Article: Dialogue Gap - from HR Magazine

First Published in Human Resources 10 Jul/Aug 2012

The information age was meant to be a revolution in communications. Yet, with so much communication equipment in our offices, why are so many people such bad communicators?

In the last twenty years we have become expert communicators. We send and receive information via computer, tablet and smart phones at a rate never before seen in the history of mankind.

We communicate so much today but we seldom have time to converse in person. People who worked in the 1980’s or earlier remember working before the advent of the internet. It was a time when we communicated a lot less and we conversed a lot more.

The art of conversing

Conversing is the heart of dialogue and is best done face-to-face. I define communication as sending information and dialogue as thinking together. Communication and dialogue are not the same and communication should not be used in place of dialogue. Although dialogue starts with communication, many situations need more than just communication to achieve optimal outcomes.

When do we need to communicate? Think of what you are doing when you call someone, send a text, read an email or Google a topic on the internet. You are sending and receiving information. You are possibly confirming arrangements, checking on what people are doing, sharing a photo or reading the news.

Now think of when we need to dialogue. You might need to resolve a previously unforeseen problem, create a new solution, help a friend deal with a tough situation, teach someone whose perspective is different than yours or resolve a conflict which seems impossible to comprehend.

If you try to resolve situations needing dialogue by using transmission-style communication, you usually just make things worse. Do these responses sound familiar?

  • “Why are you calling, I sent you the email!”

  • “What do you mean you don’t understand, I told you before!”

  • “You are not listening, what I said was...”

How do you feel when you want to engage in dialogue but others either do not want to, do not know how or are not available?

  • If it is your boss, you might do what you think is right and realise it does not matter anyway because no one ever checks with you.

  • If it is your doctor, you assume they can assess your condition in only
    a few seconds and must be correct prescribing the drugs suggested.

  • If it is your friends or family, you feel alone or ignored and wonder why they do not care.

  • If it is your teacher, you assume they are too busy and you are too slow to fully grasp what they are saying in the front of the class.

Confronting the tipping point

We are now confronting the implications of having passed our digital tipping point – the moment when we spend more than half our waking hours digitally rather than personally connected with others.

Think of a typical day. You wake up to your digital alarm, check your phone for text messages, turn on your computer, radio, TV or music player, prepare for work or school, put your ear phones in your ears and commute to the office or school checking or communicating on your phone or tablet. When you arrive at your destination you say “hello” to a few people then open your laptop and focus on your work. If you are an office worker you likely struggle to keep up to your emails in between your PowerPoint meetings and PDF document management. If you are a student, you are reading information online in between “Facebooking” your friends and listening to the teacher. Typically you take a break now and then to speak with a friend, grab a bite to eat and compare notes on what you learned. At the end of the day you put your ear plugs back in your ears and commute home checking your phone or tablet on the way. In the evening you might watch a movie or television before going to sleep.

If this scenario at all resembles your life you are well passed the digital tipping point and spend much more than half your time digitally rather than personally connected to humans.

The explosion of communication in our lives today combined with the nature and complexity of the challenges we face in the 21st century has created a gap between the quality of dialogues we have (if indeed we have any) and the quality of dialogues we need to solve our problems at work, at home and in society. I call this reality the dialogue gap and suggest we need to rebuild dialogue into our lives before it is too late.

How to improve dialogue at work

We spend most of our waking hours at work (or school) and many of us now live our lives beyond the digital tipping point and our organisations need us to achieve optimal outcomes to survive and thrive in the complex markets we now face, so I suggest the several changes in our work lives.

These are recommendations and need to be implemented according to your own situations but nonetheless the purpose and intent is clear: to create space for optimal outcomes to arise through dialogue.

  • Leaders should dialogue daily for five to 10 minutes with each of your direct reports during which time you should practise effective dialogue, especially focusing on your presence, suspending your assumptions, and absorbing the accurate and complete message being expressed to you regardless of how effectively it is shared.

Insert dialogue into the agenda of your regular meetings and if you do not have regular meetings start doing so (eg weekly team meetings of 40 to 60 minutes) because the solution is in the dialogue.

  • Ensure that the meetings cover the important communication issues but include time for dialogue as well on matters of importance to the team.

    • The meetings should be face-to- face but if people are travelling or are located overseas or across town, do all you can to connect using audio and video so that you can see each other during the


    • Effective dialogue leads to optimal outcomes and sharing these wins motivates stakeholders to even more dialogues. Not sharing the outcomes of previous meetings de-motivates stakeholders from sharing, cuts off dialogue, and prevents future wins.

  • Make dialogue leadership a key competence in your organisation by doing the following:

    • Institute dialogue training in your organisation to ensure that people understand the difference between communication and dialogue and to ensure that people know how to dialogue effectively in sales, sourcing, performance management, priority account, service, and other mission-critical situations that if done well lead to success for the organisation and if done poorly lead eventually to bankruptcy.

    • Insert effective dialogue into your performance appraisal system to spotlight where the dialogue problem exists in your organisation so that you can give help to the individuals involved and prevent problems from happening before it becomes too late.

    • Stop rewarding non-dialogic leadership that creates conflict and unsustainable suboptimal outcomes via unilateral decisions taken without consulting the key stakeholders.

A last word of caution

If you are to remember one thing, I want you to remember this: if you are facing a difficult situation, whatever it might be, the solution is in the dialogue, so stop texting, emailing and Googling and instead engaging your stakeholders in dialogue.

By reverting to dialogue when needed, you begin solving your problems more effectively, become happier and healthier and learn more things about your present environment than you have ever known before.

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ArticlePeter Nixon