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The Power of Dialogue
By Scott Morrell

Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, experiences and history about a subject at hand.  This unique combination of thoughts and feelings make up our personal core values.  These core values usually motivate and propel our actions.  It often defines who we are and what we believe.  These core values may define where we draw a line in the sand in life and at work.  However, enter a conversation with another person who has their own values, feelings, experiences, history and where they draw a line in the sand, and there’s bound to be some conflict.  And if you’re around each other enough, more than likely, at some point a conversation may turn crucial.


How do we keep these crucial conversations from turning ugly?  Dialogue!

When the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions start to run strong, casual conversations transform into crucial ones. And, ironically, the more crucial the conversation, the less likely we are to handle it well. Why? Because our emotions hijack our normal rational mind. And then it’s our negative expression of emotions that generally get us in trouble. (Expression of emotions is not bad.)

How Do We Dialogue?

Dialogue is the free flow of relevant information where people are openly and honestly expressing their opinions and sharing their feelings.  Sounds easy.  But we all know it’s not an easy task when conversations become crucial.  Because we don’t feel safe and secure we often want to fight or take flight.  So how do we encourage the flow of dialogue in the face of differing opinions and possibly strong emotions?   Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler (2012) in Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High say one of the best places to start is with yourself.


Focus on Yourself

One of the first steps to achieving the results we want is to fix the problem of believing that others are the source of all that ails us.  It’s easy to put the blame on someone else, but putting the blame on someone else keeps us from taking action that could lead to progress.  And where is that most relevant in my own life right now?  With my teenage daughter. 


My daughter has been blessed the gift of being strong-willed since the day she refused to take a bottle from me as a newborn.  She is an independent thinker that usually has a snide comeback in conversations.  And I can find myself wanting to put on those boxing gloves so quickly.  After all, I am the parent!  Shouldn’t I have the final say?  But as many times as I would like to preach to her, I know the end result will not change her behavior. Why?


The simple fact of the matter is that we can’t change others! We can only create the conditions for change or invite them to change themselves.  Real, transformative change has to come from a desire within.  The only person you can ultimately change is yourself.  I can’t change my daughter’s actions, but I can focus on making my dialogue with her as positive and effective as possible because she is watching. What do I want to role model to her?  Do I want to role model effective communication or a blow-up?  Do I want to model patience or impatience?


As much as we may think others need to change, or we may want them to change, the only person we can continually inspire, prod and shape-with any degree of success-is the person in the mirror.  In my role coaching clients, the most dramatic change comes for those who are intrinsically motivated to change, have the capacity to change and will partner with me on a plan to change.  Why?  Those clients realize that not only are they likely to benefit by improving their own approach, but they know that they’re the only person they can work on anyway.


Focus on What You Really Want

When we’re under attack, our motives can take a sudden and unconscious turn.  When faced with pressure and strong opinions, we often start looking for ways to win, punish or keep the peace.  What’s the result of these actions?  Unhealthy dialogue!  As soon as we position ourselves against the other person, our dialogue becomes unhealthy. 


So, what can we do when we feel those emotions rising up in us in the midst of crucial conversations?  Pause and ask:

  • What does my behavior tell me about what my motives are?
  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship? 

Once you’ve asked these, ask one more:

  • How would I behave if this is really what I want?

As we learn to change our own emotions, not only do we change how we see those around us, we learn to change our own lives as well. These questions help us find our bearings and help us access what’s most important when we find ourselves in a crucial conversation.  Is it to win or is it the relationship? In the case of my daughter, I choose the relationship.