Speak-up and start a conversation
The art of conversation

“Organizations need to be more responsive.” “Dialogue is the future.” “We need to start listening to each other.” It’s all about connecting.” Assertions like these have become all but ubiquitous among business communicators. But how do you actually do that? How can we create communicative, dialogue-driven organizations?

In her essay in CommTalks ‘on the art of a good conversation’, Dutch communication professor Noelle Aarts explains what makes genuine dialogue so hard to do.

We humans have a hard-wired tendency to turn everything we see and hear into our own narrative. Give me a word and I’ll give it a twist. Filling-in the dots on autopilot. “Oh, that was not your point at all? Too bad.” We frame ourselves through the day and we can’t help it.

Framing is not just the favorite pastime of evil spin doctors, it’s also how are our own brain works. Spin-doctors knew that all along of course. Frames are the building blocks of our thinking. They help us understand and categorize the world around us. The frames in our brain reign supreme. “When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored,” as cognitive linguist George Lakoff has eloquently summarized this phenomenon. Now you know why facts all too often hardly seem to make a difference in discussions. Our tendency to encapsulate information in our own frames of reference, and failure to see our counterpart’s perspective, explains why so many conversations never get past a dialogue of the deaf.

In great part thanks to the work of corporate anthropologists Jitske Kramer and Danielle Braun we have come to realize that an organization is nothing more than a collection of tribes that may or may not be working together in unison toward a common goal. The dominant coalition of most influential managers, the IT tribe, sales, marketing, call center staff, they all look at their work from their own frame of reference, typical of their tribe. So, deploying a compelling and creative internal campaign with lots of messaging to launch that new strategy amounts to nothing more than setting yourself up for failure. The worlds of all these tribes are just too far apart to even allow for a shared understanding of what is being conveyed.

The second dialogue-undermining phenomenon Noelle Aarts touches on, is our inability to listen. Often the best we seem to be able to do is to stay quiet and wait for the next opportunity to speak, meanwhile not hearing a word of what is being said as we are too busy thinking what to say next. We think the point is to convince others, to win the debate and to profile ourselves rather than to explore different perspectives so that the group can jointly identify the best solution. All too often meetings are perceived as a zero-sum game.

The conclusion is clear. We urgently need to improve our dialogue-skills. Communications professionals can contribute in several ways to making organizations more communicative. Obviously the first step would be to master to the principles of dialogue ourselves, as Noelle Aarts rightly suggests. And by helping others to do the same. Providing online and offline channels that enable dialogue and feedback. Helping a dialogue-friendly mindset to take root and deriving generally agreed upon ‘non-negotiable behaviors’ which make people feel welcome to share ideas. Coaching leaders and teams on dialogue skills. Working with HR to offer the right skill development opportunities. In short, by creating an environment and climate in which genuine dialogue can flourish at all levels.

Which brings us to the question of definining the common denominators which makes all tribes act as one. What do we stand for as an organization? What is the meaning of what we are doing here? “Where are we going? “What do we aim to achieve?” “What is our common strategic principle?”

The answers to such questions will increasingly come from the organization as a whole rather than from the boardroom. And it requires the support of skilled professionals who know how to shape and structure an organization-wide strategic dialogue. I call this the moderator-role and as far as I’m concerned it’s there for communication professionals to grab. What it all means is less sending and less “one-size-fits-all content and more listening and summarizing.

In short, it’s time for a groundbreaking conversation between business communicators and their internal clients. Let’s create some shared frames about what constitutes a communicative organization and how we can get there.

Tips for additional reading:
On how frames work in the human brain:
Book ‘Metaphors We Live By’ (2008), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

On the need for organizations to become more communicative:
Blog ‘Internal communication in an agile world”

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