Communication skills for successful relationshipsChapter 7 — Dialogue skills

Dr. Wilson gazed at the pad of paper in front of him. His mindless doodling had left dark impressions in the paper — reflections of his deepening anger. He had made a simple request, for crying out loud! Why did he have to listen to this ridiculous tirade from his staff?

by Sandy Roth

Dr. Wilson gazed at the pad of paper in front of him. His mindless doodling had left dark impressions in the paper — reflections of his deepening anger. He had made a simple request, for crying out loud! Why did he have to listen to this ridiculous tirade from his staff?

It had begun two weeks earlier during an out-of-state clinical meeting. He was paged three times before the lunch break on the first day. Each time, he quietly slipped out to respond, only to be greeted by Regina's flat voice as she answered the phone at his practice. When he asked if she was OK, she first replied, 'Yes." On the third call, however, she admitted that she didn't feel well. At that point, he instructed her to let someone else answer the phone until she felt better. She agreed, and he thought it was over.

When he returned to the practice, however, turmoil reigned. Regina was in a snit and the other staff members were clearly on her side. Apparently, he was guilty of a host of misdeeds: he was insensitive and demanding. He was overly focused on the staffs' weaknesses and blind to their strengths. He was touchy and a poor listener.

Dr. Wilson sat silently fuming. He was more concerned with formulating his response than absorbing their message. It was clear to him that they weren't attempting to solve any problems — they just wanted to prove him wrong. But they were off-base about so much! They had no idea how hard it was to run this practice. All they ever did was complain, never taking into account the many problems he had to deal with on a daily basis.

He decided to wait them out. They may have started this discussion, but he would end it. They had better buckle their seatbelts; he had a thing or two to say to them, and the ride was going to get bumpy.

So many relationships are jeopardized when otherwise rational people reach the end of their ropes and explode. Many people have yet to learn how to express their emotions in a timely and constructive way. Failing to adequately diffuse a situation, they often find themselves choosing between two extremes: silence or violence — either physical or verbal.

Although the situations depicted on TV shows like "COPS" hardly reflect our world, watching these shows clearly demonstrates how the path to violence begins. In virtually every segment, the people profiled lack even the most basic skills needed to work through conflict without attacking, insulting, or injuring others. As a police officer in Philadelphia, I observed the same pattern. Problems arise or are amplified when the parties have an inability to engage in dialogue with each other

So what is dialogue? Successful dialogue is a process where two or more people engage in an open, honest exchange and actively listen to one another. In the course of everyday conflict that arises with your employer, co-workers, or patients, you may discover that you lack the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue. When such is the case, everyone suffers. The ability to successfully dialogue helps to properly resolve issues. Dialogue is the means to healthy relationships.

The skills of conversation and dialogue can be learned. In this installment of our ongoing series, I'll provide an overview of barriers to healthy dialogue and help you learn how to remove them.

Dialogue barriers
Mean-spirited intent. The purpose of dialogue is resolution; this purpose must be embraced by all parties. If even one party engaged in conflict intends to harm or prove others wrong, the outcome will be sabotaged. When an unhappy situation goes unaddressed over a period of time, the likelihood that each person's intent will remain pure is diminished. Bad feelings build up and parties can easily begin to harbor resentments that influence intent.

Rage. Have you ever been so angry that you lost control? Do you remember a time when you became so embroiled in an argument and your position that you lost perspective, not even realizing how you appeared to others and the impact your style had on the discussion? Rage shuts down a dialogue; it's a form of violence used as a weapon against others. The more animated and angry we become, the more entrenched we are in our own position. Anger almost always triggers a defensive response from the other person, which further exacerbates the argument. It is almost impossible to calm an enraged person. In fact, it triggers just the opposite: The angry party usually becomes even more enraged.

Making it up. When people avoid addressing problems, their relationship becomes strained. They often begin to speculate privately about behaviors, comments, or events they do not understand. Why did she do that? What got into him? The tendency is to make up an explanation that favors our own position. We either put a spin on the other person's behavior to justify our right to be angry, or we ignore our own contribution to the problem.

Disapproval and judgment. If you have already made up your mind, you can't engage in dialogue. It's impossible to remain open-minded when we listen only to disapprove. Listening with the intent of catching an error in fact or logic, for inaccuracies, or for inconsistencies blocks us from absorbing the worthy aspects of the other party's argument. This style is disrespectful and conveys the message that no amount of reasoning will overcome your insistence on being right.

