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 and beliefs.

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 fixes."

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:

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge et al.
The 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.

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs (Doubleday/Currency, 1999)
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.

On Dialogue by David Bohm (Routledge Publishing)
Though 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.

Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998)
The most 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 encounter.

The 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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