The Theory and Practice of Dialogue in Organizational Settings
John P. Hale


Open, frequent, and constructive communication has traditionally been thought of as one of the keys to long-term organizational success. With the global business environment becoming increasingly complex, organizations are having to become more creative and progressive in their practices to keep pace with, much less surpass, the competition. The need for organizations to communicate well continues to build in importance. The practice of dialogue, a "higher order" form of communication, is gaining increased acceptance as an organizational development process within companies that are striving to maximize the collective intelligence and capabilities of their people. While not designed for those looking for the "quick fix," over time dialogue can serve as a catalyst and a vehicle for creative problem identification and problem solving. In addition, when facilitated constructively, dialogue fosters and maintains the high levels of openness and trust that characterize healthy, evolving organizational cultures.

The Theory and Practice of Dialogue in Organizational Settings

There is little debate among business professionals, organizational development experts, management consultants, or academicians regarding the merits of good communication; it is in many ways the lifeblood of a healthy organization. Yet, as an art form and as a science, it is much easier to define and elaborate upon than it is to master in practice. Many of the myriad problems that occur within organizations, whether interpersonal, systemic, or strategic, can be traced back to poor communication somewhere in a process or chain of events. As organizations face the 21st century and an increasingly expanding and complex business environment, the need to do communication well is likely to be stronger than ever. In order to survive, much less thrive, organizations and their members are going to have to work toward fully leveraging their collective intelligence, creativity, and productivity. This will be impossible without deep, meaningful conversation and communication.

As they contemplate the challenges of the future, many organizations are seeing the need to move beyond striving for continuous improvement and move toward becoming a learning organization (Hodgetts, Luthans & Lee, 1994). Characterized by anticipating change rather than simply adapting in response to change in its environment, learning organizations stay ahead of the competition by finding new, creative ways of doing work while striving to exceed customer expectations. This concept has been gaining increasing popularity over the last few years (Bennet & O Brien, 1994; Calvert, Mobley & Mars, 1994; Garvin, 1993; Solomon, 1994) as it is beginning to move from the realm of theory and philosophy to an emerging area of applied practice.

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge (1990) elaborates a model for distinguishing learning organizations from traditional authoritarian, "controlling organizations." In his definition, learning organizations are "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (p. 3). He proposes the mastery of certain basic disciplines as a means to facilitate and release learning at all levels within the organization. In that mastery, team members will need to develop proficiency in a form of communication known as dialogue.

Dialogue, as used by Senge and others (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross & Smith, 1994), is a special kind of communication. Moving beyond "discussion" where individuals are concerned with who is "right" or who has the most compelling argument, dialogue allows the exploration of complex or difficult issues from many different perspectives. When practiced successfully, dialogue allows groups to move beyond any one individual s understanding to gain new insights and to create in ways that could not be achieved individually. To reach this "higher order" form of communication, groups have to move through a continuum of communication stages.

Because of its centrality to team effectiveness and team learning, dialogue, and the open, healthy communication that allows it to occur, can be considered a "core competency" that should be aspired to by those organizations striving to maximize their potential. In their book, Sculpting the Learning Organization, Watkins and Marsick (1993) emphasize how dialogue reflects the way individuals think and is a key to learning through interaction with one another; it is a critical medium of learning. Specifically, as it relates to Senge s model (1990), it forms a foundation that enables work groups to better practice the majority of the learning disciplines: systems thinking, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

Systems Thinking. In this discipline, organizations use a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that have been developed over the past fifty years, to make full cause-and-effect patterns clearer and to help see how to change them effectively as warranted. This work is most often done in teams and places a strong emphasis on the team s ability to communicate as they problem-solve together.

Mental Models. These are the deeply ingrained assumptions that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. To be able to "unearth" these internal pictures of the world, to bring them to the surface and hold them rigorously to scrutiny, reflection and inquiry is essential. According to Watkins and Marsick (1993), through communication we make explicit the reasoning that is implicit in our thinking and ask others in the situation to do the same. This provides us each with the potential to learn. Shared Vision. Similar to mental models, in practicing the discipline of building shared vision, people must be able to clearly and honestly articulate their thinking and assumptions. By doing this and emphasizing their dreams for the future, the group begins to shape and generate commitment to the shared images of the future they seek to create, as well as the principles and guiding practices by which they hope to get there.

