As a young boy I enjoyed spending hours with my grandmother working on jigsaw puzzles. She especially liked puzzles of outdoor scenes. These were particularly challenging because the colors and textures of nature often merge without clear lines of demarcation.

My initial childish inclination was to try to “win” at solving the puzzles. But when I tried to argue or debate, I missed opportunities for progress. I discovered that my piece of a puzzle was both valid and limited. It was not the whole picture. When I became curious and started to inquire about other puzzle pieces (my grandmother’s perspective), I began to see a fuller picture and was better able to collaborate in solving the puzzle.

Effective conversation is a lot like collaborating on a jigsaw puzzle. Each person’s perspective adds to the whole. This is made possible by dialogue. The Greek roots of the word are dia (through) and logos (meaning). Although this definition may seem a bit academic, we should remember that it’s through the meanings we share that we form the very basis for understanding each other at all. It’s through shared meaning that we form religious congregations. It’s through shared meaning that we form communities. It’s through shared meaning that we are able to engage people we wish to influence and by whom we are willing to be influenced. It’s through shared meaning that we form any meaningful relationship.

Dialogue does not consist of two competing monologues. Genuine dialogue involves the free flow of clear meaning toward a shared purpose in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Notice that I didn’t say free flow of information. I said free flow of meaning. Putting your piece of the puzzle (information) on the table is not enough. Your perspective on how that piece fits (meaning) is also important. “Oh, you think turning the piece upside down helps? Ah, yes, it does. Now it contributes to the whole.”

Let me explain what dialogue is not. Dialogue is not pie-in-the-sky, let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya stuff. Neither is it a touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy, soft-headed approach to thinking and interacting.

True dialogue dates back to Aristotle, Socrates, Plato and others who discovered its power in helping people build deeper and deeper layers of trust and understanding. True dialogue is the antidote to the poisonous “discussion” and debate tactics that characterize so many interactions in so many organizations – including families.

In a nutshell, here are only four of the several behaviors you need to practice true dialogue:

Relinquish Power

Simply put, true dialogue cannot occur in an atmosphere where anyone is inclined to exert power over another. Command-and-control is the antithesis of an open and honest sharing of meaning. Of course outside the context of dialogue there may be significant status differences. Asking people to check their titles at the door does not erase the reality that they have different titles, different levels of authority, and different power bases.

But during dialogue itself, equality must reign supreme. For the occasion, participants must remove their badges of status and resist any temptation to pull rank. Before participants can open up honestly with each other, mutual trust must be present. And an atmosphere of mutual trust is impossible to establish if any of the participants are perceived to be holding their power ready for an ambush.

During a visit with one of my clients I was invited to observe a meeting of about twenty people. The participants were from several different levels on the organization chart. They were planning for an upcoming project that put millions of dollars at stake. Schedules were tight. Budgets were sacrosanct. Reputations, and even careers, were on the line. These were the perfect ingredients for self-indulgent power plays. But after an hour of observing the interchange, I still couldn’t tell who the top dogs were in the room. In fact, when I later discovered the “official” pecking order, I was pleasantly surprised. The “head man” turned out to be the most deferential person in the room. During the meeting he was the one who most frequently said things like “How do you see it?” “Oh, I hadn’t considered that,” “I wonder if we might combine a couple of ideas that have been offered.” He talked tentatively – not at all in the sense of weak confidence, but rather in a way that made it safe for people to continue the open dialogue.

Listen with Empathy.

Some people seem to operate under the misconception that to “listen” is merely to allow the other person to talk while you prepare your response. Real dialogue requires much more.

First, some important points on “empathy.” Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy involves commiseration, agreement, or a shared feeling. Empathy is more about appreciation and understanding. Understanding between and among the participants is a critical goal of dialogue. People engaged in true dialogue may or may not come to agreement. Their primary goal is mutual understanding. It’s a difference worth noting. (After all, if agreement is going to be reached, it must be preceded by understanding.)

Let me illustrate with an example from my early career as a journalist. I was assigned to write a series of articles on prostitution and drug traffic. Naturally, this involved interviews with people who worked in those unsavory rackets. The local crime commission helped me line up sources who had information I needed. (With these kinds of interviews, for safety reasons as well as to protect my reputation, I always had another reporter accompany me.)

One of my sources was a young prostitute named Cindy. I interviewed her on several occasions because she helped corroborate (and in some instances contradict) the information I received from other sources. The first two or three times I interviewed Cindy she seemed reticent and even shy, not qualities I’d expect of someone in her line of work. But by our fourth interview she began to open up and talk more freely. Then she turned the tables and asked me a question: “Do you notice that I’m more willing to talk with you now?” I acknowledged that I did indeed notice, and asked her why. “Because you finally stopped judging me,” she said. “Now you’re finally trying to understand me. I don’t expect you to agree with what I do, I just want you to try to understand how I arrived where I am.”

