1.3 The Nature Of Dialogue: The Best We Can Be

In this chapter we take a tour around the topic of dialogue.

a. Dialogue is …

Since dialogue is central to the TalkWorks approach, it’s important to understand what it is. The perspective taken here is that our best conversations have as much dialogue in them as possible.

Let's take a look at a snippet of dialogue and explore its characteristics. In the following conversation, Claude and his wife Kelly, a couple in their early sixties, are talking about retirement. They both work. They have four married children and a few grandchildren. They have been looking at the financial realities of retirement. We catch them in the middle of their conversation.

Claude: "Well, if we work a few more years, our financial picture will look a lot brighter. We're not doing that badly now, but we'll be in a much better position if we work a few years longer."

Kelly: "Right. That should give us a decent nest-egg. And the security that goes with it."

Claude: "That's the idea."

Kelly: "Hmm. Something strikes me. We've been talking as if it’s all about money. But we could take a different approach. Let's spend some time talking about the kind of lifestyle we'd like to have from the time we retire to when we finally shuffle off."

Claude: "You mean, draw a picture of what we'd like to be doing? Travel possibilities. All that sort of stuff … Also, given what you just said, it might make sense to define what we mean by security. We use the word all the time, but whose definition are we using? Financial planners? Or our own?"

The two of them go on to do a little ‘blue sky’ thinking of what they would like retirement to look like. They pool a range of possibilities. Both of them immediately accept some; they debate others, and finally come up with a realistic package they can both accept.

Claude: "Well, that was great. Really worth doing. But I wonder whether you're thinking what I'm thinking? The picture we've painted, the lifestyle we want to have - I think we can afford to live like that, right now."

Kelly: "Well … yes. I think you're right. We'd have to do the figures in more detail, but I think you're right. How exciting!”

Claude: "Right. We can keep on working. We can stop. We can change jobs. We can start a business. We can work part-time. We can make work serve our lifestyle, instead of the other way around."

Kelly: "We can choose the work we want and make it part of retirement … Seems odd to call it retirement. It's really just the next stage."

Claude: "But we didn't talk about security. How does the picture we've just painted square with our view of security?"

Kelly: "Actually, I don't think that security means taking into account everything that could possibly go wrong and then coming up with a way to do deal with it. We'd be here forever."

Claude: "Well, let me think about that. And remember, statistically-speaking, you're likely to outlive me. Let's see if we've really built security in."

They go on to discuss security much the same way they addressed other issues. The mindset that prevails on both their parts is this: "I have my opinion, but I'm open to discovering something new."

b. The characteristics of dialogue

True dialogue has certain characteristics. Let's review them and see how they are (or are not) illustrated in Claude and Kelly's conversation.

First, there is an element of turn-taking in dialogue. If either you, or your conversational partner, do all the talking, then it’s a monologue. A good working dialogue requires both people to share the air-time available. So, if you realise that you're dominating the conversation, take a break and invite the other person in. The conversation between Claude and Kelly - both the part we've seen and the off-stage part, in which they generated retirement lifestyle possibilities - was filled with turn-taking.

Many conversations fail to work because both people are trying to make their points at the same time. They are not really conversational partners. Rather, they are two people having separate conversations in each other's presence. What we have in that case, is not dialogue, but serial monologues. If you do nothing more than bounce your ideas off me and I do the same, then you and I end up listening to ourselves, not each other.

Second, dialogue involves not just turn-taking but connecting. Perhaps intersecting is a better word. What I say in response to you connects with what you have said. And your responses to me connect with what I have said. We connect. Claude and Kelly's remarks form a kind of chain. There is continuity; their remarks intersect. They are not on parallel tracks. Claude and Kelly are talking with each other, not at each other. Therefore, they don't end up talking past each other. In a word, then, throughout the conversation Claude and Kelly are connected.

Some people take turns in their conversations, but don't connect or intersect very much. Dialogue is a lot more than turn-taking.

Third, in true dialogue, conversational partners influence each other. There is always a degree of give-and-take that adds robustness to the conversation. Dialogue is about influencing conversational partners and being influenced by them. When Kelly and Claude talked about lifestyle possibilities, they were in agreement on some, and had to debate others. Discussion and debate involve give-and-take. Dialogue is not about being spontaneously agreeable. Nor is it about giving in. In true dialogue, conversational partners touch each other in some way. They rub ideas, opinions, and points of view together. Statements such as, "Well, let me think about that," are indications of give-and-take.

This turn-taking, connecting, and intersecting lead to the fourth characteristic — creating something together. Through their interaction, Kelly and Claude create a whole new approach to retirement. It’s not necessarily a question of creating something that astounds the world. Let's say that you and I go out to dinner together and have a ‘good conversation’. What we create might well be a pleasant evening together. In the hustle and bustle of our high-tech lives, we are not with family and friends as much as we would like. So when we are together, we want it to be ‘quality’ time. Few people define what they mean by quality time. One thought is that life-enhancing dialogue is at the heart of quality time. Through dialogue we are creating a better life together.

