The primary difference between dialogue and skilful discussion involves intention. In dialogue, you may be exploring a topic or seeking some discovery or insight. Often, in a discussion, its purpose revolves around making a decision or reaching some form of agreement, or maybe even agreeing on some new priorities or a way forward.
What goals to pursue? What actions are priorities for the next three months? What future direction will you, your team or your organisation take? These are all likely questions you wish to address from time to time, particularly at this period of the year.
In this post, I set out six helpful tips that will make your approach to such discussions more skilful and therefore more productive. I draw on the work of Peter Senge, and in particular his book, “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook”, to explore the six tips.
Pay attention to your intentions
Be clear about what it is you wish to achieve through your discussion. Do not enter into that discourse without sharp clarity, or else, when challenged, how will you respond to that challenge or to attempts to influence your thinking?
In staff meetings, I typically set out non-negotiable and negotiable items for discussion, by specifying them as such in a meeting agenda.
Non-negotiable meant we were having a discussion on that particular item so that I could take on board a range of other views and opinions, but I would make the decision. Negotiable meant I had an open mind about the outcome and was happy for others to influence the final determination.
Staff often found this approach a little strange at first, but quickly warmed to my practice once they understood that when I said I was open to influence, I was! I also had personal feedback that they liked my decisiveness, though not everyone agreed with my decisions.
Balance advocacy with inquiry
To my mind, skilfully managed discussions have always been about sharing, of thinking, of reasoning and expectations. Moreover, I believe I am open to challenge and will often explicitly invite it and offer permission to do so.
Senge suggests one way you might do this is to provide your view and an explanation of how you reached it, and then ask for ways it might make better sense or be improved. I agree with him wholeheartedly and would urge you to model that practice.
Build shared meaning
Language used well has immense power, for good and for bad. Therefore it is important to use language with high precision, being sure to make your meaning evident. However, we share meaning with others, and so it is also important not to assume, even within your team, that everyone is working to the same definition as you. So, from time to time, check out that you share your understanding with others.
I think the same is true for values, and I have regularly reviewed and refreshed understanding across teams and partner forums that our values are shared and remain consistent. In my experience, people assume they stay constant, while in reality, as we are all living organisms subject to growth and evolution, they shift and change, often imperceptibly.
So, language, like values needs your attention on a regular, almost daily basis!
Use self-awareness as a resource
Senge suggests that at moments when you are confused, angry, frustrated, concerned or troubled to ask yourself these questions:
- What am I doing right now?
- What am I feeling right now?
- What am I thinking right now?
- What do I want right at this moment?
He further suggests that the answers to these questions might lead to a fifth question, which is, “What am I doing right now to prevent myself from getting what I want?”
The most powerful way forward, he proffers is to say this phrase to yourself, “I choose …” then take a deep breath and move on.
Being more reflective and self-aware is seen as a sign of authenticity and keen emotional intelligence. It demonstrates you are better attuned to your emotions, thinking and behaviour and this, in its turn, enables you to manage discussions that more skilfully.
Even in the most skilfully managed discussions, impasse might arise. Rather than keep returning to the sticking point like a bull at a red flag, see if you can identify the actual source of the impasse or disagreement.
Senge considers that a standstill might often occur for one of four reasons. They are:
- An argument on facts – so what did happen? What data supports that view?
- Disagreement on methods – so what do we need to do now, and how?
- Discord on goals – so what are and how clear are our objectives or purpose?
- Divergence on values – what do we all believe in and do we share common values?
In my experience, the last causal factor is often the one overlooked, and probably the one you should return to first. Values, once spoken or written down, appear to assume a concrete-like substance, forever immutable. In reality, people regularly flex them as they choose, and assume others are doing the same too, in the same way. Fortunately, we are all different beings, and so a belief that homogeneity of values exists always seems to me to be rather foolish.
One final tip
When sources of disagreement arise, a simple visioning exercise will help you move on. It works because it helps those involved in the disunity learn more about the situation under discussion, clarify any assumptions they might have about the situation, and with this better insight, move forward more positively.
Senge poses three simple moves for the visioning exercise:
- Listen to ideas as if for the first time and be prepared to hear new ideas.
- Try to consider the issue from the other person or persons’ perspective.
- Simply ask yourself and those involved in the discussion, “What do we need to do to move forward?”
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