A discussion is an exchange of words; a dialogue is an unfolding of new thought. Dialogue is a conversation where people learn from each other, where there are as many questions asked as there are answers given. It shapes thinking and creates new ideas. One flaw in many meetings is the premeditated avoidance of dialogue
Meetings are often designed to avoid conflict by how the participation is structured and the agenda constructed. If there is conflict the meeting is often facilitated to be a discussion rather than a dialogue. When conflict is present the discussion is much like a debate where people assert and defend their positions. Who “wins” is based on how well arguments were made rather than the merit of the arguments themselves. Often no one wins because the intent of most meetings is to formulate a plan for the group and coordinate its execution, which requires dialogue. After a debate many leave the room without any idea what they’re supposed to do next.
Dialogue by definition will have surprises, and often will change minds, shift attitudes and create something new. Yet, meetings are often designed to avoid surprises. How would a team improve their meetings over time if a simple outcome measure were the number of minds and opinions changed?
Inquiry is at the essence of dialogue; inquiry that surfaces ideas, perceptions and understandings that weren’t present previously. How would a team change the structure of their meetings if a simple process measure were the number of questions asked?
Increasing the number of questions requires balancing advocacy with inquiry. Advocacy is our human default mode at meetings and during conversations (i.e. we defend and assert our opinions, the opinions we walked in with). It’s nearly impossible to eliminate it. Yet, if advocacy can be balanced with inquiry then dialogue will emerge. The more people who have a questioning attitude the more likely that balance will be struck. This is why whom you hire and the culture you inculcate matter. If you hire stubborn, opinionated, arrogant know-it-alls, then achieving dialogue will be extremely difficult. If the culture you foster is one of competition and authority, dialogue will be hard.
When was the last time you had a dialogue about something? When was the last time you asked clarifying and exploratory questions at a meeting? When was the last time you changed your mind about something? If the answer to any of these questions is not in the last 24 hours, then ask yourself, “how open am I to learning from others and seeing things differently?”