Team Learning. In this practice, groups work to transform their conversational and collective thinking skills so that the group develops intelligence and ability greater than the sum of the individual member s talents. At the heart of this discipline is the need for dialogue. In his training workshops on team learning, McDermott (1995) highlights the need for each team member to make his or her thinking visible to others, as well as the trust that is imperative for people to feel safe "thinking in public." These kinds of behaviors, fostered by dialogue, greatly enhance the probability that team learning will occur.

Similarly, dialogue can play a critical role in the formation of high performance teams. Buchholz and Roth (1987) identify eight research-based attributes that are typically present in high performance teams: participative leadership, shared responsibility, aligned on purpose, high communication, future focused, focused on task, creative talents, and rapid response. The need for strong and effective communication is a common denominator across these attributes. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) emphasize in their model of high performance teams that these groups have developed strong personal commitments to one another s growth and success. These types of feelings in many ways stem from the trust and connection that come with sharing one s innermost thoughts, hopes, and fears in dialogue with his or her team colleagues.

While certainly a critical factor in developing learning, success, and health in organizations, as teams move along the continuum of communication toward dialogue, there are rich side benefits to be reaped along the way. For example, in People Skills, Bolton (1986) emphasizes the positive aspects that strong communication can have on our interpersonal relationships. The trust, openness, connectedness, warmth, and self-esteem that are nurtured by strong communication can have a significant impact on all of our relationships, as well as on our overall quality of life, sense of satisfaction, and even physical health.

Defining and Understanding Dialogue
Dialogue is a very old idea that is finding new meaning and application within the work setting. For example, it was practiced by the ancient Greeks, used by the Native Americans in their tribal councils, and is practiced by Quakers in their spiritual practices (Teurfs & Gerard, 1994). As it emerges as a reflective learning process within organizations, it draws heavily on the work of three key Twentieth-Century thinkers. Martin Buber (1957), a philosopher, emphasized the dimension of dialogue that requires full acceptance of the other individual(s), turning to them in a way that is fully genuine, open, and affirming. Psychologist Patrick DeMare (1991) explored the aspects of dialogue which fostered a sense of community and allowed the healing of social conflicts . David Bohm (1985), a quantum physicist turned philosopher, contributed the emphasis on collective thought and learning. As he conceived it, dialogue would encourage the group to attend collectively, to learn to watch for and experience its own tacit (previously undiscussed) processes in action. Once noted and discussed, new ways of thinking can occur.

Over the last few years, William Isaacs, a senior lecturer at MIT s Sloan School of Management and the director of the Dialogue Project within the Center for Organizational Learning, and his team have been extending these theories through research and application. His working definition of dialogue (Isaacs, 1993) is a "sustained collective inquiry into the processes, assumptions, and certainties that compose everyday experience" (p. 3). In his view, dialogue s intent is to have people learn how to think together, not just in the sense of analyzing a problem or issue, but in the sense of surfacing fundamental assumptions and gaining clearer insight into why those assumptions arise. This can produce an environment in which people are consciously participating in the creation of shared meaning and the development of new and aligned actions. He emphasizes that this capability is fundamental for team learning to occur. He strongly endorses the philosophy that the same thinking that created our most pressing problems cannot be used to solve them.

One way to conceptualize dialogue is as one stage on a continuum of communication stages. Edgar Schein (1993) proposes a model of mapping forms of talking together along two basic paths. Conversation often leads to deliberation where individuals are faced with a lack of understanding, a disagreement, or some other "choice point." Here they can go one of two ways. They can move down one path that emphasizes competition and logic; this leads to debate where one side wins and another side loses. The other path emphasizes a suspension of judgment, a strategy of reflection and exploration to see what might emerge from the discussion. In many ways, this is not goal-oriented communication; it is approached with no result in mind, only with intent to develop deeper levels of inquiry, wherever that may lead. This path leads through dialogue and can result in the building of culture, a sense of community, and new shared assumptions.

