Leadership through Dialogue

Leadership through Dialogue

Dr. Bill Robinson

There’s a humorous video, called It’s Not About the Nail. A couple is having a conversation about a problem the woman is experiencing.  To put it simply, the man offers her an obvious solution.  But, a solution is not what she is seeking; she just wants him to listen and empathize.  

Too often our response to someone’s problem is to fix it, to give them the answer we think they are seeking.  But, in doing so, we may be ignoring what they really need or want.  Take the case of someone who is in grief.  Do they want to hear that “everything will be okay,” or do they just want someone to be present with them in their grief, perhaps to simply listen?  And, what of the supervisee that approaches you with a challenge?  It may be quicker just to give them an answer, but that doesn’t help them in the long run to strengthen their problem-solving skills.  Moreover, a quick answer may be the wrong one, especially if you haven’t taken the time to understand their problem from their perspective.  

More often it is better to engage the other in dialogue.  There are four basic aspects to dialogue:

  • Be Present – Be there in mind and heart, as well as physically.
  • Listen Actively – Don’t just casually hear what they say (when thinking of how you want to respond); listen with serious intention.
  • Inquire – Seek to understand the person’s problem and situation by asking questions that clarify and expand your purview.
  • Explore – With the other person, reflect on the frame they are using to look at the problem and consider viewing it through other frames.  (If they are looking at the deficits, what about the strengths?  If they are looking at individuals, what about relationships?  Etc.)

All this happens before you seek a solution.

Though what is really happening is that you are developing a relationship with this other person – a relationship of mutual support and shared discovery. The ability to form these types of relationships with others – whether they be professional colleagues, fellow volunteers, spouses, children or parents, or even fellow change-makers – is core to effective leadership.  

More and more often, the complex problems we face in our organizations and in the wider community require that people with different perspectives and talents work together.  Yet, before we can work together to develop creative solutions to our problems, we need to communicate with one another in ways that help us see the other’s viewpoint and think differently about the situation. This means practicing the leadership art of dialogue.

We even have traditional Jewish practice that can teach us how to dialogue.  It is called chavruta, meaning partners or friends.  In chavruta, two people explore a text together, seeking its various meanings and relevance.  They each bring their own past experiences and perspectives to interpreting a text.  Though the goal is not to seek the one right answer.  Rather, each partner seeks to understand the others’ ideas and to help the other deepen their insights into the text.  In this way, both discover various meanings of the text, and they discover one another.  

Like all leadership practices, dialogue requires practices so that we continually get better and better at it.  And so we don’t default to giving someone our answer to their problem.

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