The Magic of Dialogue

How great will it be if we can steer our relationships away from competition and stress and towards more trust and collective understanding! I see this happening on a regular basis, but it is a skill that can take many years to acquire. I still get it wrong more regularly than I would like to admit.

As with most other behaviour, it is sad how primitive our interactions can become when we are under pressure. We easily go into survival mode where we fight, flight, flee or hide – coping mechanisms to survive and to avoid pain.

Two senior ExCo members of a great team I coached had strong differences – both in communication styles and in opinions. They are two highly talented and generally well-liked people. The one grew up in a very conservative environment where respecting others was paramount. The regular motto was “if you cannot say something nice, say nothing”. But his colleagues noticed how he engaged in what we can call “passive sabotage”.  The other member grew up in a very expressive family. As a child she learned how to fend for herself, and had to fight for her rights as a female manager. She would often got very verbal about her opinions. Both were frustrated, clearly on different sides of the aggressive-passive continuum. This caused great tensions and unhappiness to the team, and made it difficult to have constructive conversations. Everyone was affected. The ExCo struggled to make decisions and the company started to suffer.

The reality is of course that both parties displayed destructive behaviour.

  • The Nice-Talk strategy causes you to avoid conflict and to accommodate the other person (flight, flee and “hide”). But afterwards you feel unhappy about the outcome and don’t commit.
  • The Tough-Talk strategy takes you to attacking and confrontational behaviour (fight and “bite”). You might win some battles, but will lose the war AND the relationship.

What is the solution? No, not somewhere in the middle! Rather, going towards a higher level – the higher road:

  • Listening Dialogue – that is where we listen and share deeply, really hearing and understanding each other. We share our different perspectives, debate issues, and in the process grow together. And then we work towards collective solutions which are often much better than our own ideas. This requires attitudes of curiosity, vulnerability and humility. It opens up an atmosphere of collaboration and creativity. And the relationships stay healthy, and energy levels are high.

As mentioned in a previous blog letter, often the wisest thing you can do in tense situations is to go slower before you go faster. In other words, take a step back and open up conversation. Ask: is the way we communicate the best we can do?

It took a process for them to learn these things. As all teams, this team is still “a work in progress” but I am positive that this “ship” is healthier now, and the crew more hopeful.

May you have many meaningful and breakthrough conversations, going for the higher road! Afterwards the higher road often seem so obviously the better and easier option.