• Allan J. Mucerino

DIALOGUE. THEN DISCUSS.

Man's inability to communicate is a result of his failure to listen effectively. Deborah Tannen

Do you count dialogue among your team communication-related disciplines? If you do, how developed is the discipline? For most teams, the fledgling discipline is routinely hi-jacked by the temptation to discuss, and powerless to do much about it. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge explained how our habits of thought continually pull us toward discussion, and away from dialogue:

"We believe in our own views, and want them to prevail. We are worried about suspending our assumptions publicly. We may even be uncertain if it is psychologically safe to suspend ‘all assumptions’.”

The skill of dialogue feeds conversations forward and steers them towards a deeper exploration of the topic in the context of decision-making. In its absence, teams transition prematurely to the discussion stage. Team dysfunction lies in a group's inability (or lack of awareness) to remain "in the dialogue" long enough to consider every perspective and possibility. Decisions are made during the process of discussion, a related but different skill.


What's the difference between dialogue and discussion and when does a group know when it's time to transition from one to the other? While both dialogue and discussion are methods to communicate information and share ideas and opinions, dialogue occurs in the safety of trusted relationships with the objective of developing a mutual understanding of each member's position. In numerous instances, members represents different interests. For example, school boards may be divided into geographic territories within the district's boundaries. Each territory serves a unique population with varied interests.

Decision-making bodies develop mutual understanding, and subsequently mutual respect, through dialogue.

Senge describes the conditions for dialogue as a psychologically safe space where participants are comfortable enough to suspend all assumptions. In the process of dialoguing, sometimes referred to as a community of dialogue, participants self-monitor their internal experience. In the early stages of developing dialogue as a team discipline, setting aside judgments and impulses long enough for members to effectively contrast their position with other members of the group is the greatest challenge team's face. It's called listening. Duh! Actually, it's called generative listening: developing a deep enough silence in yourself to hear beneath the words (a function of your ears) and listen to their meaning (a function of your mind).


In an advanced stage, group members interact as equals. As trust builds within the group and team members view each other as trustworthy, a deep level of insight and mutual understanding results. Decisions made in the context of discussion without skillfully dialoguing first are prone to mismanaging agreement (learn more about the Abilene Paradox in a recent essay) in addition to creating a tense environment that members want to just end, leading to hasty decisions.


Discussion, on the other hand, is a way of collecting everyone's thoughts and critically think as a group in the process of making a decision. With mutual understanding and respect of each other's positions established in the dialoguing process, the discussion process focuses on weighing the options and ensuring that the decision made is true to an organization's identity. Decisions made in the context of discussions without the benefit of a dialogue prelude may lack group commitment and as a result, sustainability.

In the worse case, relationships may be damaged if discussions turn into debates and verbal combat, a condition so common that sociolinguist Deborah Tannen has given it a name: the argument culture.

Discussion is designed to be a purposeful event: create an equal playing field by systematically reducing the field of possibilities until only the strongest ideas remain. Dialogue sets the stage by exploring those ideas in depth. Anything less is, well, just small talk.