If, through dialogue, you and I are creating something together, then the outcome of our conversation must have some degree of uncertainty about it. If before the conversation begins, either you or I know the outcome, then we do have a conversation, but it’s not true dialogue. Take a father talking to his son. The son is making a case for a bit more freedom. The father has already decided that his son is not going to get any more. Father and son are in some way interacting, but they are not engaged in a dialogue. The father is not open to being influenced by his son. Through their dialogue, Claude and Kelly blew some of their own preconceptions about retirement out of the water. They co-created something.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, in Truth and Method, talks about the uncertain outcome of true dialogue. According to him, we do not ‘conduct’ a real dialogue. That smacks of engineering. In retrospect, a genuine dialogue is not the one that we wanted to engineer when we began. We ‘join in’ dialogue. We become ‘involved’ in dialogue. In dialogue, the conversation takes its own ‘twists’ and reaches its own conclusions. In dialogue conversational partners do not know in advance what will ‘come out’ of a conversation. True dialogue has a ’spirit of its own’. The co-shared outcome ‘emerges’. In some ways we ‘shape’ the dialogue and in some way it ‘shapes’ us.

c. Dialogue is like dancing and jamming

In a lighter vein, consider a couple of metaphors that can give us a better feeling for dialogue. Think of dialogue in terms of dancing. Not regimented ‘I-lead-you/you-follow-me’ dancing, but free-form dancing. When you dance, you don't try to score points or ‘win’ in any way. Instead, you work as partners, responding to each other's movements and trying not to tread on each other's toes. The idea is to co-operate, rather than compete, so you both enjoy the experience. The outcome is a good time together.

A good conversation is a shared experience, a duet rather than two solos that happen to coincide. It's more like ‘jamming’ than engineering. Sometimes when jazz players get together, they ‘jam’. One player begins, then another joins in developing, complementing, and adding to the themes. Still other players get in on the act and all of them develop and add to the one another's themes. Conversations work best when they include mutual involvement, with both partners helping each other make the most out of their time together. Note that jamming often includes all four elements of dialogue. The players take turns taking the lead, their music intersects, they influence one another, and they end up creating beautiful music together.

d. Things go better with dialogue

Can every conversation be dialogue? Well, let's take a look. It's clear that when the drill sergeant gives an order to a recruit in boot camp, this has little to do with dialogue. Or when the air traffic controller tells the pilot to ascend instantly because there’s a mountain ahead.

But consider the example of Christine, a manager, giving orders to one of her team members, Eddie. She is doing it nicely, humanely, but still she is telling Eddie what to do in order to make the project a success - bringing it in on time and on budget (or even early and under budget).

If Christine is doing all the talking, then it’s a monologue. Let's say that at the end of a ten minutes Eddie says, "I think I've got it. Thanks for the directions and the helpful hints." And then he takes his leave.

What a wasted opportunity! While giving orders is not usually considered a dialogue, dialogue can be used to make the transmission of orders, or instructions, clearer and more effective. If Eddie and Christine were to have a good dialogue about the project following the principles outlined above, here are some of the good things that might happen:

  • Eddie will understand his role in the project more clearly.
  • He will contribute ideas that might make the project more effective.
  • He is more likely to take greater ownership of the project because he has been able to put his ‘smell’ on it.
  • He will feel respected and therefore is more likely to give his best.
  • He and Christine will have maintained, or even improved, their relationship.
  • Christine will have a better understanding of Eddie's talents and his approach to projects.

In this example, Christine, at least initially, is the holder of the agenda, or at least most of it. On another day it might be Eddie, when he asks to meet with Christine to give a progress report on the project. But no matter who owns the agenda, or whose agenda predominates, just about every conversation will go better if some degree of dialogue is used to pursue the purpose of the conversation. The fluidity and open-ended nature of dialogue allows new things to emerge.

What about casual conversations with no particular purpose except to pass time enjoyably? Let's say that Adrian and Rob are having a drink after a hard day in the office. Rob begins to regale Adrian with jokes. It's really a kind of monologue, a comedy routine, in fact. Adrian is Rob's ‘audience’.

If this is the way both of them like it, all is well. But what if Adrian does not want to be an audience? What if he wants to unload some of his feelings about what took place in the office that day? Then some kind of dialogue might be more useful. Not a deep problem-solving session, but a chance to unload. Ideally, Rob will search for some kind of clue as to how Adrian might want to relax before launching into his comedy routine. Ideally, Adrian will give some indication of what would be relaxing for him.

Is dialogue everything? That's not the point. Most conversations would go better with a bit of dialogue. This book discusses skills. And they are important. But true dialogues are as just as much a product of our humanity. True dialogue is a collaborative activity and one that reflects the uncertainties of being human.

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