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"Dialogue" at Work is Easier Said, and Said, and Said Than Done

By: Dennis Rebelo | 08 May | 3 comments


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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Comments and Discussions

re: "Dialogue" at work is easier said, and said, and said than d

Sadly, Dennis, this “conversation” model seems to be pushing ever so much further away from the corporate and municipal water coolers. “Let’s have a conversation,” roughly translates into “Let’s create the public illusion that I want your feedback,” or the more truthful still, “Validate my opinion.” We should not forget the always effective, “Tell me what I want to hear so I can blame you for it later.”

The jobless rate and the current economic conditions in America make it virtually impossible to engage in an honest dialogue about the most essential workplace operations, like improving customer experiences, helping create a better internal environment, or making critical improvements in process that will ensure corporate viability in the midst of intense international competition. At a time where most employees are grateful simply to be employed, few will shake the boat to promote change, even where the need for change is the most urgent. Ask any of a number of municipal or union employees who are currently being vilified in the media as agents of the fiscal devil whether they would like to engage in the “conversation,” and I think the answer will be, “No, thank you.”

I’d like to hear more about the systemic culture changing and guardrails for conducting these types of conversations referenced in this book—can they jump the hurdles of the economic times and navigate through the minefields of the office power play? If so, you can be assured I will immediately get myself a copy (as well as a few extras to leave surreptitiously around the workplace).

re: "Dialogue" at work is easier said, and said, and said than d

Some other tools that could be used are "action learning" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Action_learning )and the work of Jervois Bushe "clear leadership" ( http://www.clearleadership.com/ ). Both of these approaches deepen the "conversations".

re: "Dialogue" at work is easier said, and said, and said than d

Dennis, what I find interesting about this post is how as a society we fail to honor those principles so much. The cultural norms at large corporations or even small businesses fail to engage those around them.

I do however find it refreshing though that the AS3™ System which you authored honors those dialogues and the fellow human beings involved. I have been a practitioner of AS3™ since 2009 and a teacher for the past year. From those experiences I've gleaned that there really is a science to this type of engagement. There is an art to having these dialogues and it must be learned. Mastery takes time.

I would agree with both you and Schein that the cultural change is painful and transformational. Having been a solo-preneur then shifting to University Business Consultants which, is much more collective and community minded, was a challenge but one worth while.

To confess I must say where I have a tendency to trip up and miss information is that I move to quickly. It is absolutely necessary to slow down. There is a discipline to conversation just like being a lawyer, doctor, or cpa. I'm very glad to have spent so much time studying the AS3™ system you created, a good reminder to go back and look at my notes. Great Piece.

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