27th October 2011

It’s either ‘You’, ‘Me’ or Dialogue


A couple of days ago, while flicking through the TV channels, I happened upon a parliamentary debate.  Within minutes I was completely fixated by the arguing, finger pointing, jeering, laughing and posturing that went on.  The most curious part of it all was there seemed to be no positive outcome!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in my right to have a very personal point of view – one which might be completely different to anyone else.  But, the one thing I am absolutely sure about is debate doesn’t leave me feeling heard, understood, valued or seen.  It does quite the reverse.  It leaves me feeling defensive, frustrated, alone and completely misunderstood.

The reason – debate is a non relational way of navigating difference.  By its very nature it wants us to doubt what the other person/s is saying.  It also encourages us to believe there is only one right and valid perspective which means it places a high value on winning and ‘having the last word’.

There is sufficient evidence within the field of neuroscience which confirms arguing, and feeling there can be only one winner, triggers defensive and/or attacking behaviours.  Neuroscience also shows that once in defence or attack mode we lose our ability to be relational.  If we lose our ability to be relational, we lose our ability to be understood and valued.  If we lose our ability to be understood and valued we are likely to do one of two things:-

  • Find more destructive ways to be heard
  • Withdraw our energy from the situation and the relationship

The interesting thing is neither gets us any closer to feeling understood and valued.

From Debate to Dialogue

So what’s the alternative?  The answer is Dialogue.
Dialogue is a relational way to stay connected and navigate difference.  It also:-

  • Prevents ‘knee jerk’ reactions, negative labelling and rigid holding of positions
  • Allows you to share your own point of view from the position of ‘partners’ rather than ‘rivals’
  • Encourages respectful curiosity about each others’ experiences
  • Creates a space for you to investigate your prejudices and assumptions
  • Values each person’s perspective for what it has to offer, allowing you to explore the more complex relationship between the perspectives
  • Fosters an environment of ‘us’ rather than ‘you versus me’ where you can develop a shared outcome
  • Invites you to consider new information.  Information that could lead to you re-examining your initial thought, idea or feeling
  • Is a safe container where empathy and compassion can be given and received

From a neurological perspective, it helps you to feel safe, and prevents you from seeing the other as a threat, which means you are more likely to be able to hear each other and seek a collaborative and positive outcome.

The Four key Elements of Dialogue

The important question though is ‘How?’  For me this is the most important part of learning anything new as it turns theory and insight into tangible, doable and visible actions.

Dialogue requires you make a shift in your thinking and your actions.  In order to do this you will need to believe in, or at least have a deep curiosity about, the power of collaboration and relationship.  If not, it may take a little longer to bed down the following four key elements of dialogue.

  • Listening

    Research shows that humans spend as much of 95% of their time in ‘reactive listening’.  This is because of our debate culture.  To really listen means to turn up and step into the others shoes so you can fully understand their experience of what they are sharing with you.  In my blog entries So you think you can listen’ and Funny places you learn to listen’ you will find some helpful tips on how to do this.
  • Respectful curiosity

    Respectful curiosity is about asking questions to deepen your understanding of what the other is sharing with you.  It also allows for the safe exploration of assumptions and beliefs which prevent you reaching collaborative solutions.  All questions used during respectful curiosity are done from a position of invitation i.e ‘That’s really interesting, would you be open to telling me more about ....’  For more ideas on respectful curiosity you might wish to visit my blog entry Don’t ask me Why’.
  • Mirroring

    People have a tendency to repeat themselves if they don’t feel heard or understood.  One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate you have heard what the other is saying is to mirror it back them.  Again neuroscience offers us the evidence that when we feel heard we’re more likely to look for collaborative solutions.  A great way to mirror is to say ‘Can I check I really got you?’ and then just mirror starting with ‘What I heard you say was .....’
  • Contributing

    Martin Buber, a twentieth century philosopher, articulates contribution brilliantly.  He says ‘If genuine dialogue is to arise, everyone who takes part must bring himself (or herself) into it.  And that also means that he (or she) must be willing on each occasion to say what is really in his (or her) mind about the subject of conversation’

    In very practical terms it might look like ‘If it is ok with you, I would like to share my thoughts on the subject.  Would it be appropriate to do that now?’  When you share your thoughts, dialogue invites you do it from the position of respect rather than ‘countering’.  ‘Countering’ belongs in debate as it gives you the opportunity to use the information you have from the other person to prove why your thoughts and ideas are right and better than theirs.  When we offer our thoughts in a respectful way we talk from the position of ‘I’ and only ‘I’.

There is the potential to feel quite overwhelmed by these four elements.  If necessary, break it down and start with just one.  See what impact it has on your thinking and your actions.  When it feels safe, add another, and another.

I’ve spent the last six years learning the art of dialogue.  I use it in my personal and professional life.  It is the founding principle for all the work I do with couples and in the business world.  The best part about it is it has the power to help you navigate difference in a safe and effective manner.

Happy dialoguing!

If you found this entry useful, and you would like to explore how we might work together, then just click here.

Posted by Kerry-Lyn on 27/10/11 at 11:57am

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