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Cultivating Organizational Dialogue Published: Sunday, May 27, 2012 12:01 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

Dialogue is a reflective form of conversation that goes beyond purely cognitive and rational argumentation to encourage participants to examine and reflect on the assumptions underlying their thinking, and develop a common language and interpretative scheme. The great scholar Edgar H. Schein has done extensive research and writing and has lectured us on the relevance of this technology for creating transformational pathways in organizations. According to Schein, the ultimate reason for learning about the theory and practice of dialogue, then, is that it facilitates and creates new possibilities for valid communication. If we did not need to communicate in groups, then we would not need to work on dialogue. But if problem solving and conflict resolution in groups is increasingly important in our complex world, then the skill of dialogue becomes one of the most fundamental of human skills.

Through his work, Schein has argued that because of the growth of technological complexity in all organizational functions, organizational structures and designs are moving toward knowledge-based, distributed information forms. Consequently, organizations of all sizes will show a greater tendency to break down into subunits of various sorts, based on technology, products, markets, geographies, occupational communities, and other factors not yet known. The subunits of organizations are more and more likely to develop their own sub-cultures (implying different languages and different assumptions about reality, i.e., different mental models) because of their shared core technologies and their different learning experiences. Organizational effectiveness is therefore increasingly dependent on valid communication across sub-cultural boundaries. Integration across subcultures will increasingly hinge on the ability to develop an overarching common language and mental model.

Once we recognize that the problem of coordination and integration in an organization is ultimately a problem of meshing subcultures, we will also realize that our normal coordination mechanisms are not up to the task. We will need technologies and mechanisms that make it possible for people to discover that they use language differently, that they operate from different mental models, and that the categories we employ are ultimately learned social constructions of reality and thus arbitrary. Dialogue is one such technology.

Dialogue is a useful mean to surface and explore mental models. First, the parties should investigate and explore the taken for granted assumptions of thought processes and their limits (Schein 1993; 1999), a process of INQUIRY Second, participants need to give voice to and acknowledge the legitimacy and equal plausibility of differing viewpoints (Schein 1996, 1999), a process of DIVERGENCE. And finally, the parties should engage in a dialogical process that fosters the emergence of a shared new language and mental models, a process of CONVERGENCE.

Most communication and human relations workshops emphasize active listening, by which is meant that one should pay attention to all the communication channels—the spoken words, the body language, tone of voice, and emotional content. One should learn to focus initially on what the other person is saying rather than on one’s own intended response. In contrast, dialogue focuses on getting in touch with underlying assumptions (especially our own assumptions) that automatically determine when we choose to speak and what we choose to say. Dialogue is focused more on the thinking process and how our perceptions and cognitions are preformed by our past experiences. The assumption here is that if we become more conscious of how our thought process works, we will think better collectively and communicate better.

 In contrast, dialogue emphasizes the natural flow of conversation. It actually discourages feedback and direct interpersonal encounters. In dialogue, the whole group is the object of learning, and the members share the potential excitement of discovering, collectively, ideas that individually none of them might have ever thought of. Feedback may occur, especially in relation to individual behavior that undermines the natural flow of conversation, but it is not encouraged as a goal of the group process. An important goal of dialogue is to enable the group to reach a higher level of consciousness and creativity through the gradual creation of a shared set of meanings and a ‘‘common’’ thinking process.

Dialogue is a basic process for building common understanding, in that it allows one to see the hidden meanings of words, first by seeing such hidden meanings in our own communication. By letting disagreement go, meanings become clearer, and the group gradually builds a shared set of meanings that make much higher levels of mutual understanding and creative thinking possible. As we listen to ourselves and to others in what may appear often to be a disjointed, rather random conversation, we begin to see the bias and subtleties of how each member thinks and expresses meanings. In this process, we do not convince each other, but build a common experience base that allows us to learn collectively. The more the team has achieved such collective understanding, the easier it becomes to reach decisions, and the more likely it will be that the decision will be implemented in the way that the team meant it.

Learning across cultural boundaries cannot be created or sustained without initial and periodic dialogue. Dialogue in some form is therefore necessary and integral to any organizational learning that involves going beyond the cultural status quo. Organizations do learn within the set of assumptions that characterizes their present culture and subcultures. But if any new organizational responses are needed that involve changes in cultural assumptions or learning across sub-cultural boundaries, dialogue must be viewed as an essential component of such learning.

Copyright 2012 QBS, Inc.
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