“Dialogue” at Work is Easier Said, and Said, and Said Than Done

Organizational leaders seem to start “conversations” by inviting people to “discuss” everything from company marketing plans to daily personal matters.  But, true discussions don’t always happen.  You already knew that through didn’t you? 

Let’s face it, “conversation” is or can be one of those overused words like “authentic leadership.” When we opt to do toss a word into workplace use without consciousness we are more likely to remove the very possibilities of ensuring the positive outcomes originally associated with these words. 

As a result we seemed to have slid backwards down the hill of humanity. Teachers struggle, holding back thoughts as to how curriculum could become better for fear of upsetting the principal or department head.  Service managers in car dealership bow to the sales management driving revenue through new car sales.  Students tend to turn away from other students only opting to hear from the “sage on the stage” professor.

Since when is it okay for workplace leaders to say “diversity and critical thinking matter” then move to control the very chat that was positioned as invitational? 

What has to happen for old-time “power plays” to subside and communities of conversation and respect birthed? 

Dr. Bela Banathy & Peter Jenlick introduced me to the true meaning of work and community conversations in their 2008 book, Dialogue as a Collective Means of Design Conversation.  Such conversations are ripe with respect and include an up-front agreement.  These agreements acts as a nice set of guardrails which are wide enough to ensure the communication is generative without feeling like a focus group. 

This is what every organization says they want, but almost never achieve.

To create a culture of conversation requires a major shift. The following two principles have helped me inspirit a culture of change through dialogue courtesy of Edger Schein.

Principle 1:  “Old cultural elements can be destroyed by eliminating the people who ‘carry’ those elements, but new cultural elements can only be learned if new behaviors lead to success and satisfaction.” How are you ensuring your organizational and community conversations are successful lately – for you and your fellow conversationalists?

Principle 2:  “Cultural change is always transformative change that requires a period of unlearning that is psychological painful.” Is your community or work group ready to ‘feel’ the pain required to become more human?

I suppose the conversation culture I dream of sounds like this:

  1. Conversations are real, move slowly and patiently without prejudice.
  2. Conversations evidence caring is alive in a work world.
  3. Conversations collect ideas, possibilities and connect them in the group’s best interest.
  4. Conversations convert thoughts into community content worthy of applause.
  5. Conversations may change the way we work moving us into collaborative communities.

Clearly culture can either support true conversation or dismiss it.  My hope is that when you stumble across the offer of a “conversation”  next time that you may help others understand what that really means in the spirit of Banathy, Bohm, and bettering human relations where most of us live… at work.

Read other posts by Dennis Rebelo

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