What is a dialogue, to begin with? We talk a lot. We frequently hold meetings. Stimulating conversations are somewhat less frequent. And real dialogues are something of a rare sight...
The word “dialogue” consists of two parts: “logos” means “the word”, and “dia” means “through“. Accordingly, “dialogue” can be translated with “meaning conveyed through words”.
A dialogue is fundamentally different from a discussion. In a discussion, the participants try to convince their counterparts of their views and arguments. Well, it’s all about convincing, and of course about winning.
A dialogue does not have winners. All participants are winners at best: they gain new insights. A dialogue starts with an open mindset. It is not clear from the outset what the result will be, or what it should be. Because nobody knows beforehand which result would be useful or helpful. So, a dialogue does not have to yield a result, and it does not have to be efficient either.
That said, it becomes clear why dialogues hardly ever occur in our success-driven business world. Dialogues are based on an open mind of the participants. But it is exactly the aspect of the lack of an objective or goal which makes a dialogue all the more worthwhile.
I believe dialogues are the key to success, especially in times of huge social challenges, such as the fight against the pandemic and climate protection measures that are long overdue. It is precisely these topics (Should we make vaccination mandatory in Germany? Do we need nuclear energy as a transitional technology?) that I would like to talk about in a dialogue. This means that I
- have a genuine interest in understanding new perspectives, so I bring something of a sense of curiosity;
- speak from my heart by expressing my fears and hopes, and my unease;
- explain my point of view, including the underlying rationale, only if it fits into the flow of the conversation and if it is really important without coming across as lecturing;
- listen with empathy and see my counterpart as equal, regardless of who has more titles, experience or education;
- seek to curb my assumptions and evaluations, which will inevitably pop up, and seek to recognize that I have such assumptions and evaluations, but try to not let them turn into impediments so that I can continue listening to my counterpart with empathy;
- ask genuine, explorative questions, without any hidden goals intended to manipulate my counterpart.
Now this has become quite a long list of aspects, which goes to show that true dialogues are not everyday practice. Dialogues may occur in pairs of two or in larger groups. Dialogues only work when all the participants follow the attitude and behaviors I described above.
What would be possible if only we could manage to allow such dialogues to happen also in a business context, especially in the case of major challenges? There are no limits to imagination.
Needless to say that, in the case of the major social challenges I mentioned above, it is necessary to have larger groups that bring different expertise and perspectives to the table in order to come up with good and innovative solutions that have not yet been thought of.
Finally, I would like to define the four quality levels of conversations (or attentiveness):
- First and lowest level – downloading – not listening at all: This is the situation we are all familiar with: you start a conversation and suddenly, your counterpart starts lecturing or unburdens himself/herself non-stop. No, that’s not a dialogue!
- Second level – discussion – listening and responding in a matter-of-fact style: Both sides try to convince their respective counterpart of their own perspective and opinion. This really doesn’t count as listening, because you only listen with the objective to refute what has been said. Most of the times, you did not start the conversation with the assumption that your counterpart might also be the one who is right.
- Third level – empathic dialogue – listening with an open heart and with empathy: This is about recognizing something that is not said with words, but which is already filtering through. For example, the counterpart may help to find the words for something that the other already knows, but what he or she is not yet aware of.
- Fourth and highest level – creative dialogue – listening with an open will to create something new: This highest level of communication enables the conversation partners to create (in cooperation) something new, something that has not yet been thought of, by mutually benefitting from this conversation and by combining that what has been heard with their own knowledge and their own experience. Under the Design Thinking approach, this is called “Building on the ideas of others”. This can only work when you hold back your own evaluation and judgment.
Well, are you ready to go to this highest level of attentiveness at least from time to time? You can be curious about what is possible!
This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here