Hidden agendas. Factions within groups can develop when issues remain unaddressed. Hidden agendas almost always develop from these divisions. When one party feels unsupported, that party is likely to withdraw support in return. A team member who believes she has been unfairly singled out will rally her troops to counterattack those she holds responsible. These alliances tend to become stronger over time until members are unable to recall what brought on the division in the first place. The hidden agenda can be serious or insignificant; however, since no one is addressing the real issue, the focus remains primarily on sustaining the fight as if it were the issue.

Timing. Timing is everything. A dialogue that begins in the heat of the moment will likely be unsuccessful. Poor timing — when either party is tired, hungry, distracted, or overburdened — can erect barriers that are impossible to tear down. Should either party feel pushed into having a discussion at an inopportune moment, the outcome is almost guaranteed to be negative.

Safety. If a dialogue takes place in an atmosphere where honesty may be resented or even punished, the truth will likely be withheld. Safety is influenced by many factors including privacy, security, confidentiality, and intent. People do not feel safe when they are ambushed or unprepared. They do not feel safe when they feel "ganged-up on" or that others have orchestrated the events in advance. A supportive and objective facilitator can manage the process and guarantee safety for all.

Confrontation. People often talk about 'confronting" others to resolve differences, yet that act, which in fact is one of aggression, does more to defeat conflict resolution than almost any other single act. Confrontation is for ideas — not people. In-your-face aggressiveness and similar behaviors are abusive and achieve little.

Eliminating barriers to dialogue
To promote a dialogue, each party must work actively to eliminate the barriers that get in the way of an open discussion. Consider the following guidelines.

Do whatever is necessary to address issues early and initiate a dialogue before the stakes get too high. Remember: You get what you most fear. If you fear conflict, you must diffuse it by addressing it early. If you have a tendency to avoid conflict, ask for help. Get a sponsor to challenge and support you. Hire a counselor to help you learn about your personal issues in this area. Work with a facilitator to help you learn how to behave differently. If you are a dentist, this is a nonnegotiable leadership requirement. And if you're not a dentist, it is a nonnegotiable requirement for a happy and fulfilled life.

Step back and breathe deeply when you find yourself becoming angry or out of control. Remove yourself from a situation if you are unable to control your emotions or behavior. But remember, you must return to the issues as quickly as possible to get yourself in a more open frame of mind. Removing yourself, however, is not an excuse to avoid conflict indefinitely.

When faced with something you don't understand, ask yourself why a well-intentioned person would do or say a certain thing. Look for the most reasonable or favorable explanation if you must presume; ask for clarification as soon as possible. Assuming the best rather than the worst will put you in the proper frame of mind to engage in a healthy dialogue.

Make a pact with yourself to always tell the whole story ... even those details that may put you in an unfavorable light. Spin may get a politician through a tough series of questions on Meet the Press, but most people see through the ruse. Acknowledge the part you play in a conflict. Being forthcoming and nondefensive when outlining your role gains you the respect of others.

Argue your partner's position to find the legitimacy of his perspective. Make the strongest case you can and listen to yourself. Look for all of the aspects of each situation. Set the task of discovering and learning what you don't understand instead of focusing on only what you already know. Expand your ways of thinking and questioning so you will learn from yourself as well as others.

Ask the other party to agree to a dialogue; don't always assume he or she wants to participate. It may sound simple, but it is important to cover this basic step. In this way, you will learn whether the timing is right, the culture is safe, and the logistics are properly in place for the other person to participate fully and without encumbrances.

Check your motives. If you are more intent on being right and proving the other person wrong, it will show. Question your own motives first; then, tell your partner. Be truthful. If you are intent on winning at all costs, a delay and a facilitator may be in order.

To learn more about how you and your team can develop stronger and more effective communication skills, call Sandy Roth at (800) 848-8326 or send her an email at sandy@prosynergy.com to request a catalog of learning resources.


Guided personal exercise
This month I've constructed a "Personal Pocket Reference Guide" to dialogue. Laminate a copy for each team member. With practice, these steps will help each of you become better at dialogue.

  • Agree on the topic for dialogue.
  • Choose the first speaker, by lot if necessary.
  • The speaker speaks without interruption.
  • The listeners ask for confirmation.
  • The speaker agrees or clarifies the point.
  • The listeners can ask questions — but not argue.
  • A listener becomes the speaker. Repeat steps 3-6 until each participant has been a speaker.
  • Begin with the original speaker and allow each person to arguments, without interruption.
  • Once the rotation returns to the original speaker, it repeats. This time, each person must argue a contrary position, without interruption.
  • Once each step is accomplished, the forum is open for discussion. At no time is a speaker to be interrupted.
  • At the conclusion, each person summarizes the content, and note any changes in his or her own perspective as a result of the dialogue.
  • If a decision is called for, it should be made at this time using the standard protocol.

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