Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

Other cutting edge approaches

There are several novel processes for group interaction that have emerged just in the last ten years or so and it is worth looking at each to see their relationship to dialogue.

Appreciative enquiry

Appreciative enquiry is an approach used in groups to look specifically at what’s working in a system and build appreciation and respect towards it. It creates safety and trust in order to deal with controversy and organisational alignment issues. The method aims to create meaning by drawing from stories of concrete successes and lends itself to cross-industrial social activities. It is therefore a more structured approach than dialogue in its truest sense, and can have an agenda of moving people in a particular direction. However, the positive focus helps create safety quickly and is effective when bringing together a large group that it would not be feasible to engage in a longer, less structured dialogue approach. See the topics on Appreciative Enquiry and Solutions Focus.

‘Future search’ conferences

These were co-developed by Weisbord and Janoff and are large group meetings intended to bring the ‘whole system’ into the room to work on a task-focused agenda. Again, unlike pure dialogue, there is a clear agenda and the need to make efficient use of the collective man-hours present. Consequently there is a very clear structure and process. The ‘whole system’ can include 30 to 70 stakeholders, and these conferences can be undertaken by commercial organisations, faith-based organisations, public sector departments, communities and more.

Future search conferences allow participants to establish a map of their respective ‘pasts’ with trends, themes and shared milestones. The participants discuss present concerns and acknowledge them, rather than work them through. They explore the global trends going into the future and together seek meaning in them. They share with each other what they’re proud of and what they are sorry about. And each participant concludes what they want to work on personally going into the future. These are shared and people with similar interests group together to plan action.

A future search conference has sessions that look similar to dialogue in the Isaac sense, in that although there are facilitators, they act like dialogue participants – they do not judge contributions, diagnose or offer prescriptions. What is contributed is respected as belonging to the contributor. Facilitators do not know what obstacles or issues will arise and let the system come up with its own information and meanings. So the same underlying attitudes and behaviours that make dialogue work (as described in Dialogue and playing your part and Becoming a good dialoguer), make future search work too.

Open space technology

Again, this is a facilitated structured process where large numbers, including a wide range of stakeholders, are brought together to surface issues of concern around a central theme. The issues that are most popular are discussed in prearranged parallel slots. Everyone chooses which they want to attend and only stay in that group only as long as they wish. In effect, the structure is a simple framework around which people create and manage their own agendas.

It works best when the work is complex and the ideas diverse and where there is a sense of urgency. There is little control or guidance on the nature of conversations and folk will tend to jump into discussion rather than dialogue. In this process dialogue is not a priority, as the participants are not going to be part of an ongoing team that has a specific life outside the open space event. The emphasis is on eliciting a wide range of voices and integrating them. So although it goes only part-way down the dialogue track, it still achieves a great deal. The results that are reported include workable, robust and durable plans that are supported with passion. See also Open Space

Action learning groups

This is where a group or ‘set’ of four to seven people meet regularly to help each other take constructive action on work challenges. The group in turn addresses the challenges of each member. A facilitator helps the group members ask searching questions so that the problem-holder is supported in exploring the issue and the various possible courses of action. They also help the set reflect on the process: how effective was the session, what questions worked well, what feelings arose and how these were the dealt with. Set members go away, reflect, take action and then share their progress at the next session.

What is similar to dialogue is that the learning set recognises the difference between problems (no one right answer) and puzzles (can have a best solution, often the key held by a specialist or expert). They listen with great acuity and respect the position of the problem-holder, trying to understand their map of the world. Participants will naturally develop skills that are valuable for dialoguing. See the topic on Action Learning

Social media and online communities

The internet has spawned a range of on-line social networking sites and self-publication portals where people can communicate their views and have ‘virtual’ conversations. The question is whether any of them really promote dialogue as described in this piece?


Lorelle VanFossen believes there are three kinds of blog, as outlined below.

  • A technical blog, giving data and advice; this based on expert knowing, and interaction, if there is any, is not dialogue in the true sense of this piece.
  • Conversation blog, sharing opinions and looking for feedback. This is closer to dialogue, as the parties have time to reflect. However, the interruptions of life can make it difficult for people to stick with the flow and momentum can easily be lost. Plus it is hard to infer from comments all the information that comes with a person’s body language, energy and so on.
  • An inner dialogue blog

Blogs tend to be better at capturing the flow of an idea, rather than a thread of conversation. Blogging has been a source of a growing personal network of people who are similarly interested in the topics being followed. As people post their ideas, we can get to know them and grow attracted (or not) to them, based on what and how they write. This is similar to how it works in face-to-face meetings and introductions, but blogs develop over time and give us different insights into people than we’d get in that first few seconds of an introduction. However, comments do not necessarily equal conversation and, just as verbal conversations are not always a dialogue, so written comments are not always a dialogue either. People are not in the same physical space at the same time and so much of the signals, energies and chemistry exchanged beyond words in a dialogue environment just does not happen. People engage and disengage at will and so the time commitment for the progression of maturity required for any depth of dialogue is not a likely to happen.


Is Twitter a conversation or broadcast platform? Probably both. However, most Tweeters use it to gain insight and information without necessarily sharing updates. And when folk do Tweet each other, perhaps through Direct Messages or publicly, communications are brief and not real conversations. It is being promoted or hailed by many as a community flocking to engage in the kind of ‘conversation’ vital to fostering vibrant online communities between peers and also between brands and consumers. However, it would be a big stretch of the imagination to say it is a dialogue tool. Connections can be even more fleeting and ephemeral than those generated by blogging. Currently there is a preponderance of people sharing mundane updates of personal activity or trying to promote themselves commercially. It is challenging to imagine that it could develop into a two-way meaningful dialogue tool. Time will tell.

See the topic on Social Media.

Folks, you use social media to connect with people, not to market to them.

Josh Hallett (Hyku) via Twitter