Can We Talk?

Tools Of The Trade

To achieve its purpose, dialogue uses a specific set of communication techniques. The dialogue toolbox is organized into four main components:

1. Suspension of judgment. It's common for people to conduct running internal commentaries on what other people are saying, says Glenna Gerard, co-founder with Linda Ellinor of the Dialogue Group and co-author of Dialogue (John Wiley & Sons). "As I'm listening to what you're saying, I'm also listening internally to my responses," she says. Dialogue trainees are taught to listen for--and then silence--their internal narratives.

2. Listening effectively. Dialogue's second major technique is designed to make us more effective listeners. Lots of communication courses emphasize listening, but dialogue takes a somewhat different approach.

Specifically, dialogue calls for conversations to proceed at a slower pace. In addition, it specifies longer silences between speakers. These differences, according to the theory, give you time to absorb the information.

3. Identification of assumptions. Unidentified assumptions hurt understanding because they make open communication difficult, experts say.

Dialogue participants are taught to identify not only their own assumptions but to listen for shared assumptions in the group.

4. Inquiry and reflection. Any communication seminar will recommend asking gently probing questions and thinking the responses over before offering a rejoinder.

Dialogue is the same, only more so, says Gerard. "The difference is in the depth," she says, "and in what we're listening for and what we're inquiring about."

Practicing dialogue does call for some unusual approaches. For instance, one tool recommended by Ellinor and Gerard in their book is to hold a meeting that is specifically not intended to help reach a decision. Instead, they recommend, announce a meeting whose only purpose is to gather information and allow for the airing of opinions and ideas. While it may not result in a decision by itself, such a meeting will help you gather information and set the stage so you can make a decision, they say.

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This article was originally published in the January 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Can We Talk?.

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