Are you willing to say, “I could be wrong”?

Dialogue starts with the willingness to challenge our own thinking, to recognize that any certainty we have is, at best, a hypothesis about the world. ~Peter Senge

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dialogue and what it really means. Mostly because it feels like we’ve drifted, far, from dialogue being a virtue of effective leadership.

Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline) was the first thought leader who caused me to think differently about dialogue. What dialogue really means; how it differs from a discussion or a debate. Last week while finishing my read of Presence and Encounter by David G. Benner, I discovered yet another intriguing view of dialogue. I highlighted on nearly every page of Benner’s chapter on dialogue. I’ll share with you a sample of my highlights.

  • A good discussion may include sharing opinions and knowledge, but it involves much less risk and requires lower levels of trust than dialogue. Debates—which are about winning or losing, not about discovery and exploration—are, of course, even more distant from genuine dialogue.
  • In dialogue, each says to the other, “This is how I experience the world. Tell me how you experience it.”
  • The price of admission to genuine dialogue is high, and there are no scalpers to sell you admission tickets that are cheaper than the going price. That price is the willingness to be changed by the experience. Authentic dialogue demands consent to the possibility of being changed by the encounter.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that for true dialogue to occur, “We have to appreciate that truth can be received from outside—not only within—our own group. If we do not believe that, entering into dialogue would be a waste of time.”
  • In relation to discussion and debate, dialogue is more about exploring than proving, more about discovery than making points. In dialogue, knowledge is employed as a gift, which in debate it is used as a weapon.
  • Dialogue is always a win-win encounter. It strives for the engagement of two or more persons in ways that honors both their separateness and their connectedness.
  • Meeting someone in dialogue always involves at least a temporary suspension of our presuppositions about ourselves and the world. This means it always involves a degree of vulnerability to truth.
  • Finally, dialogue is impaired by a need for control. One can control interviews and conversations, but one must surrender to genuine dialogue. Much like moving into a flowing stream of water, one must enter dialogue ready to let go and be carried along on a journey.

This doesn’t mean that all of our communication should be dialogue. But are we engaging in any dialogue, at all? Are we willing to explore and discover as we talk with others? Do we suspend our own assumptions or beliefs and really listen to hear how someone else experiences the world? Are we willing to enter into conversations with others with the mindset that we could be wrong?

Dialogue, a virtue of effective leadership.

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