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Have you ever seen the concept of “High Quality Dialogue” used as an idealized way of having discussions?

Quick google search reveals that this concept is used to refer to the discussions between manager and employees, parents and children, spouses – and generally between professionals. I have seen this concept and many others similar to it used in organizational HR policies. They are used as a vehicle to persuade people to pay attention on how we talk to each others in our work, especially in some formal, professional situations.

This is a no-brainer really, as in the world of knowledge-work this is essentially what we do. We discuss with people day-in, day-out. However, it is interesting to note how little focus there is to really understand what is happening in dialogue. There is an underlying assumption that it is enough to just decide that one will have a “high quality dialogue”. If we just select the right kind of attitude and behavior and stick with it, we will reach that idealized dialogue.

The google search shows that required attitude would include e.g. following behaviors:
– Expressing opinions honestly in response to what others have said
– Listening attentively to what others have said and responding empathetically
– Responding in ways that show an effort to understand others
– Responding in ways that show openness and a willingness to learn 
Some other common attitudes I have seen linked to quality dialogues are:
-Listening more carefully what the other person is saying instead of running our own agenda
-Fighting against our urge to dominate/withdraw from the discussion
-Acting “professionally”, putting the company goals before our personal goals

I will challenge this view. First of all, I think it is simply not possible for people to change their thinking and acting in discussions just by making a decision to do so. Furthermore, even if it would be possible to change the attitude, I would argue the result wouldn’t be “high quality dialogue” – quite contrary. Attempts to follow some predefined rules in the dialogue will make the participant less able to respond freely. In fact, I would argue that this is the real goal of these kind of rules – to make us less responsive. If we are less responsive we can better act out the role of emphatic, understanding, civilized discusser. But the prize is that we will lose our spontaneous responsiveness, which is actually the key element of reflexivity.

Dialogue as a cocktail

Dialogue cocktailIn order to understand dialogue and reflexivity, for me it has been helpful to think about dialogue as a cocktail. It includes three parts of listening and one part of talking:
1) First part is listening what the other person is saying (verbal and non-verbal)
2) Second part is listening what you are saying yourself (verbal and non-verbal) – this is also the one part of talking
3) Third part is listening what is happening in your inner dialogue (verbal, emotional, physical)

We all do this naturally, but in my experience it is possible to be more aware of this process and thus focus more attention on these different parts of the cocktail. However, I don’t want to say anything about how one should respond to these gestures one is more aware of. That is totally dependent on the particular situation. It is through reflexivity that one can know what to do. The goal of this receipt is just to make some aspects of the reflexivity more transparent.

Dialogue is a reflexive process

So, dialogue is a skill of reflexivity. It is possible to study the dynamics of dialogue and different ways to look at it and how to affect it’s course (e.g. social constructionism, pragmatism, rhetorics, parrhesia), but it is only through reflexivity that a person can know how to respond in particular moment of the evolving dialogue. And it is only through responses (both in the inner dialogue and in the outer one) that a person can understand what was the meaning of his response.

There is no way to create simple rules to achieve something called “High Quality Dialogue”. Dialogue is a joint effort of multiple people and they all contribute to it. There is no way to know for sure how it evolves, and there is no way to fully control it. Furthermore, what is good quality for one participant might be bad quality to others.

In order to get better in the art of dialogue, one has to work in reflexive processes. In practice this might include working with experts of dialogue, participating different kinds of groups, analyzing the dialogues by reflexive writing, discussing about what happened in the dialogues –  in short, having lots of dialogues about dialogues. It is a road that takes many years and still every new dialogue is a mystery that might require one to let go of his knowledge and skills and just go with the flow.