Dialogue is a process that evolves and "unfolds" as groups practice it. One of several paradoxes that define dialogue (Senge et al., 1994) is that no matter how badly a group wants it to "happen," it cannot be forced. Yet, as groups improve their conversation and reflection skills, they can find themselves moving through the progression that leads to dialogue. Isaacs (1993) has worked to articulate a practical theory of dialogue by naming

elements of this process and identifying the behaviors and collective skills that seem to compose it. Central to his theory is the need to create an environment, or container, in which dialogue can occur. This container can be thought of as a climate as well as a set of explicit or implicit norms that permit people to take risks and to deal with "hot issues" without getting burned (Schein, 1993). The four stages of dialogue as identified by Isaacs are as follows:

Stage I: Instability of the Container. When any group of individuals comes together, they bring with them a variety of unexpressed assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives. The first challenge in the process is for participants to recognize these differences, and to accept that the purpose of dialogue is not to deny or defend these differences, but to find a way to explore them. The instability stems from these differences and the potential conflict and "defensive routines," such as debate tactics, that can result from them. In this stage, people face the first crisis: a decision point to either defend their points of view, or suspend their views and begin to listen without coming to any hard or fast conclusions regarding the accuracy of the views being expressed. If people are willing to loosen their grip of certainty about all views, including their own, this will move them toward dialogue.

Stage II: Instability in the Container. A recognition of this first crisis and a decision to tolerate uncertainty begins to create an environment in which people realize that they are doing something different than usual. Groups begin to fluctuate between suspending views and falling back into the more comfortable mode of discussing and critiquing them. In this stage, people find themselves feeling frustrated, primarily because the lack of coherence in others assumptions, beliefs, and thoughts are becoming more apparent. The clear differences that had been hidden are now appearing. This leads to a second crisis: to move more strongly toward common defenses (e.g., withdrawal or judgment) or to recognize what is happening and recommit to a strategy of inquiry and listening.

Stage III: Inquiry in the Container. If the second crisis can be navigated, a new level of awareness among the group emerges. People begin to inquire together as a whole, and often insights emerge. There is increased sensitivity to the conversation itself; people notice, for example, that they differ in their pace and timing of speaking and thinking, and they begin to inquire into and respect these differences. Sometimes in this stage the conversation flow takes on a powerful intensity as people confront their own deeply held beliefs and assumptions. This can lead to another crisis, one in which people realize that they have imposed self-created limits on their own thinking and actions. This crisis can lead to transformation of fundamental patterns of interaction, to significant change at both the individual and group levels. By virtue of reaching this crisis, the dialogue has been "successful" in many respects.

Stage IV: Creativity in the Container. If this third crisis can be navigated, consciousness among group members is raised to new heights. Thinking takes on a different rhythm and pace. People begin to realize that the medium and the message are linked: information from the dialogue process itself conveys as much meaning as the content of the words being exchanged. Rigid, ingrained thought patterns are loosened, allowing new levels of intelligence and creativity to emerge.

Moving Toward the Practice of Dialogue
While the outcomes of dialogue are important and desirable on multiple levels, contemplating how to tackle the process can be a daunting challenge. To remove some of the mystery and mysticism from it, practitioners are beginning to provide us with guidance around the basic building blocks of a dialogue session, which help facilitate a group s movement along the communication continuum. For example, Teurfs and Gerard (1994) identify four such essential skills:

  1. Inquiry and Reflection: a process by which a group digs deeply into matters that concern them, creating breakthroughs in the teams ability to solve problems. One key to this is learning how to ask questions that lead to new levels of understanding and accelerate the group s collective thinking.
  2. Listening: moving beyond active listening skills to develop the group member s capacity to stay present and open to meaning that is being expressed, either explicitly or implicitly, at both the individual and group level.
  3. Suspension of Judgment: by more clearly understanding a model of human communication and thinking, group member s can become more sensitive to how our normal mental processes affect our ability to stay open to new and alternative perspectives on reality.
  4. Assumption Identification: using various tools and metaphors, group member s learn to become aware of their own and others assumptions as a way to discover common ground, as well as incoherence in the group s collective thinking, which may cause undesirable outcomes or results.

They state that through the ongoing practice of these basic skills, teams begin learning a new way of communicating with each other which allows them to move toward attaining dialogue. Each of these building blocks, in and of itself, require training, practice, and discipline to develop mastery. According to Schein (1993), the best way to think about dialogue is as a group process that arises out of the individual participant s personal skills and attitudes. It begins happening when all the right pieces are in place.

