The 5 Principles of Great Dialogue

I have long been an observer of people, and whenever I get the opportunity I also eavesdrop on their conversations. So if you see me hanging out in a coffee shop at the table next to you, be prepared for me to listen in!

One of the things I love to listen to, is how people just don’t listen to each other.
They talk at, over and around each other but miss the deep in-the-moment opportunities which cement and advance relationships.

I have noticed also when I am facilitating groups that when one person speaks and adds great value to a subject often the person who could have gained most from the information cuts through and completely misses what was being said. And in that moment, misses a huge opportunity to learn and grow.

Recently much has been written about conversations and conversational technology, covering off Fierce Conversations and Crucial Conversations to boot.

However sometimes we miss the basics in advancing conversation. The basics that are needed for respectful dialogue. I am covering off on the Principles of Great Dialogue here. I feel we need to get these right before and as part of any deeper Conversation which follows.

Principle 1

Listen. This seems so obvious and simple and is the hardest thing we do. When you are being spoken to; listen with your ears, your eyes and your intuition.

What are the words being said? What are the words not being said? When does the other person hesitate? When does their tone of voice change? What are they wanting to communicate to you and struggling with?

I had a conversation with a coaching client who briefly diverged onto another topic. Her face lit up as she spoke on the new topic, her skin seemed lighter, and her eyes sparkled. Then she came back to the original subject, her voice tone and energy dropped, her skin went dull and her eyes seemed bleak and resigned. In listening to her, I heard something more than the words – I heard her call for help. I was able to remark on the changes I saw and ask what was going on. Our conversation then shifted to what she really needed and to a solution, simply because I was listening deeply to her.

When you listen, are you looking at the person? Are you seeing the whole or simply the parts? What are they saying to you beyond the words?
Practice deep listening; see what a difference it makes to your conversation.

Principle 2

Don’t interrupt. Again so simple and so obvious. We have all seen the couple who finish each other’s sentences because they are in tune. This is Not what I am talking about.

Sometimes I hear people interrupt another’s sentence simply because the words sparked another thought which was so front-of-mind it just had to be spoken out loud. When we are truly listening to another person, we are showing so much interest in them that we only hear what they have to say, not the clamouring of our own over-heated egos. We don’t interrupt.

Next time you are in a conversation and listening to someone, practise putting the tip of your tongue to the top of your mouth just where your front teeth meet the upper gum. Now hold your tongue there as if you are holding a crumb of bread in position until the other person has stopped talking. You won’t be able to interrupt. And in making sure your tongue is still, you will also quieten down the inner voice that is competing with the other person to be heard. Try it and let me know the difference it makes to your conversations.

Principle 3

Use AND instead of BUT. In our workshops we have a NO BUTS agreement. We even put the NO BUTS logo on the wall. When we are Butting on another person we immediately tell them that their opinion, thoughts and comments are not worthy of consideration. By default, the underlying message is that if their input has no value, then neither do they. Powerful stuff from one little word. Consider how you felt the last time you were Butted on, it wasn’t pretty was it?

So instead of BUTting on someone, now practice ANDing on them instead.
For example;
“I hear what you are saying, AND if I were to add my thoughts to yours, my perspective is……”
“You have an interesting point to make there, AND my views on it are……”

By using AND you use more words; respectful words; thoughtful words; words that defuse instead of escalating; words that add and honour the other person’s point of view; (which might just be more valid than yours, or mine).

Practice ANDing on your colleagues, partners and family, see what a difference it makes to the response you get.

When you have practiced it out loud a little – try saying it to yourself for your own self talk as well. Now see what a difference it makes to you!

Principle 4

Build on what has already been said. This is similar to ANDing. When we build on what has already been said by the other person, we add richness to the conversation. It takes on a texture and tone which is missing when we simply change the subject because we have run out of things to say.

There is only so much you can say about a reality TV show, sports event etc.

However when you add to the conversation, you change its focus from the event being discussed to the deeper meaning.

For example.
Last week we had a soupbowl of swimming on television as athletes competed for places on the Australian Beijing Olympics Swim Team.

Conversations in the workplace and coffee shops (remember I was listening in) were about who was breaking records; the style and make of the swim suits; who is dating who and will it matter; how much money will the athletes make from sponsorships etc etc. Very superficial. Adding depth would have sounded like;

“Did you see Sullivan break that 100m record, he could beat Phelps this year”
To add depth
“Yes, I really admire the way these kids commit so much time, energy and focus on achieving when they know only 2 people in the whole country will make the team. I wonder how things would be different here if we committed the same (or a fraction) of that focus to what we do, What do you think would be different……? “

Before you ask – no I did not overhear one conversation where some one “added depth” from a sporting event starting point. What missed opportunities!

Practice adding depth; find out what is behind the comment made. What is sparking emotion in the other person when they comment on a TV show, or external event? What is happening for them? How you can develop a real conversation by adding depth? Go ahead – find out for yourself.

Principle 5

Seek Clarity. A few days ago I was talking to my kids and an inadvertent version of Chinese whispers took place. Two of us were discussing a topic, the third came in late and misheard what we were discussing and added comments which seemed absurd – to us. It got so mixed up that all 3 of us got the giggles.

When we had calmed down my little boy realised that he had sparked the giggles and got his male ego dented (hindsight ego denting is interesting to watch). Eventually he asked “What…”

We went through the confusion, the emotion and the outrage to get to the Clarity.

Wouldn’t it have been so much quicker if we had stopped him on his first comments and asked him what he meant or what he thought we were talking about? (Yes much easier, but not as much fun)

So often I overhear conversations just like this example, where people talk at cross purposes and instead of stopping and asking “What did you mean by that…” in a respectful way, they keep going and exacerbate confusion. This is also an early cause of some conflicts.

So next time you feel like you have stepped in to the conversational twilight zone, stop and respectfully ask “What are you talking about…..” to get you real clarity in your conversation.

Liz Cassidy is a Brisbane based Transformational Executive Coach, Speaker, Author and Facilitator.

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