Towards Better Dialogue? - Part 2

I finished last week's post with this: Arguably we need to learn a new way of conversing, moving from debate to dialogue. What might this new learning involve? Here are some thoughts.

Undoubtedly, there is a process to follow, which will enhance dialogue. Firstly, we need to understand what our objectives are, the underlying purpose, or the overarching big picture. Failure to identify this at the outset of a project, or losing sight of it later, condemns many an initiative to failure. We need to ask ourselves what our real needs are--and ponder the real needs of others. Where might these converge? What do we have in common? What is worrying others? Why? What has worked in the past--or not? What can we learn from this? All of these questions, and much more, are essentially preparation - for which, in our busy world, we find less and less time. Paradoxically of course, the more we prepare, the less time we will take overall.

We need to be prepared to build relationships and to work with people whatever we think of them or of their behaviour or values. If we can communicate with others with respect and courtesy, we can scrutinise and assess the issues with rigour. To do that, we need to understand, really understand, what is going on. That can only be done by suspending our desire to fix or solve the problem immediately, or according to our own view of the world. And, with that, we might just begin to build - or rebuild - trust.

We must therefore spend time exploring the real issues, concerns, hopes, fears, objectives and underlying needs of all parties with an interest--the stake-holders. We can only do so by asking questions, lots of them, and by really listening. But, for most of us, our tendency to assert our position, to justify our claims, precludes this and simply drives people further apart. However, we cannot fulfil the aspirations and maximise the gains all round without a true understanding of what motivates others. And we'll need to find mechanisms and techniques for large-scale discussion as well as more intimate conversations. We'll want to use appropriately supportive and creative venues and technologies, all of which we will find exist already.

Once we have explored and focused the issues in full, we can identify and assess the options open to us. Here, creativity can be encouraged. What gems might we find among the apparent dross? What are the pros and cons of each? Can we prioritise the possibilities? What criteria would we apply? What costs and gains might there be? What are the best and worst alternatives? What will work in practice? And so on, until we begin to see the preferable solution emerging, perhaps something unimaginable when we started and which might never have come to light had we adopted our right/wrong, let's just 'solve the problem' standard method.

Then, how do we help others to recognise the possible way forward? What about other constituencies? Is there a way of presenting a message that will work for them? How do we build bridges to those who are disaffected, without whose support a project may founder? How can we find a way to ensure that our interests are recognised and acknowledged, while finding ways to converge or align with the interests of others? Can we find ways to test proposals without feeling threatened, protective or defensive? Do we need to build in an element of confidentiality to the deliberations and, if so, how to balance with transparency? How can we help people to make informed choices--and to exercise appropriate responsibility?

Is this all too difficult? No it's not, but it will be hard work. And it is skilful work. Our benchmark is not whether we can create a panacea but whether the outcome is at least marginally better than the alternative--the present way of doing things?

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