How managers and others can talk through their differences
Several years ago, managers and labor representatives from GS
Technologies, a midwestern steel manufacturer, needed to make difficult
decisions. Competitors were using mini-mills and other new technologies
to produce cheaper steel, and the company had to lower costs and
increase productivity. Yet the two sides were so mired in adversarial
roles that they couldn't agree on new working terms.
GS invited consultant Bill Isaacs to coach them in Dialogue, a
structured form of conversation that asks participants to pay attention
to both what they were talking about, and how they shared their
thinking. Over the next year, Isaacs brought together members from
both sides in a series of lengthy sessions that explored why they
fell into such unproductive habits of blame and resentment.
Initially, the two sides continued their history of distrust.
The workers accused management of seeking layoffs and other concessions,
while management doubted the union's commitment to the company's
health. Yet when these longstanding conflicts arose, Isaacs asked
the men not to smooth things out, but to use these heated exchanges
as opportunities to explore the basis for their warring assumptions
As they became more comfortable with the process, the two groups
began to air their deeply held beliefs without trying to win the
argument, or prove the other side wrong. When, for example, they
addressed the issue of whether to contract out work to mini-mills,
members began to see the other side. The steelworkers acknowledged
the fiscal strain on the company, while managers acknowledged the
threat that union members felt when cuts were discussed. As a result,
the two began to seek mutual solutions to longstanding problems.
They found a way to melt down steel in house rather than contract
it out. Grievances and worker's compensation costs fell dramatically.
Eventually they convinced outside investors to put down $100 million
in the business.
These two sides helped form a mutual approach to their shared
problems through Dialogue, a communications practice designed to
help groups of people improve how they talk and think together.
As opposed to the day to day exchange between people that we think
of as dialogue, the organizational practice of Dialogue is a structured
discipline that "helps surface values and assumptions so we know
more about what we are doing," says Linda Ellinor, a consultant
and author in the field.
Dialogue differs qualitatively from debate, or discussion, in
which participants defend their positions in an effort to win the
argument. "In a dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win," says
scientist David Bohm, "A dialogue is more of a common participation,
in which we are not playing a game against each other, but with
each other. In dialogue, everybody wins."
In dialogue, a group of people meets over an extended period of
time (i.e. for several days in a row, or for two hours every other
week for a year or more depending on the context). Participants
sit in a circle, and are asked to speak to the group rather than
one another. Such attention to physical setting reflects the goal
of creating a context or setting in which individuals feel that
it is safe to reveal the thinking behind their thinking. A facilitator
leads the group through exercises such as the "ladder of inference,"
which examines how people form the assumptions that drive many of
their decisions. It asks individuals to map how they select data
from what they observe, and then add their own spin to form assumptions.
They examine how they have formed what are essentially self-generating
beliefs: assumptions about the world that in turn dictate the data
they choose to form their next assumption.
The purpose of dialogue is to enable the members to listen to
each other-and themselves-at a deeper level than before. This enables
them to begin to distinguish between themselves and these strongly
held views, in the process learning to suspend their judgements.
"Suspension means that we neither suppress what we think nor advocate
it with unilateral conviction," says Isaacs, "Rather, we display
our thinking in a way that lets us and others see and understand
it. We simply acknowledge and observe our thoughts and feelings
as they arise without being compelled to act on them."
At companies such as Intel, Ford, Boeing, and Shell Oil, managers
are practicing dialogue to help manage their organizational knowledge.
Internal consultant Jim Tebbe of Shell America, for example, uses
dialogue to help his colleagues adjust to the new responsibilities
caused by the ongoing consolidation and reshuffling of many of the
company's smaller divisions. Recently a group of managers from different
units allowed Tebbe to take them through exercises to better understand
exactly what went on in each unit so that they could have a more
informed and enlightened approach to examining shared costs as they
re-organized their divisions.
