Developing the art of Effective Dialogue (Part 2)

Henry ILP, Members only content, Wave 3 Leave a Comment

Towards an effective dialogue process – six rules

Dialogue, at its most effective, is almost a form of dance, where speakers and listeners follow certain moves together in tandem, according to agreed conventions, ‘rules of the dance’ if you like; and this allows ideas and views to pass back and forth in a manner which helps people to understand each others’ views, to feel respected, and to better discover the best way forward using the best in the view articulated. 

Rule #1 In this dance, there are three very important rules for the speaker to follow. The first applies even before a word is uttered. It’s about mindset – coming to the moment of speaking with a positive and open mind, being ready to say something which you hope is of value to the listener in some way, and then actively expressing a positive intention when speaking, “I’d like to share …”, “I’m interested in your views on this.”, “Maybe this idea could help us …”, for example. If we can approach dialogue with this open and explicit positivity, our words will resonate with opportunity and respect for listeners, rather than a sense of lecture or threat.

Rule #2 The second rule is also very simple – limit how long you talk for. Think about it. If you talk for too long, you make it hard for the listener to focus and stay with you, and communication breaks down. If you are too short, it can be really hard to figure out what you actually want to say. So, that leads us to the question, how long should I talk for in a conversation before I, well, to put it bluntly, shut up? Personally, I would say no more than 30 to 45 seconds.

Rule #3 Then stop, and activate the third speaker rule – hand over to the listener and invite them explicitly and respectfully to comment on your ideas: say something like, “What do you think about that?” or “What’s your experience?” These handover questions are an active invitation to dialogue, a signal to others that your purpose is to explore and share truths, not dominate with your own.

Rules #4 and 5 The listener role is also critical during these speaker movements. And as we said, with dance, it takes two to tango. So listeners need to listen well with a couple of very simple behaviours – signaling when they understand (“I see.” or “I’m with you.”) and, secondly, reflecting back value they hear with appreciative feedback (“Good idea.” or “I agree with that.”)  Of course, this is possible with body language but I generally recommend saying something, to be super explicit. After all, for the speaker, if they feel understood and valued, then dialogue is more likely to go well.

Rule #6 The final rule for the listener is perhaps the most curious one. As the speaker invites the person listening to say something, the listener should hesitate, and be careful not to assume they have fully understood. Instead, look for an opportunity to clarify something the speaker has said, “What do you mean when you say …” or “Why do you say that …?” The first question clarifies the content of the message; the second question clarifies the motivation behind the message. Clarification is the oil which enables the process of machinery of communication to flow smoothly.

Don’t worry about challenging the speaker – with these questions, asked with genuine interest, they will simply feel listened to, and provide you with a second round of information, giving you more words and insights, before inviting you to speak again, at which point you become the speaker, and the speaker becomes the listener. And on the dance goes – open, positive, curious, rich with clarification, focused on understanding and sharing rather than dominating and persuading.

Better communication – better life

In the training programmes we run at ILP, we frequently make the promise that we will change the way people communicate. The promise is based on the premise that people adopt these six simple but very fundamental rules when they speak and listen to other human beings – not religiously, but flexibly applied according to person and context.

And the feedback from clients over the last twenty years has been breathtakingly consistent – conversations become better; more information flows, better understanding is achieved, results improve and relationships deepen.

The challenge, strangely, to apply the rules successfully, is not with the number or rules, only 6 after all, or their complexity, but rather with our ability to stay disciplined enough to stick to the rules. Most effective communication principles – as these – you could explain to a five-year old. The problem with adults is that they are not five-year olds; they think they know better; they believe too much in their own ‘truths’; they come to conversations in a hurry, badly prepared, believing that telling achieves dialogue – in fact, it results in destructive and wasteful collective monologues.

That’s what I told Daniel. He went away inspired, a disciple of the six rules of effective dialogue, and started to communicate with rather than talk at other people. I think he lives a happier life now – less stressful, less challenging and challenged. So, what do you think about that? How about you give it all a go?

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