In the last issue we discussed how each of us has an invisible ‘operating system’ of beliefs and assumptions. Our ‘OS’ interprets, and so distorts, every piece of information we receive before we ever have a chance to consider it consciously.

Whilst this is extremely useful, it also means that we all get stuck in patterns and traps of our own making. Every problem we face has two parts – what’s going on ‘out there’ in the world (e.g. the markets or our organisation) and what’s going on ‘in here’ – in the form of the assumptions we make about both the problem and the solution.

When we’re stuck, or struggling with something, it’s often because we’re failing to examine those aspects of the problem that lie within us. The good news is that, if we can learn to do so, these aspects are completely within our control and so can give us many useful options for moving forward.

This is just as true for teams as it is for individuals. What’s great about teams, though, is that the combination of minds and perspectives makes them a naturally better environment for examining both the ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ dimensions of problems. The challenge is that the vast majority of teams aren’t tapping this potential because they are stuck in a mode of interacting that often makes things worse rather than better.


Discussion versus dialogue

 To help us see how this works, let’s label two alternative ways of interacting as ‘Discussion’ and ‘Dialogue’.

Often the default in business conversations, is discussion. Different individuals will throw their viewpoint across the table; others will then repeat a counter-assertion. Positions are then batted to and fro like the ball in a game of tennis until someone finally gives up – or time runs out for that item. If you notice that the conversation is diminishing your trust in others, as well as your patience and goodwill, you are probably in discussion.

Dialogue, on the other hand, refers to conversations that build shared meaning, rather than fostering disagreement, frustration and confusion. It has the ability to convert detractors into supporters, conflict into consensus, and add depth to business relationships.

Dialogue requires skills of collaborative inquiry and listening and provides all participants with a profound sense of being heard. When we feel that we are heard, we become more willing to be open to another point of view – and so are both more willing and more able to examine our own position and expand it by incorporating the insight, experience and knowledge of others.


So how can we ‘do’ dialogue?

A simple tool for beginning to change how you interact, and build the skills for dialogue was proposed by Bill Torbert. His work suggested that four aspects of conversations need to be present, and in balance, for effective dialogue to take place. The four aspects are:-

  •     Framing – explicitly stating the purpose of the present conversation, the dilemma you are trying to resolve, and/or the assumptions you think are being shared or not shared.
  •     Asserting – offering a specific option, perception, feeling or proposal for action
  •     Illustrating – contributing something concrete e.g. a story, some background, data, graphs or statistics to support one’s point.
  •     Inquiring – questioning others in order to learn something new from them that may add an important perspective and/or throw one’s own sense of the situation into question.


Using Torbert’s dialogue tool to break through

A client we worked with recently was stuck in an oppositional debate. As usual, two factions in the team were disagreeing – this time about a big event that was planned.

The positions were polarised. One group wanted to continue with the annual event, involving several hundred people, which they saw as an important part of the culture. The other wanted to dramatically reduce it in size and scope to reflect the cost savings that were having to be made elsewhere.

There had already been one long and inconclusive team discussion on the subject and the conversation again dragged on. The only progress being made was that voices were getting louder, frustration was rising and relationships were approaching breaking point.

Things changed when the Operations Director intervened. He used the Torbert model (which we had introduced earlier in the day) and used the four elements to draw attention to what was happening and then tell a story of one of the key area managers who had attended the event last year for the first time.

To illustrate his point, he described in some detail how she had been completely inspired by the event and how it had galvanised her to make a number of significant changes – which had greatly increased sales in her region.

The intervention by the Operations Director transformed the polarised discussion into an important and creative dialogue. The mood changed completely as they began to explore together both the value of the event and also how this could be preserved and enhanced.  They agreed a radical and imaginative plan to reinventing the approach to something that was more in keeping with the cost pressures and the signals they wanted to send – whilst preserving it’s central role in the culture and calendar..


Creating dialogue in your team

Discussions like the one above, even on relatively insignificant decisions, can eat up huge amounts of time in the team – and do a lot of collateral damage to relationships and team dynamics. Most teams are all too familiar with their frustration and corrosive impact that this can have on all sorts of other conversations and decisions.

While there is no substitute for introducing the idea of dialogue properly to a team, you can make an impact yourself by simply following Torbert’s formula. The next time the team is stuck, just use his four steps in order to:-


  •     Shine a light on what is happening (Framing)
  •     Make a suggestion (Advocacy)
  •     Introduce some real data (Illustration)
  •     Invite others into exploring the subject from a new angle (Inquiry).

You’ll be surprised how powerful this can be. What do you have to lose?


Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.