Can We Talk?

Speaking up about the value of dialogue.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the January 1998 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Everyone knows how to have two-way . You talk for a while, then somebody else talks for a while. So why did the Fetzer Institute send its employees to a series of workshops to teach them about ?

"We were looking for creative ways to work out conflicts, deepen our relationships with each other and generally communicate better," explains Wendy Lombard, director of organizational learning for the 50-person Kalamazoo, Michigan, health-care research foundation. After looking over the available communication courses, they chose a series of four-day workshops from the Dialogue Group, a Laguna Hills, , consulting firm.

Lombard felt the dialogue seminars were different from most offerings in the way they emphasized the value of exploring feelings and building trust in group settings. And instead of just learning to converse better, Fetzer employees were taught specific skills designed to improve understanding and boost team productivity.

The difference between dialogue and other communication techniques is that dialogue is not really about talking, says Sarita Chawla, president of consulting firm MetaLens in San Rafael, California. "It's in listening that dialogue happens," she says.

Companies such as Hewlett Packard, AT&T and Shell are hearing dialogue's promises--and they're responding by sending employees to similar seminars. But unlike some recent management trends, the drive toward dialogue is well-suited to small organizations as well.

Small companies can easily involve everyone in dialogue, says Chawla. And this communication technique works particularly well when getting projects off the ground, whether you're hiring a new employee or starting a business venture.

Whether large or small, companies that look into dialogue won't be disappointed, says Lombard. The results include a deeper sense of community, greater trust among staff members and a more complete understanding of the organization's mission.

Benefits also reach the bottom line, notes Lombard. "It's more productive," she says. "Things get done faster because people have a shared vision."

Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer specializing in business topics.

Tools Of The Trade

To achieve its purpose, uses a specific set of 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.

Dialogue Duties

While the practice of is clearly useful for managing meetings, it can also help satisfy broader business needs. Creativity, for instance, may be enhanced in an atmosphere of dialogue. It is an excellent tool for companies attempting to innovate new products or processes, says Ellinor. Better team-building is another effective result of dialogue. It is also a useful tool for dealing with diverse work forces.

Generally, any long-term plan benefits from dialogue, says Gerard. "Another good place for dialogue is when you have recalcitrant problems occurring over and over again--when you obviously haven't gotten to the root of the problem," she adds.

Dialogue has limitations, however. The first concerns speed. Slow-paced conversations can be out of place in circumstances calling for fast action. "Dialogue is not a tool to use when you have some kind of emergency situation and need to make a decision quickly," warns Gerard.

This method of also may not work well when conflict among group members is high and people are unable to open up. It's also likely to fail when group leaders or company managers are committed to hierarchical, command-and-control formats.

Entrepreneurs may go wrong if they approach dialogue as an end in itself, without keeping an eye firmly fixed on the results they hope to achieve, warns Chawla. "Dialogue is the train by which you get to the destination," she says. "It's not the destination."

Bringing It Home

Peter Senge, co-author of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Doubleday) and one of 's most visible champions, considers dialogue a key tool for creating the learning organization that has become an objective of many businesses today.

Other dialogue boosters include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the Dialog Project has been researching the concept since the early 1990s. Dialogue experts also frequently cite David Bohm, a physicist and writer on relationships between quantum physics and everyday life.

Students of dialogue can choose from a number of helpful books, including the one mentioned above as well as On Dialogue (Routledge), written by Bohm.

If you think this is a technique your company can benefit from, don't stop with just reading about it. Personal instruction is essential for good dialogue, experts stress. Consultants suggest businesses attend three- to four-day workshops conducted by trainers, which cost about $1,500 per person, followed by regular in-house practice and implementation sessions.

It need not be that expensive, however. Chawla says some community colleges offer excellent courses on dialogue as part of their curriculum on learning organizations.

Follow-up is probably the biggest cost. Fetzer augmented its two four-day seminars with monthly practice sessions to help its employees incorporate dialogue into their daily work.

If that sounds like a surprising amount of trouble to go to in order to learn something that most of us think we already know, consider that the results can be surprisingly profound. "We didn't know what was going to happen when we gave people a chance to express their deepest desires about [our] organization," says Lombard. "But we found that people felt a sense of freedom, truth, participation and inclusion. It really began a cultural change for us."

Contact Sources

The Dialogue Group, (714) 497-9757,

Fetzer Institute, 9292 W. KL Ave., Kalamazoo, MI 49009-9340,

MetaLens, (415) 479-5092,


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