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What Dialogue is not
Often, when we talk we might think we’re dialoguing. And, to be honest, we might be. It depends on how you define dialogue. I define it more specifically.
It is not talking.
It is not discussing. It is not debating.
It is not “meeting”. It is not brainstorming.
It is not interviewing. It is not a Q & A.
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It is not talking
Let’s set the scene. Three people are sitting, let’s say at a brunch, midday in a restaurant. At brunch, no one sits silently. If everyone of these 3 people were sitting silently that’d be very very unusual. I’d even say it’d be very hard to do. It sounds like a 3-person mediation retreat in the social space of a restaurant. So what do they do? They talk! Of course. Share stories, updates, problems, emotions, news, jokes, laughter. They skim the surface. They bounce around from person to person and topic to topic. They share culture and personal histories, maybe they even go way back, but nothing explicitly the same.
It is not discussing, debating
In his book, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, author and consultant Bill Isaacs points out the roots of these two words reveal the true nature of the conversations they describe.
The roots of the word discussion are the same as concussion and percussion, and mean to “shake apart.”
The word debate is similar.
Unproductive or controlled discussion devolves frequently into debate, whose roots mean to beat down.
Dialogue is not about shaking apart or beating down. At least not what I’m referring to when I use the word dialogue.
It is not “meeting” nor brainstorming
When we work knowledge worker jobs we meet a lot. Sometimes we even brainstorm together to come up with ideas. This isn’t just at work either. We’ll do this as volunteers, among friends planning a trip, etc. We’re talking, we’re thinking, we’re deciding, we’re asking questions. More often than not we have an agenda. The meeting has a purpose. We’re looking to extract something from the time together. It’s about doing. Getting things done.
I’ll admit that I see these two as closer to dialogue but ultimately, more often than not, we’re simply exchanging information that’s already been generated staying on the surface rather than diving deep into discovering newness.
It is not interviewing nor a simple Q & A.
Again here we have a typical conversational pattern that’s a simple surface exchange, more often than not. I have prepare a set of questions. You prepare set of responses. We exchange them and we’re off. Of course on occasion we find we have created the time and space to ask lots and lots of followup questions. I think when we find ourselves in this sort of spacetime we’re getting closer to dialogue. However, if it is a typical interview, the interviewer has a sort of power. They run the conversation. The choose when and how and if to ask the next question. The interviewee must acquiesce or depart. In other words, the conversation doesn’t unfold on its own. We’re not along for the ride discovering the twists and turns that the conversation itself wants to take. That’s when we get closer to how I’m thinking about dialogue.
In my next post, I’ll share a revelatory map of conversation types produced by Bill Isaacs in his above-mentioned book. This will take us from my ad hoc, what’s not a conversation to a decision tree of types. Then I’ll dive deeper into some of the possibilities and experiences I’ve had with conversations closer to dialogue than not.