Why Productive Dialogue is Key to Accelerating Organization and Individual Success

Productive dialogue is more important now than ever. With social media and social networks supplementing many of our face to face conversations, learning the ABCs of productive conversations can help you leverage your influence in social networks.

Good business dialogue cannot be underestimated: it encourages collaboration and creativity and opens up individual and organizational learning and innovation. Dialogue, by definition, is obviously two-way, in that it is a conversation between one person and another, but it is also two way in that there is an inner dialogue that has to happen for the overall output to be effective. 

The human brain does not like ambiguity or conflict. It naturally moves to make a choice: black and white. But often this leads to less effective ‘single loop’ learning, Chris Argyris in his various models of double loop learning, including ladder of inference and high advocacy/inquiry, encourages an internal challenge (an inner mental dialogue) to encourage us to constantly challenge the unconscious processes that generate the conclusions and short cuts that our normal reasoning makes.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” And he has a point. It is ‘painful’ for our brains to hold different, possibly opposing, ideas about the same fact without jumping to one ‘right’ conclusion. But by looking closely at the information on which we have built our ‘house of conclusions’ will help us to be more accurate and structured in our thinking and then our dialogues and conversations will be very powerful.

Become a Thinking Detective

So this requires some detective work. Much of our thinking is based on the conclusions we have drawn (as part of this automatic and unconscious process). Chris Argyris in his ‘Ladder of Inference’ reckons it goes like this:

We have ‘data’ presented to us – statistics, a reaction, words, expression We select the data to use as part of our thinking – a comment, information etc We interpret this data and add meaning to it We draw conclusions from these interpretations – this helps our brain to put a label on what is happening (and boy, do our brains like labels!!), which helps to explain it and propose action from it

This is a ‘pattern’ that we do subconsciously, with lighting speed. But if we can learn how to slow this process down, break it up and do some detective work so that we use the right data, make sure we have all the data we need and then draw the most useful conclusions, our lives will be so much better!

Here’s what to do to be a ‘thinking detective’:

  • Put your ‘critic’s’ head on and retrace your thinking steps.
  • What data did you select?
  • What caught your attention?
  • What are you considering unimportant here?
  • Quite often we focus our attention on what is wrong rather than what is going well!
  • Then retrace your thinking: how did you interpret the data you selected?
  • What filters did you put on it (i.e. a negative one?)?
  • What assumptions and presuppositions did you make?

Once you have fully grasped the idea of the ladder of inference and become a good thinking detective you are ready to leverage the two key tools of productive dialogue; the first one being high quality advocacy.

Powerful Business Conversations through High Quality Advocacy

Advocacy is about sharing your thinking effectively. This could include disclosing how you feel, expressing an opinion, urging a course of action or asking someone to do something. Good ‘thinking detectives’ leverage high quality advocacy so that they are not simply offering opinions or requests. But they actually provide the data on which they based their thinking (rather than interpretations of data) and share how they arrived at their conclusions from the data they used.

Emotional state or ‘frame of mind’ is crucial to this. Think of the last time when you assumed you were right about something and in dialogue with someone ; perhaps you were having a Twitter conversation or chatting on Facebook. Notice how, in this frame of mind, you are driven to get others to realise what you ‘already know’. You are trying to influence others to your way of thinking and this feels very one way. In this type of conversation there is a notable lack of mutual learning. The whole point in having productive conversations is to promote and enforce mutual learning; this is what social networking and social media is brilliant for. But you have to approach it with the right frame of mind.

Here are some tips about how to maintain the right frame of mind for productive conversations:

  • See every conversation as an opportunity to learn and promote mutual learning
  • Assume you may be missing things others see, and seeing things others miss
  • Stay curious Assume others are acting in ways that make sense to them

Conversation is about promoting mutual learning and the best conversations are happening on social networks these days. However there is definitely an art to be mastered.

Once you have mastered your own thinking processes and understand your own conclusions and the data on which you have based them. You are ready to share your thinking with others.

This is about helping others see what you see and how you think about it. By giving examples of the data you select – telling stories, sharing anecdotes, using reference experiences – you will make your data clear (remember ‘data’ can be comments, information, statistics etc) . Then you need to clearly state the meaning that you find in these examples, clarifying and explaining the conclusions that you have drawn. As part of this process you may need to further need to explain the steps in your thinking.

A truly productive conversation also means that in sharing your thinking, you are also helping to clarify the other person’s thinking. Describe your understanding of the other person’s reasoning by reflecting back to them what you understand: “The way I understand what you have just said is that you look at the data and see declining market share, is that right?”.

Disagreeing Productively

If, during the course of your conversation, you do disagree with the other person, or perhaps see negative consequences to what they intend doing, you can make this clear in the conversation in a way that does not get the other person’s back up. If you state or identify what you see these consequences to be, but avoid attributing ‘intent’ to create those consequences to the other person, you stay on neutral ground and maintain the space of productive dialogue.

For example: “John, I notice that you have not mentioned anything about communicating the plan to the customer at this point. I have noticed in my own customer relationships that early communication helps to gain agreement. If some sort of communication will help smooth over the relationship, do you think it will be worth considering?” Distinguish between intent and impact so that a more productive outcome is achieved.

And finally, if the conversation gets more heated, and there is more conflict and emotion involved, if you feel that you have to disclose your emotions do so without implying that the other person is responsible for creating your emotional reactions.

Inquiring into how other’s think

Conversation is two way. And productive conversation involves taking responsibility for truly understanding the other person’s thinking through high quality inquiry.

High quality inquiry involves seeking others’ views, probing at how they arrived at them and, critically yet hardest of all for most of us, encouraging them to challenge your perspective. This may require us to help them share, or even understand, their own thinking. This involves listening and questioning and sometimes gently challenging them. If you are a coach, you have a head start here!

Find out how others see the situation by asking them to give examples of the ‘data’ they have used and selected in their thinking and in reaching their conclusions. You will need to help them tell you the steps they have used to get to their thinking.

The most useful questions here are the ‘what’ and the ‘how’:

  • “What information did you use to reach that conclusion?”
  • “What are you thinking here?”
  • “what do you think about this?”
  • “I’m really interested, can you tell me how did you get to that conclusion?”Be open to challenge

Stay Open to Challenge

Be open to be challenged on your own conclusions, stay open and curious and remain detached from being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ : recognize that two brains are most always better than one and that true collaboration will promote mutual learning and growth. “I notice that we have differing, opinions on this matter, and I”m really interested in finding out what I am missing that you have noticed.”

Openly ask for help in finding out what you may be missing that they are seeing. Encourage the other person to identify the gaps or errors in your thinking. If you maintain a state of high curiosity, this will keep your mind open and the dialogue productive even when you are convinced that you are ‘right’ and they are ‘wrong’.

Inquire into the non verbal language or emotion that the other person may be showing, but do this in a non-confrontational way. “I notice that you frowned when you looked at that data; are you confused at all?”

And a great tip is to ask for help in exploring whether you are unknowingly contributing to the problem. This will require you to put ego and arrogance well behind you! “I get a feeling that something I am doing may be blocking this conversation moving forward, is that something you have noticed too?”