How to Practice Constructive Dialogue

Alison Granger-Brown

dialogue, constructive dialogue, conversation, leadership, open minded, communication

In this time of protests, riots, political divide, and COVID-19 related stress, we are likely to find ourselves having difficult conversations with people who disagree with our views on these global and life-changing events. How can we avoid the pitfalls that take us from open dialogue into dispute?

When opening a workshop, I start by saying, “The best learning we will have today is when anyone says, ‘Can we discuss your last point as I don’t agree?’ or ‘I have a different opinion.’” Participants often look at me blankly, but I believe it is the most influential statement as it communicates the idea that we are all learning together – or at least we should be.

Voicing and Listening

What is our expression climate today? What can we voice openly? I am not talking about being politically correct – I’m talking about crafting and stating our opinion openly and respectfully in any public forum and then listening openly to the response. The question is whether this is being eroded by what some scholars say is an ever-increasing divide between conservative and liberal ideology, masculine or feminine perspectives, religious differences, and so on.

Are we forgetting how to listen to understand? Are we only listening so we can respond by trying to convince or persuade? We must stay in open dialogue with each other. This means practicing open inquiry, especially with people who do not share our political, social, religious, and/or other beliefs. We must all contribute to and create settings where people can feel safe to share their truth and avoid self-censorship.

How can we avoid the pitfalls that take us from dialogue into dispute?

Learning to Listen Deeply

An Indigenous Elder taught me that any important discussion should be held in a circle so that everyone can see each other, and open communication increases as a result. They also shared that the circle is not finished until the person with the opinion 180 degrees from the majority has been heard. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to create safety for people to take the risk of sharing a different idea, solution, or opinion. Only when these new or perhaps oppositional thoughts, ideas, or perspectives are considered can we find innovative ways of solving old issues.

In an organizational setting, nurturing constructive disagreement and avoiding self-censorship should be of great concern to leaders as it results in reduced potential for creative solutions and can erode the emotional well-being of employees.

Leaders must find ways to demonstrate that it is possible to reach different conclusions from the same set of facts or that there are some facts people simply haven’t considered. Understanding this is an essential skill for any democratic setting be it a family, business, or nation. Living in a democracy is not about sharing a common national agreement – it is a social structure that believes in living together despite our disagreements.

The ability to take the perspective of someone you disagree with and examine the nuances within important social discussions has immense value and can be learned. It is also a significant indicator of high emotional intelligence. Leaders are responsible for teaching these skills that create safe and open organizational climates that nurture honest, respectful, and innovative thought sharing. They need to model ethical, respectful, and open interpersonal receptiveness.

Four Tips for Practicing Open Dialogue

  • Interpersonal receptiveness signals that a person is truly interested in another’s perspective and actually increases the ability to influence and persuade. Receptive language acknowledges differing views and is contagious, making those you disagree with more receptive in return.
  • State your opinion with some uncertainty and express some openness and possibility for another idea. This tentativeness invites the listener to respond with their contribution.
  • Add to the point made by the other person rather than negating their position. Inviting an alternative concept by making your addition to the conversation using “and” rather than “but” prevents refuting everything that was already said. Rather use positive terms about what is possible as opposed to what isn’t.
  • Take a neutral, third-party position in order to prevent your emotions from overriding your objective thought process. A neutral third party wants the best for both people – try to imagine how you can view both arguments and perspectives from this position.

Open dialogue is a balanced, two-way verbal interaction used to increase and share knowledge. A dispute is more likely to become imbalanced and can quickly lead to conflict. Stay in open dialogue with each other to avoid disputes and bridge the divide.


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Author: Alison Granger-Brown
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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