Isaacs (Senge et al., 1994) would endorse yet add to the above list. In his opinion, as a fundamental prerequisite, no individual should be "required" to participate in a dialogue session. A lack of choice or any perceived coercion can easily stifle the openness and trust that is essential for dialogue to occur. In addition, as a necessary skill, individuals need to be practicing "observing the observer." This idea of turning one s attention inward allows an individual to monitor and contemplate his or her thoughts and feeling as they occur, not after. This allows for "real time" processing and discussion of what is happening at both the individual and/or group level.

Dialogue does initially require a group facilitator, according to Isaacs (Senge et al., 1994). The fact that it is an unfamiliar process for most people is certainly one issue that warrants help. Yet, perhaps more importantly, dialogue can bring up difficult emotions and misunderstandings that need to be processed constructively. Also, a good facilitator can anticipate and help a group through the various "crises" that occur at different points in a group s growth and learning with dialogue. Although, especially early on, a facilitator is an important contributor to a successful journey toward dialogue, over time the process should evolve toward more of a collective facilitation with any one person s role in this being minimized. William Gellerman, an organizational development consultant, counsels (personal communication, October 4, 1995) that the facilitator, and ideally a group member or two, should be "veterans" of true dialogue sessions themselves to maximize the probability that the group will be ultimately successful. In some ways, he emphasizes, you have to have seen it and experienced it to truly understand it.

Some initial motivation to engage in dialogue should be present, advises Schein (1993) based on his work as a facilitator. Because the process appears initially to be quite "inefficient," a work group is not likely to volunteer to engage in such a process unless it has a core issue or longer-running reason to see this as a valuable detour away from standard problem-solving exercises. Reasons to begin can vary from learning for learning s sake to a serious conflict and breakdown of trust between two work units. Once a group has made the decision to begin the process, Schein supports the structuring of the sessions to reinforce the following guidelines to help ensure positive group dynamics:

  1. Members should feel as equal as possible and, to foster this, sit in a circle.
  2. Everyone should feel a sense of guaranteed "air time" to help establish their identity within the group.
  3. The task of the group should be to explore the dialogue process, and to gain some understanding of it, rather than to make a specific decision or generate potential solutions to a problem.
  4. Early in the process, participants will be primarily concerned with their own thoughts, assumptions, and feelings, so encouraging them to draw on those personal experiences is a good way to begin.
  5. Sessions scheduled for one-and-a-half to two hours, at two to three week intervals seem to work well in most cases.

Schein also provides a set of guidelines for session facilitators working with new dialogue groups. The following ideas are presented as a proposed process to be modified and adapted to meet the needs of the specific facilitator and/or group:

  1. Organize the physical space to be as nearly a circle as possible;
  2. Introduce the general concept, then ask everyone to reflect on an experience of dialogue in the sense of "good communication" in their past;
  3. Ask people to share with a neighbor what that experience was and to describe the specific characteristics of that experience;
  4. Ask group members to share what it was from these past experiences that made for good communication and write these on a flip chart;
  5. Ask the group to reflect on these characteristics by having people share their reactions;
  6. Let the conversation flow naturally once everyone is engaged;
  7. Intervene as necessary to clarify or process, using concepts and data that illustrate the problems of communication; and
  8. Close the session by asking everyone to comment in whatever manner they choose.

He encourages subsequent sessions to be started by asking each participant to comment on "where they were at" at that moment, again implying that everyone should be contributing. The facilitator should decide how much theoretical input the group needs and when they need it. Beyond these tips, there are few fast and hard procedures to be followed. Based on his extensive practice with dialogue, Isaacs (Senge et al., 1994) states the "no matter how willfully you engage in the practice, you can t force dialogue to happen" (p. 374). Yet, he goes on to add, while it can t be forced, it can be nurtured.

Dialogue and its outcomes can help teams, and organizations, help themselves on multiple levels. By following the various paths that can lead to dialogue, teams are likely to enhance the quality of their communication, thinking, and interpersonal relationships through the process itself. These outcomes can facilitate improved performance and cooperation whether the goal of the organization is to become a learning organization, a high performance team, or simply to be more effective tomorrow than they are today. Yet, the journey toward dialogue can be a difficult one, filled with the need for risk taking, new learnings, and the letting go of old, familiar ways of doing things. Because of these issues, a high level of patience and commitment to the process is necessary to reap the full rewards possible. For those individuals, teams, and organizations willing to make that commitment, new possibilities for creativity and transformation emerge.


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