Being In The Room Together

In true dialogue, both sides are willing to change

Reinhard Stelter

Our inability to talk with one another is at the root of all conflict. Whether it’s a war between nations, a fight between departments or a stand-off between CEOs, the common factor is an unwillingness to meet the ‘other’ and to be changed by the encounter. When we are resistant to change and unable to be in the room together, problems fester, conflicts become more entrenched and stand-offs escalate. 

Dialogue is not easy but it’s not as hard as trying to solve problems without dialogue. In organisations, there is at least a fleeting understanding that dialogue calls for an expanded skillset. One of the main reasons people give for not having a dialogue is “We won’t have the time” or “We don’t have the skills.” Both perceptions are misguided and accurate.

Being in the room together does require time. However, given the amount of time and energy talking together saves (by creating a shared understanding, strengthening a relationship and reducing resistance to change), it is an investment well worth making. Dialogue does indeed call for a skillset that many of us never learnt in our family of origin or anywhere else. Deeper listening, speaking candidly, respecting difference and suspending judgment are pivotal. Without these capacities, we stay stuck in talking tough, talking nice or not talking at all. These skills are not, however, sufficient on their own for a fruitful dialogue.

group work in a room

The heart of dialogue

Dialogue is less about cultivating new skills (or doing anything different.) The beating heart of dialogue is how we are being. If we are listening but not showing any empathy, our conversation will not deepen. If we are speaking authentically but judging others as inferior, our talk will dead-end. If we are respecting differences but failing to show compassion for others who are suffering, our discussion will never take us to a place of harmony or healing.

What, then, are the qualities that dialogue calls for? As Reinhard Stelter writes in The Art of Dialogue in Coaching dialogue is ‘not based on arguments and counterarguments, but on mutually appreciative curiosity, where both (all) parties suspend their pre-existing judgements, assessments and perceptions of each other in an effort to understand and support each other in the common desire to see oneself, the world and each other more clearly.’

The surest way to proceed with dialogue is to have a framework that provides a ‘clear and firm footing’ for how we engage with one another. Stelter offers the following groundrules:

  • We speak to each other with curiosity about something that really matters.
  • We ask questions in order to learn something – not just to find answers.
  • We are not seeking to make decisions.
  • We do not need to agree.
  • We are not in a hurry.
  • We are all willing to change.

These ground rules might sound simple but they are not easy to embody. In our dialogue work together, Dr Claus Springborg and I have discovered three key ‘allies’ for fostering supportive ways of being when there are tough topics to talk about.

  • 1. Look again

Respect is essential for dialogue. We must respect ourselves and the uniqueness of our vantage point. We must also respect others, particularly when they challenge us and when we disagree with them. In his seminal text, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs highlights that the etymology of the word respect (respecere in Latin) means to ‘look again.’ When we encounter the mystery of another person, we hold the intention to take in more of them and not to judge by appearances.

The image of a peacock spreading its feathers is useful here. John Whittington (author of Systemic Coaching and Constellations) uses this visual to symbolise the many systems that stand behind us that have shaped us. Our family of origin, organisations that we’ve worked for and teams that we’ve been members of all leave an imprint. This reminds us of the complexity and uniqueness of each individual. It can help us to tolerate difference and respect the distinct path that someone else has walked.

  • 2. Notice what surprises

When someone says something that does not make sense to us, we are ‘pulled up short.’ This ‘jolt’ can help to reveal a prejudice we were carrying that we weren’t previously aware of. Such moments also make it clear that each person in a dialogue holds a piece of the puzzle and no one person holds the whole puzzle.

Donna Ladkin, a professor of inclusive leadership at Birmingham University, writes in her book Rethinking Leadership that the sensation of feeling ‘pulled up short’ is an effective way of bringing unconsciously held assumptions to the surface. When an individual, or even better a group, is able to slow down at an uncomfortable moment to unpack what’s really going on, the dialogue deepens. Diving into different, even conflicting perspectives, creates a shared understanding that wouldn’t be present without the rupture.

  • 3. Be in the room

In our whizzing about from meeting to meeting, it is all too easy to be in a constant state of distraction. When dialogue is difficult, we need to be fully in the room not inside our ‘head bubble’ (as my colleague Bodhi Aldridge calls it.) Do what it takes to ‘land.’ Sit up a little straighter, take a deeper breath, uncross your legs. Use your physicality to be ‘rooted but flexible’ as Isaacs puts it. Being present will enable you to discern what really matters by ‘reading the room’ and noticing when the atmosphere goes tense, thoughtful or eases up.

Your fuller presence will allow you to be ‘bigger than the biggest disturbance in the room’, as Isaacs counsels. You are responsive rather than reactive so that you:

  • Ask a question instead of making another assertion.
  • Challenge the idea not the person.
  • Are attentive to the issue being discussed not the shortcomings of the other person.
  • See the bigger picture not just your own portion of the problem.

Closing comments Dialogue is a collaborative, mutually enriching conversation. It is not about reaching an agreement but about building a shared understanding and being willing change our perspective. Dialogue takes time but the benefits – fresh insights, a renewed relationship, discovering a way forward together – are well worth the time, energy and effort that it takes.

Sarah Rozenthuler
Sarah Rozenthuler