Dialogue is particularly helpful in large groups with multiple
points of view that must be recognized and addressed. Jim Herman,
the associate dean for primary care at the Penn State College of
Medicine, regularly convenes a group of 50 physicians, administrators,
and other health care professionals from varied levels and functions
of a health care system. Herman says that individuals now recognize
and validate the conflicting opinions of others, without trying
to make them feel "wrong." For example, recently the group discussed
how much extra time people should give over and above mandatory
responsibilities. Some felt guilty that they didn't do more, that
the implicit expectations were unfair; while others felt resentful
that they were providing more than others. Herman says that after
some time the group could surface both sides of the argument without
deciding that some were more right than others: "We could hold all
the differences together and they didn't polarize the group."
Dialogue can also help organizations that are grappling with complex
issues with many constituents-such as managing a diverse work force.
That's why Levi Strauss, for example, incorporated dialogue into
two of its core programs on diversity and valuing diversity and
ethics, according to Ellinor.
There are many daily issues that dialogue can't address. Dialogue
won't fix immediate problems like landing a large contract or rushing
to get a product out the door. As author Peter Senge says, "There
is nothing wrong with trying to achieve short-term business results,
but it is more important to be building new capabilities not quick
Moreover, dialogue isn't easy. It requires a time and money commitment
that many organizations can't justify without a promise of immediate
and specific results. It asks people to explore personal areas that
are often ignored at work. It runs the risk of creating zealots
who alienate those who don't "get it." These groupies run the danger
of getting so caught up the process that they fail to realize any
tangible results. "People have to not get too distracted by glittering
theory but treat these methods as useful tools," says Paul Saffo
of the Institute for the Future.
Ironically, a successful dialogue can run contrary to immediate
business concerns. "Dialogue can in fact be very dangerous," says
one consultant, "it introduces doubt and uncertainty and indecision
to a group. So while a dialogue is a good thing, a dialogic organization
is risky." A successful dialogue may introduce opposing viewpoints
without making one or another the "right" one. This lack of closure,
which can take place in a meeting without an intentional agenda,
may gall managers seeking one-minute answers.
Finally, dialogue can be very uncomfortable, if not painful. "Dialogue
will always unfold conflict," says Ellinor, who points out, however,
that uncovering the source of these conflicts enables them to move
past them: "Now the conflict is not sitting there being insidious.
People can then do something about it."
Such necessary discomfort can help many organizations move beyond
seemingly intractable problems. "Dialogue is one of the most practical
things you can do if you know how to use it," says Ellinor. In a
knowledge economy where collective innovation represents the source
of competitive advantage, companies that become proficient improving
the quality of how they talk-and think-together stand the best chance
of adapting and innovating.
There are a handful of books now available on dialogue and its
applications. Though most draw from the same sources, each takes
a considerably different approach:
Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building the
Learning Organization, by Peter Senge et al.
Team Learning section (p. 351-441) offers a wealth of useful methods
and exercises for getting started with dialogue. And it helps show
where dialogue fits in the broader quilt of organizational learning.
and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs (Doubleday/Currency,
The most ambitious and most satisfying of the dialogue
books. Isaacs, who co-founded the organizational learning center
with Peter Senge at MIT, presents a sweeping overview of the theory
behind dialogue, its place in the learning organization, as well
as its role in helping people collectively tap into something deeper
in their lives. Moreover, he gives rich context on how to make dialogue
work in a real setting.
Dialogue by David Bohm (Routledge Publishing)
the slightest (a slim 96 pages) and the densest (try Chapter Three:
The Nature of Collective Thought), On Dialogue also represents an
essential primer for a serious student of the work. Bohm lays out
the need for dialogue as well as the philosophical and scientific
basis for the practice. While his writing is dense and the thinking
high-brow, the quality of insight in his work makes this book worthwhile.
Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor
and Glenna Gerard, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998)
applied work on dialogue. These two consultants, both trained as
dialogue facilitators, provide a generous overview to the various
tools that help make dialogue possible. Using excerpts of what dialogue
looks like in organizational settings, the two provide a good sense
of the various pitfalls and achievements that dialogic groups may
Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation by
Daniel Yankelovich (Simon & Schuster)
The most "pop" of
the dialogue books, Yankelovich speaks from his background as a
self-proclaimed policy geek who would like to mitigate the argument
culture that prevails in our society. This book seems written for
the broadest audience of all, with a great deal of applications
and little theory.
(This article appeared in Harvard Management Update)
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