Creating a Two-Way Conversation

By Dr. Francis Eberle

How many times have you left a meeting with a colleague feeling good about the outcome, only to find out later that they did not complete what you talked about? Weren’t they listening?

My last experience with this was a few years ago. A colleague wanted to work on a new idea to present to the CEO. We discussed it, and I felt the new idea was very valuable. However, until we finished the project the CEO wanted, introducing a new idea was not a good plan. At the end of our meeting, I thought we had come to an agreement: They would finish the final report and then develop the new idea to present. A week later, the CEO told me she just chewed out my colleague for presenting a new idea when she only wanted the final report. All I could think was, “Did he really just do that?” I felt bad because I had been unable to effectively communicate the priorities and actions.

Much has been written about effective communication. Here I will focus on the interchange or exchange of ideas because conversations are two-way.

In their book, The Adaptive School, Garmston and Wellman introduced me to the strategy of dialogue and discussion almost 20 years ago. Since then similar approaches for improving conversations among people such as advocacy and inquiry, diplomacy and tact, and just better listening have surfaced. They all have value and are aimed at developing a more purposeful connection among people, so they can better understand each other, ultimately clearing the way for improved relations, actions, understanding and decisions.

Dialogue and Discussion
Conversations can be informal, where people learn from one another or just enjoy each other’s company. But when they turn to making decisions, understanding is key. From research we know that people process information differently and at different rates. For example, jumping prematurely into decisions can leave some people unclear because the parameters are not understood. Dialogue helps people seek to understand by asking about the others’ beliefs, models, data and perhaps even values related to the topic. This takes time. Once a shared understanding is achieved, then people can shift to a discussion to narrow down choices for a decision or action.

Some example dialogue questions might be:
We seem to have several options in front of us, what others might be possible?
What are we missing?
Help me understand what you think the critical elements of this solution are and why that is important for us to include? 

Some example discussion questions might be:
The data we have points to two options, how can we make the best choice?
What are the steps we need to follow to solve the problem we discussed and who will take them?

Advocacy and Inquiry
Advocacy is the most commonly used approach in meetings. When you are just advocating for a particular point of view, you are not listening to others. This tends to become argumentative with the goal of winning.

In their Harvard Business Review article “Playing to Win,” Lafety and Martin describe a set of norms that were encouraged several years ago at Procter & Gamble. They sought to develop open dialogue and improved understanding in their teams by encouraging a balance of advocacy and inquiry with three approaches:

  1. “Advocating for your position and then inviting responses from others.
  2. Paraphrasing what you believe to be the other person’s view and inquiring as to the validity of your understanding.
  3. Explain a gap in your understanding of the other person’s views and asking for more information.”

Here is one example to translate this into a practical conversation:

  1. I see solving this problem in this fashion, and here’s why … Can you describe to what extent you see it differently?
  2. I understand you to be saying we need to move on this solution. To what extent is this an accurate description of your position?
  3. It sounds like you do not think we should move forward with this product. Can you tell me why you think that?

Diplomacy and Tact
One of my heroes, George Michell who was a senator from Maine, President of the U.S. Senate, and negotiator in the Northern Ireland pea agreement exudes diplomacy and tact. In their book The Complete Leader, Price and Lisk discuss these skills as the “ability to treat other fairly, in a sensitive and effective way, regardless of personal bias or beliefs.“ The foundation is first understanding others and not being afraid to talk about the topics that no one wants to discuss. Some suggestions for building your diplomacy and tact skills include:

  1. Keeping your ideas to yourself until you understand the other person’s point of view.
  2. Observe the other person to learn how they act and why. Then adapt to their behavior.
  3. Pay attention to your body language and be engaged. Realize that how you say words has great weight in conversations.

The common components of these approaches can also lead to better cultural awareness. As Stephen Covey states in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People under Habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Leaders who communicate effectively first gather understanding. Teams who take time to inquire about other member’s ideas, mental models, and evidence before advocating are making strides to being more effective.