Communication in the workplace has to do with how we interact with our colleagues on many different levels simultaneously. It has to do with how we plan and convey the messages we want to give, both verbally and nonverbally; and with how we listen to, interpret, and respond to others’ messages.
And one way to characterize the successful execution of this is to say that we’ve engaged in effective dialogue.
We can call these interactions many things, of course: discussions, conversations, arguments, etc. – but I quite like the term ‘dialogue’ as it’s defined in Clutterbuck’s (2007) book, Coaching the Team at Work. Here he defines it as “approaching an issue with as open a mind as possible, with a view to understanding other people’s perspectives and perhaps creating a new perspective”.
This is a pretty powerful definition, I think. It highlights the fact that we all have our different viewpoints, values, and beliefs that have been shaped by everything we’ve ever experienced – and that we carry these with us everywhere we go, into every interaction we have.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it can be a dangerous thing if we don’t recognize it and deal with it appropriately. It’s important to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the fact that we are coming from a very different place in many ways from the person sitting across the table from us – and vica-versa. With an open mind we can embrace our differences as well as our similarities; and we can identify and capitalize on the unique experiences that everybody brings to the table.
And, as Clutterbuck points out, we have the opportunity to shape these diverse perspectives into a new perspective.
I believe that these “new perspectives” should be the primary goal of dialogue. They can serve as the underlying philosophy that creates and guides a more effective culture for the partnership or team. (Because culture happens everywhere, all the time; with or without our conscious input. So we really should be proactive about it.)
Culture is a word we use to explain how we see and do things together. It speaks to our collective understandings about the explicit and implicit rules, roles, expectations, and protocols that govern how we approach problems together and how we interact with one another. If not handled actively, honestly, and purposefully, we leave the culture that develops to chance. And as we all know, that can be an ugly thing.
So the bottom line is that we can, and should, take charge of shaping our culture – and that we can do so by learning to engage in effective dialogue. It starts with cultivating our own sense of self-awareness; and it continues by keeping an open mind in trying to understand and integrate the healthiest and most helpful viewpoints, values, and beliefs of all involved.