That simple statement from a scared young prostitute taught me as much about true dialogue as anything I later heard in graduate school. I don’t think I had been “judging” Cindy in a holier-than-thou way, but I’d certainly felt sorry for her. She didn’t want sympathy. She wanted empathy. She was willing to talk openly, but only if I listened to understand rather than to judge.

These same principles apply just as powerfully in the offices, hallways, conference rooms, and factory floors of business. Or at your own kitchen table.

Inquire to Discover.

In a typical “discussion,” inquiry might come across (and in fact be intended) as interrogation. We’ve all seen people who ask questions primarily for the purpose of challenging the other person or bolstering their own position.

  A common tactic by command-and-control folks is to play the “Gotcha” game in which they ask questions designed to convince or win, or even to entrap, attack, or overpower people. Inquiries rooted in these motives, no matter how congenial in tone, quickly begin to feel like a prosecutor’s cross-examination.

This is absolutely not the purpose of authentic inquiry. In the context of true dialogue, we should inquire to learn, to discover, to deepen our understanding. That’s not to say we will or necessarily should agree with everything we hear. It’s merely to say that inquiring to learn is a natural outgrowth of deferring judgment. A smart person will come to certain judgments about things, but not before an honest investigation of the range of possibilities.

As we dig into the principles associated with inquiry, it will help to provide some connective tissue relating to listening. Inquiry is a natural companion to listening. The two behaviors are – or at least should be – inextricably joined. When we listen mindfully we learn things that whet our appetite for more. Then we inquire to keep the cycle going. And our listening and inquiry should be directed toward ourselves as well as to other participants in the dialogue.

To help lubricate the flow of inquiry, consider asking questions like these of the other participant(s):

  • “That’s an interesting perspective. Can you help me understand how you reached that conclusion?”
  • “Could you give me some examples of how that idea, process, procedure, protocol, system, etc.) has worked in organizations similar to ours?”
  • “You’ve apparently put a lot of thought into this. Would you please walk me down the path that you’ve followed in forming that view?”
  • “Any of us can have blind spots. Would you please help me understand any point I might be missing?”

Naturally, all of your inquiry should be motivated by genuine curiosity. Behavior can be very elastic. It’s easy to snap back into previous patterns. Because of past experiences, you may be “scripted” to be curious only briefly before returning to the “Gotcha!” game. Consciously resist that temptation. Remember, your purpose with inquiry is to discover and learn, not to entrap or rebut.

Then, to double check your own orientation toward dialogue, ask questions like this of yourself:

  • “What is my real intention? To win, to be right, to sell, to persuade?”
  • “Do I really want to understand, or am I simply looking for chinks in the other guy’s armor so I can defeat his position?”
  • “Am I sincerely curious, or am I just playing the game’ so I can get my way?”
  • “Am I willing to be influenced by the other person, or do I expect influence to be a one-way street going from me to him?”

Again, the link between listening with empathy and inquiring to discover should be based on a genuine desire to learn. Conversely, our debate culture is based on judgment and criticism. The question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” creates an orientation toward critical evaluation of what another person is saying or doing. Inherent in the debate culture is a focus on whether we agree or disagree with someone, whether we like or dislike him and what he says, and if his opinion is right or wrong, smart or stupid.

True dialogue is conversation with a center, not sides.

Advocate with Respect.

A lamentable consequence of our debate culture is that we’re usually more adept at advocating than inquiring. And the “advocating” we see is often done more as leadership-by-announcement than as part of a true dialogue environment. We have plenty of public models of this. The programming on most cable TV networks is heavily weighted with loud and overbearing people whose purpose in life is to ram their views down someone else’s throat.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that good leadership requires gathering endless reams of “input” before a decision is reached. Neither am I suggesting that decisions must always be preceded by a dialogue session. If the building you’re in catches fire, you wouldn’t expect the fire marshal to tiptoe into your meeting and launch into timid inquiry: “Excuse me, folks. May I ask, how do you feel about smoke inhalation?” You would want him to say something like, “Please stay calm. There’s a fire in the building. Leave this room immediately and proceed to the nearest exit.”

Advocacy is making a statement or expressing a view about your own position. Inquiry is using Talk-Friendly questions to explore and discover the views of others. To a great extent, the quality of the dialogue is determined by the spirit with which you state your views and inquire into the others’ perspectives. That’s where respect plays an indispensable role. Even experienced hostage negotiators will tell you that respect for the other party is a critical determinant of their success.

High quality inquiry genuinely explores the panorama of alternative views and encourages challenge of your own views. You’ll often hear good practitioners of dialogue say things like, “Oh, you see it differently. Help me understand how you reached that conclusion.” Their tone is welcoming and exploratory, not accusing or suspicious. Their desire to learn is real, and their willingness to be influenced is a key to the door of collaboration.

You are most effective when you talk so other people will listen and when you listen so other people will talk. Being Talk-Friendly is not just about being “nice,” although there’s much to be said for that. It’s about being effective. To do that you must put your best voice forward.


Adapted from Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance, by Rodger Dean Duncan. To get a copy of the book, click here.