Communicating Well As a Group

by Siobhan Soraghan

What does dialogue look like?

In dialogue, two or more people get together and

  1. Listen to and try respectfully to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives
  2. Willingly offer their own perspectives, so that there is a balanced two-way communication
  3. Work hard to become aware of and share the assumptions and beliefs that underpin their thoughts and views so that they can help each other break free of the traps these assumptions and beliefs
  4. Try to assimilate the various inputs, learn more, see more, imagine more
  5. Do their best to remain unattached to a specific outcome – they are open to what emerges, even if they have come into the dialogue with a specific agenda.

...wisdom, insight, change and action come not from better thinking, testing and strategising, but from letting go, receiving and listening. Moreover, the act of collectively letting go and thereby creating a larger, common vessel for receiving is what truly harnesses the power of the collectivity in ways that the collaborative ideals of even the most effective human relation approaches do not.

Larry Levine (1990) on groups, vessels and power of the collective

In dialogue, people are open with their views while being prepared to open themselves up to accept fully the views of others. When all present are prepared to do this, Isaacs (1999) describes the whole group as becoming a vessel in which new meaning is allowed to form and emerge. Group listening is described by Levine (1994) as ‘emptying, creating and honouring’. Levine (and others) describes the resulting experience as somewhat spiritual:

… using this framework [dialogue] group creativity appears to exhibit a common spirit revealing itself. The vehicle for receiving this insight or connecting with spirit is a quality of detached, selfless openness. It is like emptying oneself or creating a vessel for receiving and containing spirit.

Marjorie Spock (1992) describes the observable differences between dialogue (conversation is the word she uses) and discussion as follows:

Intellects in discussion typically make straight for the mark of a conclusion; they penetrate fact as though with mental arrows, unaware that the fact may be a living thing that dies when so approached and becomes no more than a taxidermist’s specimen. Whereas those who engage in conversations see their function as a group process of inviting truth exactly as they would invite a human guest and making the atmosphere receptive to it.

With discussion, unnecessary conflicts may be experienced, which can impair decision-making and ultimately have serious consequences for the economic and social wellbeing of the individuals and enterprises involved.

There is a quality of listening in dialogue that is about inviting in, and being willing to see and appreciate what is different, and expecting the unexpected.

In dialogue, you will see participants become observers of, and so less identified with, their own filters and inner agendas. This takes courage and some degree of emotional maturity, not to mention humility. Yet the willingness to engage in dialogue offers the potential for an individual to develop that courage and maturity.

With practice, the container that is formed by the group’s growing sense of synergy gets stronger and can deal with more challenge and sensitivity.

In dialogue sessions, the typical behaviours you will tend to observe include:

  • Deep listening, questioning in an open manner, checking meaning, an openness and sense of enquiry, advocating views while clearly sharing underlying assumptions and facts, people being patient with one another (even if feeling frustrated)
  • People holding their positions lightly, easily letting go of their ideas and opinions when these are found to be incomplete or beyond their usefulness
  • Leadership moving around the group, dependent upon who at any time is sharing their questions, or bringing people on a train of thought, or sharing an insight
  • People taking responsibility for themselves and their own reactions and choosing not to blame.

As Levine says, you will see the group ‘holding itself in a state of simultaneous, multiple, merging of ideas without the need for resolution’.

The group allows the process to go to unexpected places and integrate input from a wide variety of sources.

What about the potential for conflict?

There’s potential for synergy in dialogue, but of course the reverse also applies. It’s not unusual for people to enter a group unaware of the richness within and around them, believing their view to be a pretty close approximation to reality. People can be quite defensive when their views are challenged, because it is their world, their truth that is called into question. Generally speaking, people don’t like being made wrong.

Without appropriate understanding and insight, the dialogue stage is set for uncomfortable, energy-draining conflict. Conflict in life is unavoidable, and even necessary and healthy, when handled constructively. Sadly, we are not all brought up to believe this nor are we blessed with the skills to handle conflict well. So in many organisations a culture emerges with an unwritten rule that conflict is ‘wrong’ and to be avoided. Managers find excuses not to speak formally about tricky issues that would inevitably lead to conflict. In these cases, the organisation can find itself sleep-walking towards impending difficulties that snowball through avoidance, with no-one brave enough to mention the elephants in the room.

Dialogue tends to invite these elephants into the centre of the room. As such, it will take the group into what Professor Cliff Bowman (Cranfield School of Management) calls the ‘Zone Of Uncomfortable Debate’ (ZOUD). In avoiding the ZOUD, most senior teams conduct weak dialogue, resulting in sub-optimal decisions and strategies. What must this cost their organisations?

Key point

Preparation for healthy dialogue, enabling necessary discomfort to be borne and healthy conflict to be navigated effectively, is a wise investment. The returns are potentially rich and rewarding on a variety of levels.