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Guess what I’m talking about:
We start at 9 am and finish at 11 am.
At 11 am, I know even better what I already thought at 9 am, and so do you!
We spent 2 hours presenting arguments to illustrate our positions.
We defended our positions with reasoning and were very creative in coming up with new arguments to support our own standpoint.

In essence, we usually entrenched ourselves even deeper into our position and thus the perspective from which we perceive. We use many words, there is a lot of talking over each other, many sentences start with ‘yes, but’, making statements, …

What is this? –>A discussion.

Discussion is often used as a defense mechanism because, deep down, we are afraid that there might be other possibilities than the ones we see. That we might be wrong, or that there could be multiple ways to reach a goal, shaking our own certainties. A discussion is usually nothing more than an exchange of opinions.

Do you recognize this? Just think about the endless discussions about Covid. The differences of opinion and the hardening of conversations and relationships when it comes to this topic. We conclude that the other person doesn’t see it correctly, is misinformed, or whatever, and we stick to our own standpoint.

But it can also happen in meetings. Everyone expresses their opinion, we entrench ourselves, and at the end of the discussion, we decide, for example, that we need to look into this more or think about it more. As if we haven’t done enough of that already! …And we haven’t made any progress.
I often facilitate teams, for example, in brainstorming a new strategy or a new reward structure. I was with an executive team of a very competitive organization recently. They wanted to discuss a reward structure; in essence, this turned into a competitive discussion. I felt like they thought they were in a courtroom and wanted to win a plea. They bombarded each other with arguments. They interrupted each other, added more ‘fuel to the fire’; voices were raised, etc. Result: no new reward structure. Sometimes collaboration within teams doesn’t go smoothly. I start by discussing ‘why things are the way they are?’ In the conversation that follows, emotions often run high as people try to convince each other of their own views or correctness. My question then is: does communication normally go about like this? The answer is usually “yes.” Clearly, a discussion, trying to convince each other, entrenching ourselves in our own thoughts and beliefs, gaining no new insights, and not coming closer to one another…

Second riddle. What am I talking about now? 
We start our conversation at 9 am, and at 11 am, we are done.
At 11 am, I understand what you intend and what your arguments are, and you know mine!
We both gained new insights on the subject.
We spent 2 hours trying to understand each other.
We listened and asked questions for clarification.
We understand each other’s interests.
We came up with ideas.
Or we tried to suggest alternatives to see if we can collectively arrive at a new perspective.

What is this? -> A dialogue. (And yes…the result can be synergy.)

In a true dialogue, it goes beyond understanding each other’s perspectives and opinions. In an optimal dialogue, you are willing to let go of your certainties. Letting go of certainties is not something you do lightly. It is always a vulnerable and emotional process.
Skilled conversational partners will make each other feel safe and provide space. They do this by fully and visibly focusing their attention on the other person and listening without judgment. They maintain good eye contact and do not react immediately to what the other person says, let alone come with counterarguments. They ask open questions out of curiosity for new information and with the genuine intention of truly understanding the other person. By allowing pauses, they provide processing time and prevent premature conclusions.
A good dialogue almost creates a merging of two minds. An exciting adventure of new ideas emerges, or during a dialogue, we get to the heart of the matter and can start finding solutions to the right problem.

In a discussion, we remain stuck in our own position and paradigms. We think win-lose. We are right, and the other person is not. We see it correctly, and the other person does not. We hide behind our own wall. Empathic listening helps us delve into the other person. Many see empathic listening as a trick; as technical listening  listen, summarize, ask. But then the wall is still there. To break down your own wall, you must temporarily set aside your judgment, opinion, interest, or idea. It feels vulnerable, but it can broaden your perspective, enrich you, and bring you closer together.

In a coaching conversation recently, a manager brought up that one of his employees was not carrying out some tasks. Whatever he did: explain, demonstrate, send templates, and so on, nothing changed. I asked him: what do you do in such a case? He said he often just did it himself because it had to be done, and ultimately, he would be held accountable for it. I asked him if he knew why the employee kept postponing it. Surprised, he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Instead of explaining how to do it and getting into the details, you can also ask ‘how come you haven’t been able to do it yet? What could happen if you ask that? After a short pause he stated: “Then I have a completely different conversation. Then I might understand what happens and what’s on his mind and we come to the heart of the issue. And I might really be able to help him.”

The only thing the manager has to do is to start a real dialogue; put aside his assumptions and judgments and show genuine interest in what moves the employee or what he encounters. In short:

Try to initiate a good dialogue. See if, afterwards, you know more; understand each other better; have come closer to each other; found a better solution; or come up with a better plan/idea. I would love to hear or read about your experiences in the comments.