We talk a lot about dialogue, but we don't actually practice dialogue very often--especially at work:
- Meetings are often one-way presentations, with very little candid discussion.
- Leaders may not sit at the head of the conference table, but they lecture as if they were standing on a soapbox.
- Emails go back and forth and back and forth like tennis balls, even though picking up the phone and having a conversation could resolve the problem in 10 minutes.
Yet dialogue is so valuable that it can build stronger relationships while helping your company become more collaborative, innovative and successful. I was reminded by dialogue's power when I re-read The Magic of Dialogue by the late Daniel Yankelovich. Despite the fact that the book is nearly 20 years old, the advice is as fresh as if it were written yesterday.
Before I share why dialogue is so important--especially to leaders who need to use every tool possible to help their organizations succeed--let me remind you what dialogue is. Merriam-Webster provides a useful definition:
a : a conversation between two or more persons
b : an exchange of ideas and opinions
c : a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution
All three aspects of dialogue are essential to your organization's success, wrote Yankelovich, who was a public opinion analyst and social scientist, who founded the marketing research firm Daniel Yankelovich, Inc. Here are 15 reasons why:
(All quotes are from Yankelovich's book or from his 1999 interview on PBS.)
- Dialogue improves relationships. For example, Yankelovich wrote of how dialogue builds trust so that it becomes "natural to cooperate with one another and know how to create the common ground on which successful cooperation depends."
- "It's physical, It's visceral, it's instinctive. We reach out to one another. We try to connect with one another. The frustration of modern life is that there are these obstacles. Life is full of impersonal transactions. But we're hungry for relationships."
- "When you engage someone in dialogue, you engage them in a level of discourse . . . talking directly, connecting with the person's deepest assumptions. When people connect that way, they feel very good about each other."
- Dialogue creates a dynamic in which colleagues "find it easy and natural to cooperate with one another" so they know "how to create the common ground on which successful cooperation depends."
- "In the surveys we do, every year we see an increase an intensity in people's desire for community, for civility. It's a need that's fundamental. You need to have that closeness."
- "The growth of technology, the increase in the number of knowledge workers, and the blurring of boundaries of all kinds are transforming relationships at all levels of business."
- That means that "traditional top-down style of leadership in a fortress-type company semi-isolated from others is increasingly out of vogue. It is being related by what I have come to think of as 'relational leadership,' where the defining task of leaders is developing webs of relationships with others."
- Increasingly, organizations find themselves "facing problems that require more shared understanding with others than in the past." And dialogue is essential for solving those problems.
- There's a growing trend to form strategic alliances with organizations that bring "different corporate cultures, traditions, structures, and even languages to the new partnerships. Without dialogue, misunderstandings arise almost immediately."
- It's not possible to engage the entire organization in implementing shared visions and strategies without dialogue. Too often, I see organizations investing tremendous time and resources in employee town halls that are just slide after slide of information, followed by a tepid Q&A session. These meetings deplete energy; they don't create momentum and motivation.
- Your employees form their viewpoints not by watching PowerPoint presentations or reading articles on the intranet, but through interactions with other people, through dialogue and discussion. "People weigh what they hear from others against their own convictions. They compare notes with one another . . . and assess the views of others in terms of what makes to them." So if leaders aren't involved in the discussion, they're missing an opportunity to engage with employees and, hopefully, to influence them.
- It's obviously more important than ever to focus on customers and to understand their needs. And while gathering data is obviously key to that understanding, you get more valuable insight by engaging in dialogue with customers, through focus groups or other two-way experiences.
- Today, more than ever, organizations "need to stimulate the maximum amount of creativity, innovation, and initiative in coworkers, rather than simply expecting them to show up and obey orders."
- If you don't listen to your employees, they're more likely to walk out the door. The U.S. Labor Department reports that 3.4 million workers quit their jobs in April (the month for which the most recent data is available). That number approached the peak for resignations in 2001.
- And, finally, Yankelovich strongly believed that "Greater mastery of dialogue will advance our civility--and our civilization--a giant step forward. Dialogue has the magic to help us do it."