Your Most Critical Team-Building Skill

The best team members play well with others – they collaborate effectively, and know how to open meaningful dialogues.

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To become an effective collaborator, there are certain skills that a leader needs to develop, including the skill of communicating effectively in order to build solid relationships. Effective communication involves listening, something most of us think we do well because we do it all the time.


The reality is that even though we spend a large part of each day listening to our spouses, family members, friends, managers, co-workers and customers, most of us are pretty poor at it. Our listening skills become even worse when there’s high tension or when tempers are about to flare.

A cornerstone of effectively playing well with others is learning to use listening to really understand what people are saying. This partly includes developing inquiry skills so that you can extract information from your colleagues, employees and even customers. The heart of dialogue is inquiring and advocating, and this consists of sharing our point of view and listening to the point of view of others until we have created a pool of shared understanding.


Advocacy vs empathy

Advocacy has to do with concern for self. People high on this dimension stand up for their own rights, look out for their own needs, and defend their own position.

Empathy has to do with concern for others. People high on this dimension consider the needs of others and try to help others meet their goals.

In terms of these two dimensions, there are four styles of communication that we typically fall into.

When we dominate, we are high on advocacy and low on empathy. There are many examples of how we dominate.

These include: Refusing to listen, lecturing, arguing, yelling, defending, criticising, belittling, controlling, blaming, slamming/throwing, gossiping, being sarcastic, and so on. People who use this style of communication tend to be individualistic, opinionated, and verbal. 

Dominators and Accomodators

Dominators communicate the message “I’m okay and you’re not okay.” They also communicate that “if you do not do what I want, I will intimidate, coerce, or overpower you until you do.” At the extreme, dominators go on the offensive and attack other people, trying to win through intimidation, power, and control.

When we accommodate, we are high on empathy and low on advocacy. Being accommodating to others includes being silent, conceding, giving in, appeasing, harmonising, taking the blame, placating and apologising.

Accommodators try to get along with people, showing lots of patience, even though they might be struggling inside. At the extreme they will feel and act like martyrs, pout, get sick, be depressed, or act out their feelings in passive-aggressive ways. They try to get others to change using indirect tactics.

Accommodators communicate the message “I’m not okay and you’re okay,” and “You can have your way.”

When we avoid, we are low on both advocacy and empathy. How do we avoid? The difference between avoiding and accommodating is that avoiders disengage and deny the existence of conflicts or concerns. They tend to tune out emotionally and act as if everything is okay. 

Accommodators acknowledge a problem and feel responsible (even over-responsible) to fix it or make others feel better. We avoid by denying, suppressing feelings, leaving, disengaging, being apathetic, rationalising, acting as if it’s business as usual, using humour, distracting and dismissing. The message that is communicated by avoiders is “Let’s pretend that everything is okay.” They hope that by glossing over a situation it will go away.


The power of dialogue

While one style may be dominant, each of us uses all three styles of communication at different moments and in different situations. Our native tongue is our most natural style and probably one which we learnt at a young age, when in distress.

Are you mostly a Dominator, an Accommodator or an Avoider? It’s important to understand your native tongue, so that you can understand how to shift your natural style into one of dialogue. When we dialogue (collaborate), we are high on both advocacy and empathy.

The concept of dialogue is an alternative to the communicating styles of dominating, accommodating, and avoiding. At DLA, we define dialogue as creating a pool of shared understanding in an atmosphere of respect and goodwill in order to arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome. This is communication that seeks to maximise both the dimensions of advocacy and empathy and it’s based on the premise that the more openly we talk, the better our solutions and the more committed we will be to carrying them out.

Dialogue consists of four skills:

  1. We establish an atmosphere of unity, mutual respect, and goodwill through mutuality
  2. We then encourage others to disclose their point of view and/or inner experience through inquiry
  3. We disclose our own point of view or inner experience through advocacy
  4. We arrive at win/win outcomes through synergy. 

The heart of dialogue is inquiry and advocacy, consisting of sharing our point of view and listening to the point of view of others until we have created a pool of shared understanding. Only when all the data is in the pool of shared understanding do we go to the step of synergy, in which we make a decision or solve the problem. 

Dialogue has three objectives: Mutuality, creating a pool of shared understanding, and synergy. It’s not always intended to meet all three of these objectives. Sometimes the purpose of dialogue is simply to establish mutuality, for example when a resentment has built up between two individuals that keeps them from working together effectively. 

On other occasions, the purpose is to build a pool of shared understanding. The US and Vietnam have recently met on a number of occasions to understand each other’s decision process during the war, in order to learn the lessons necessary to prevent future tragedies. 

The purpose of dialogue could also be to solve a problem. For example, a management team must decide how to allocate limited financial resources among all departments. This third objective cannot be achieved without meeting objectives one and two. And the second objective cannot be achieved without meeting objective one.

Bruce Msimanga

Written By

Bruce Msimanga is the president of DLA Consulting, a consultancy that focuses on leadership and team development. Visit" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">