Communicating Through Dialogue

Today I attended a “Learning and Development” seminar at CMU that I had signed up for several weeks ago. I’ve enjoyed attending many of these seminars in the past years. The one I attended today was “Communicating Through Dialogue”, by Ron Placone (many of whose seminars on other topics I’ve attended).

By sheer coincidence, this seminar, which I had registered for just out of curiosity long ago, was just what I needed at this very moment in my life!

It turns out that right now, there is a situation in which I need to know how to communicate well to work effectively with someone toward a common goal. Our collaboration in the past has left something to be desired, and this time we want to move forward in a clear way. We are going to talk on Thursday.


In the seminar, I learned that a fundamental barrier in effective communication is taking a “debate” attitude, in which we not only believe we are absolutely right, but also try to force the other side to adopt our point of view and implement it; the entire goal of anything that we say is to put forth arguments, probe for weaknesses, and try to win.

We all know this combative attitude can lead to defensiveness and deadlock, yet it is a very obvious way in which we often function. Is there a different way?

Apparently, some people in the business world have created a whole discipline devoted to something specifically called “dialogue”. “Dialogue” differs from “discussion” in that “discussion” has the intentions of telling, persuading, and figuring out who is right and settling on that, while “dialogue” has the intentions of learning, discovering, and integrating perspectives. It is not aimed at immediately making a decision.


In the seminar we received many handouts from various sources concerning this whole notion of “dialogue”. Curiously, I could find no comprehensive web site online from these sources. Our longest handout was printed off the web in 2005 (!) from a web site that no longer exists and was an excerpt from writings by Glenna Gerard and Linda Ellinor. I looked up these authors and found their book “Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation”, published in 1998 and now apparently out of print. (By the way, thanks to the Firefox plug-in for, I was able to see that my favorite library has this book, so I clicked directly from the Amazon page to put it on hold!)

A web search for the text in the handout for “the six basic rules of dialogue” turned up this page by Robert Rosell. Here are the six rules in the handout and on that web site:

  1. Be open and suspend judgment; don’t disparage other points of view.

  2. Keep dialogue and decision-making separate; dialogue precedes decision-making, negotiation or action.

  3. Speak for yourself, not as a representative, and treat all participants as peers.

  4. Listen with empathy; acknowledging you have heard others and that you care.

  5. Look for common ground; identifying areas where you agree.

  6. Search for and disclose hidden assumptions; especially in yourself.

My reaction

I have to confess that a lot of the material we received seemed very New Agey. Maybe that’s why it seems no longer in vogue in the business world since first introduced, and I couldn’t find a lot of prominent web search hits on the topic.

Nevertheless, I don’t discount something just because it’s New Agey. I am totally an opportunist in my life. Over the years, I have cherry-picked ideas and techniques for everything in life from whatever sources, and if they work, I keep and use them, and if they don’t, I just throw them away. (I’ve thrown quite a few away.)

All I know is that just reflecting on the “six basic rules of dialogue”, and how easily I can break all six rules without even knowing it, I felt calmer and more ready to prepare for and be committed to a win-win dialogue for Thursday.

Thank you, Ron, for introducing me to this fascinating approach to communication!

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