and vulnerability?”
“Hmmm… no, perhaps not. But you only asked us to say how WE feel and respond to them. And some people just suck.”
Aha! The old Thomas theorem of subjectivity: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”
Sticking other people with pejorative labels such as fuzzy, phoney, gutless and gassy is one of the reasons that many of our conversations also begin with a sense of déjà vu. We think we know what’s coming next and, sure enough, it comes.
But if we can change the tune, we can change the dance. And that starts with daring to consider where we ourselves might ‘suck’ at dialogue.
Speaking from the curiosity group, one participant put up their hand to say: “I think I might be on the gassy spectrum!”
From the connectedness group: “I’m actually very interested in other people, but I often feel too busy for small talk.”
And as for myself, it’s an ongoing effort to manage my fuzzy tendencies and pursue greater clarity in dialogue.
As every adult educator knows, creating an active learning environment is the fastest way to make new learning stick. When I design workshops for effective dialogue I’m using 25 years of experience as a leader in complex organisations, combined with my executive coaching skills. Next, I add a bit of ‘secret sauce’ that’s influenced by more than 35 years as a theatre maker. Then I work with some of the best corporate actors around the world to bring your training to life in online or face-to-face formats.
I call it TLL (theatre-led learning). It’s one of the Experiential Micro Learning L&D initiatives that I have pioneered across Asia and beyond. Working with small groups of leaders and executives, I aim for noticeable development shifts in 90 minutes or less.
Sean Worrall is a coach, a facilitator, and instructional designer, as well as a theatre-maker. He combines these skills to create unique Theatre-led Learning workshops that help people develop a growth mindset and the high performance behaviours that drive superior business performance. To contact Sean Worrall, Changemaker at HOLOS Change, email firstname.lastname@example.org