ATD Links Archive
Issue Map
ATD Links Archive
ATD Links

Dialogue Shifts Perspective

Something happens.

We tell ourselves a story about what happened (related partially, wholly, or not at all to the facts).

We feel a certain way.

We act based on those feelings.

It is important to note that this entire process takes only seconds to complete and we are largely unaware of each separate step. Also, the story we tell ourselves generally supports our beliefs about ourselves and others (and is incomplete). Consider this example:

Something happens: You are in the conference room preparing for your team meeting. You are scheduled to present a run-through of your recommendations to the team’s executive sponsor, Kevin. Kevin sticks his head into the conference room and says, “Something has come up, and I won’t be joining you today. Good luck with the run-through.” And he leaves.

We tell ourselves a story: You think, “Wow, Kevin must not be that interested in this project after all.”

The story allows us to feel a certain way: You feel disrespected and angry at Kevin. The team worked really hard to come up with a creative solution to the logistics challenge you faced, and he doesn’t even have time to hear it? He was never in favor of this initiative anyway. Well, you don’t need him.

We act based on those feelings: When the team comes in, you tell them that Kevin isn’t interested in your recommendation and you’d better reach out to other executive team members to line up their support.

In this case, Kevin is cast as the villain. By definition, you are cast as the heroine. The interpretation of the events and the meaning you assign to them may be completely off base. And yet, it is your interpretation, and you are ready to take it forward as though it were gospel. These interpretations and the following actions happen every day, and we often don’t stop to question our “understanding” of any given event. Add to this natural human habit the changes in technology that have made access to information almost immediate. Now you can share your “understanding” of any given event in a text, tweet, or email. You can post it on Facebook or Linkedin. You can blog about it. The more opportunity you have to tell your story, the more attached to it you become, and the less likely you are to consider an alternative storyline.

Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that effective communication between individuals, among team members, and within organizations is rare. In our haste to make sense of situations quickly, multitask, and meet the implicit or explicit expectations for speedy responses, most of our communication is flawed. Misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and assumptions based on partial or outdated information all lead to mistakes, rework, and weakened connections with colleagues, stakeholders, suppliers, and the public. So, what can you do?

Slow down

To start, you can increase the space you have between an event and your rush to action. You can allow yourself to respond rather than react to that event. The first step is to acknowledge that you control the space that exists between an action and your reaction. You can choose to enlarge that space. You can choose to adopt a learning stance and ask questions.

What happened here?
What does this mean?
How might someone else look at this?
What can I learn here?
How did I contribute to this?

Asking these questions takes time and slows down the action. The next step is to explore your feelings about the event, rather than accepting them at face value.

How do I feel about this?
What is making me feel this way?
How else can I feel?
What is the benefit and cost of these feelings?

Finally, you can choose a response and act accordingly. Questions to consider at this point are:


What result do I want to achieve?
How does this behavior bring me closer to my desired result?
How else can I respond?
What are the benefits and costs of responding this way?

Of course, you do not work through these steps alone. You are generally interacting with others, so the opportunity exists to involve other people in sorting through these thoughts. You can do this by inquiring or asking questions of them to find out what they intended and how they experienced the interaction. You can also share your feelings or thoughts and test them out. In other words, you can clarify what you want or expect and see how closely that matches with what the other person wants or expects. As long as you are both putting information on the table, you have the chance to create a shared understanding and agreements on how you will move forward. This way, your actions are “informed” and, generally speaking, more complete. The key to this process is effectively using the skills of dialogue.

Rewriting the script

In most Western workplaces, discussion is the most common mode of communication. Convincing others is valued, and so people work to persuade, convince, defend, sell, or tell others. Individuals focus on specific parts of an issue and focus their thinking on that part, with little or no consideration of the touchpoints with the other parts that make up the whole. Information is shared in a segmented manner, influenced by politics and a desired outcome, making it difficult to consider the issue in its entirety and all its ramifications.

Think of the last time you were in a meeting. How many statements did you hear, compared with the number of questions asked? Most meeting participants report statements outnumbering questions by a wide margin. Proclaiming the benefit of a course of action and arguing in support of it promotes a win–lose dynamic that characterizes many meetings. Getting your way is valued in many situations, and the short-term gain is often overshadowed by long-term costs, such as unexpected consequences, redundancies, and uninformed thinking.

