At the risk of stating the obvious, our choice of words, tone, pitch, and jargon influences others’ perception of, and receptivity to, our message.
Of course, when we have been tactless (often inadvertently), or worse, have offended the other party, everything we say to them subsequently is coloured by their associating us with a ‘negative’ tone. This may mean that they can no longer register the validity of the points we are making.
Skill in managing relationships without offending or upsetting people is widely recognised as a key leadership quality. Diplomatic speech is one part of that skill, and similar standards apply regardless of the ‘status’ or role of the person we are speaking with.
The way we engage in dialogue is determined primarily by our intentions. Depending on the desired outcome, dialogue can be constructive or damaging. Making a deliberate choice in favour of respectful dialogue is a key determinant in achieving a positive result. A simplified illustration of the range of positive and negative intentions we choose between is provided below.
Derived from the Greek ‘dialogos‘ (through words), dialogue is only one of a number of ways we use words to exchange meaning with each other. While it ostensibly refers to communications between two parties, it is a term we happily apply to any verbal (and non-verbal) exchange involving two or more participants. Other terms such as ‘trialogue’ (three-way exchange), ‘quadrilogue’ (four-way exchange), and ‘multilogue’ (many-to-many exchange e.g. social media) exist, but it seems we generally prefer to use ‘dialogue’ as a substitute. (See header image above).
Some distinctions have been drawn in previous posts between types of discourse and types of hearing (see links below). In one of those posts, ‘dialogue’ was highlighted as one of four deliberative styles (diatribe, debate, discourse, and dialogue), however, the distinctions between different types of dialogue were not referenced. This post now seeks to draw some of those distinctions, chiefly relying on differences in the context of the exchanges and the intentions of the participants.
Self-evidently, many purposes are served by dialogue and communication. For example, dialogue in a non-profit organisation can seek to discover the truth, conduct better research, improve services through stakeholder engagement, or reach a consensus in a social or institutional setting. It can be conducted informally and privately, or more formally in the presence of others, some of whom may themselves be participants. Depending on how it is conducted, of course, it can also serve to confirm and support the existing power dynamics.
Some readers may have noted the absence of strategic dialogue from the above typology. This omission is intentional, as it is a term normally reserved for communications about defence and intelligence matters. Consequently, I suggest that non-profits engaging in dialogue about their organisational strategies are using deliberative and/or generative dialogue.
Apart from the various names we give to different types of dialogue, we also use various adjectives. Common collocations (words that are paired with one another) of dialogue are listed below.
In mentoring, dialogue is used as a reflective tool in which the parties act as sounding boards for each other. If one party is directing the other in some way, then perhaps the relationship should be described as coaching, or even supervision.
Mentors do ask questions, of course, intended to aid reflection by the mentee. Hopefully, they allow for more than one correct answer though and respect the autonomy of the mentee.
The dialogical self
Dialogical self-theory is an interesting concept, as it goes beyond the self-other dichotomy to see the self as ‘a society of mind’. In this way, the self is extended beyond internal positions to accommodate external positions as well. This recognises the mind’s ability to imagine the different positions of participants in an internal dialogue, in close connection with external dialogue.
The theory also considers that processes such as self-conflicts, self-criticism, and self-agreements occur within separate internal aspects or domains of the self. These processes are not symptoms of multiple personality disorder, but rather a recognition that we each perform different roles and have evolved (and continue to evolve) various personas to deal with them.
Our sense of personal identity is moderated and adjusted moment by moment according to the context in which we find ourselves. When at work, we prioritise positions and perspectives associated with our role/s. When in social or family settings, we prioritise perspectives according to the relationships and values appropriate to those contexts. Sometimes the self-narratives we use employ multiple perspectives, which may be either opposed to each other or complementary.
Your dialogue repertoire
Recognising the availability of many styles of dialogue, and that we each have the power to choose the tone of our interactions with internal and external stakeholders, is a key step towards improving our leadership skills. When we see others as worthy of respect, even when they are adversarial, we can both act with integrity and increase the likelihood of a win/win outcome.