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The Briefing

The Importance of Dialogue

by Claire Aiken


Inclusive dialogue is so often the prerequisite for positive change

Last month I attended a meeting in the Vatican organised by the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community and the Holy See. The theme for the meeting was (Re) thinking Europe – the fundamental challenges facing the European project.  Pope Francis closed the meeting and addressed the attendees from across Europe representing Church, Political and Civic leaders on the importance of dialogue.  Rather than as a congress or conference, the event was organised through workshops and debates, in order to facilitate a frank and open discussion between stakeholders of different geographic, cultural, religious and linguistic backgrounds, putting in practice the motto of the EU: “unity in diversity”.

It was clear throughout the meeting that as we move into times of accelerating change and deepening uncertainty, we need to get smart about how to talk to one another. We need to be able to overcome differences, find common ground, build meaning and purpose, and set directions together as communities.

It’s a strange paradox that while most of us spend a sizeable part of our lives communicating with others in conversations, over the phone, in meetings, via e–mail and social networks we nevertheless seem more separate and disconnected than ever. One in five adults in the UK (20%) are always or often lonely according to a study from the Co–op and British Red Cross. Worrying though this is, it is not a phenomenon linked solely with those unable to connect via the new digital world. On the contrary, recent research by the Mental Health Foundation found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people than the elderly, with 18 to 34–year–olds more likely than the over–55s to feel lonely often.

What this suggests is that genuine connection and understanding between people seems to be the exception rather than the norm in everyday communication. As the old adage goes ‘two monologues don’t make a dialogue’ and there is a concern among civic leaders that increasingly we are all guilty of speaking at each other, or past each other rather than with each other. Dialogue can quickly turn into a monologue as we send salvos of information across the Internet, blogging, texting and tweeting to be heard above the din of others doing exactly the same – to the betterment of no one.

The Ancient Greeks; first Socrates, then Plato and Aristotle developed thinking around dialogue and its importance that is still applicable today. They saw in dialogue not simply the use of speech between two people but a tool in which to better the societies in which they lived. The object of dialogue for them was not to analyse things, or to win an argument. Rather, it is to suspend your opinions—to listen to everybody else’s opinions, to suspend them also, and to see what all that means. The Greeks promoted and cherished dialogue not as some purposive attempt to reach conclusions or express mere points of view, but as the very prerequisite of authentic relationships between human beings.

They believed that by questioning and probing each other, carefully dissecting and analysing ideas, finding the inconsistencies, never attacking or insulting but always searching for what they can accept between them, they would gradually attain deeper understanding and insight of each other’s point of view.

History shows that inclusive dialogue like this is so often the prerequisite for positive change. It played a special role in reversing the nuclear arms race for instance and ultimately ending the Cold War. After the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, George Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, asked Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, what the turning point in the Cold War had been. “Reykjavík,” Gorbachev answered unhesitatingly. He explained that at their meeting in Reykjavík, Iceland, he and Ronald Reagan had for the first time entered into genuine dialogue with each other that extended far beyond their main agenda (arms control) to cover their values, assumptions, and aspirations for their two nations. Gorbachev credited this dialogue with establishing enough trust and mutual understanding to begin to reverse the nuclear arms race.

That’s what dialogue is: a form of discussion aimed at fostering mutual insight and common purpose. The process involves listening with empathy, searching for common ground, exploring new ideas and perspectives, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open.

Facilitating this style of dialogue is not the exclusive property of those who perform on the world stage but an essential aspect of successful businesses and organisations of all sizes. The growth of technology, the increase in the number of skilled workers, and the increasing interconnectedness of our digital world is transforming relationships at all levels of business. The traditional top–down style of leadership – isolated from others is outdated. It is being replaced by what is often termed “relational leadership,” where the defining task of leaders is to develop webs of relationships with others rather than handing down visions, strategies and plans as diktats.

Of course, as a leader, the culture that is formed at your company starts with you but by bringing your employees into certain elements of strategy conversations, you can ensure greater trust among teams– an element of happy employees who are dedicated to your company’s mission. Transparency isn’t always common among start up founders or executive leaders, but opening a dialogue about strategy with your team, presents these values to the people contributing to your work each day.

Within any team is a diverse range of experiences, views and talents. Embrace those talents and grasp the opportunity to share knowledge and thinking. No one can run a successful business or organisation alone, and by extension strategy should not be developed alone. Business leaders must ensure that through transparent dialogue they tap into the qualities of those around them to help refine their business and set collective strategies for a successful future.