Compare this modality of communication with dialogue. Creating space within which dialogue is valued and practiced yields positive, substantive results. Participants learn from one another and overall they are better informed. Teams and organizations that use dialogue consistently make better decisions and experience greater learning and increased profitability. Although there is an initial investment of time required to learn dialogue skills, teams that do so are able to work more quickly, and more people become better decision makers.

Dialogue building blocks

Dialogue requires a shift in the way many leaders and managers have learned their roles. It requires looking beyond yourself and using the type of “outward mindset” that puts others first and demonstrates a genuine curiosity and solution focus. It requires a level of courage and care—courage to allow others to see that you may not have all the answers, and care in asking others to inform your thinking and then listening when they do so. It also requires a facility with seven building blocks, or skill areas, to effectively navigate the powerful stream of meaning that dialogue creates.
Let’s look at these seven building blocks and see how you can incorporate them into your conversations. The table below offers benefits of each building block for you and others with whom you interact.

Benefits of the Dialogue Building Blocks

Building blocks Benefit to you Benefit to others
Focus Clarifies desired outcome
Highlights intention; enables attention
Creates a clear purpose for the conversation
Outlines what to expect
Listen Supports data gathering
Deepens understanding
Conveys respect
Creates a partnership
Question Demonstrates curiosity
Surfaces commonality and differences
Provokes further thinking
Encourages solutions that go beyond the surface
Reveal Exposes thinking and rationale
Invites additional data
Expands other’s perception of you
Deepens understanding
Challenge Expands perspective Demonstrates openness
Negotiate Presents clear objectives
Revisits intention
Highlights areas on which to build
Commit Captures promises made
Clarifies next steps
Captures promises made
Clarifies next steps

Table used with permission from Bianco-Mathis and Nabors (2015)


The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves, The Arbinger Institute, 2016.

Note: This article is excerpted from Everyday Coaching by Virginia Bianco-Mathis, Lisa K. Nabors.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.



About the Author
With more than 25 years of experience and a doctorate in human resource and organization development, Dr. Virginia Bianco-Mathis is considered a leader in her field. Her background includes a core set of industry positions, extensive consulting with corporate and agency executives, and publications and presentations in the areas of organizational change, leadership development, consulting skills, executive team building and facilitation, coaching, career management, conflict and dialogue, and strategic planning.  Dr. Bianco-Mathis has held positions in human resources, strategy, and organization development at C&P Telephone, AT&T, Lockheed Martin, and The Artery Organization. Presently, she is a Professor in the School of Business, Chair of the Department of Management and Marketing, at Marymount University.  She teaches courses in organization development, team and group dynamics, leadership, consulting skills, executive coaching, and strategy. She also is a partner with the Strategic Performance Group. Her present consulting engagements include leadership development, executive coaching, strategic planning, team building, and organizational change. Current clients include AARP, Department of Agriculture, Seyfarth Law, American Society of Clinical Oncology, Phillips Corporation, MSRB, and Next Century Computing.  Dr. Bianco-Mathis has given major presentations at several international conferences, and has written numerous articles for the Washington Business Journal and a blog (“On Success”) for The Washington Post.  
About the Author
Lisa Nabors is a partner with Strategic Performance Group and is recognized by the International Coach Federation as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC). Ms. Nabors is a talented speaker and often makes presentations on the topic of coaching to industry and professional groups. She began coaching during her 16 years of experience as a successful, senior-level HR and training and development professional in private industry. Her passion is in optimizing individual, team, and organization performance, and her coaching clients include managers, executives, and teams in organizations such as AOL, AARP, U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ms. Nabors' coaching expertise includes gathering and feeding back data, helping clients to generate alternatives, identifying key metrics and creating action plans designed to achieve specific, measurable results. Ms. Nabors is a certified user of all Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) 360-degree feedback instruments, the BarOn EQi and EQ 360, LEI, APT 360 Instruments, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment, and many customized instruments. She is an adjunct faculty member for Marymount University and the George Washington University, and she is the co-author of Leading From the Inside Out: A Coaching Model (Sage, 2002).
Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.