How Can Organizations and Leaders Harness the Power of Dialogue?
This question is one that is asked time and time again by those in leadership and has been answered by many authors in various ways. In her book Transformative Conversations, Dr. Ada Gonzalez answers this question with a detailed answer. Weaving wisdom from many sources, Dr. Gonzalez makes a case for the value of engaging in effective dialogue and gives the reader clear guidance about how they can harness the power of dialogue to ignite the level of engagement and commitment needed to accomplish their own business priorities and goals.
After reading the book, I realized that every leader—from those just starting out to those in the c-suite—would benefit from her practical wisdom and useful guidance about how to have more meaningful and deeper conversations. Over the course of the next two posts, I will introduce you to Dr. Ada Gonzalez and share with you our conversation about the power of true dialogue.
Dr. Ada Gonzalez is an executive coach, facilitator, and consultant in organizational development. She translates theory and research findings into practice in day-to-day activities, supporting business strategy and results. In addition to undergraduate and graduate work at Andrews University in Michigan, she earned her Ph.D. at the Union Institute and University on Organizational Behavior, with an emphasis on leadership, dialogue, and change. She is currently working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.
THE INTERVIEW: PART ONE
How did your background and experience impact your thinking about how important conversation and language are?
As everybody can tell the moment I open my mouth, I was not born in the United States. I was born and raised in Cuba. Most Cubans are talkers! Picture this: Evenings on the porch. It seems so simple, but it’s one of my fondest memories of childhood in Cuba. After dinner, it was common to melt into those squeaky rocking chairs, on our porch or on the neighbor’s porch. It didn’t matter where. What mattered was the conversation that swirled around those rockers. I loved listening in as my parents and friends shared stories, traded recipes, told tales, and gave advice. It was a free—and often entertaining—education in business, politics, religion, health, love, and life. I was hooked. My lifelong fascination with conversation was off and running.
But it also has to do with growing up in communist Cuba. I had no freedom of expression; publishing anything required approval, and in school, teachers wanted to hear only official answers. I couldn’t say anything critical to authority figures. It was stifling. My mouth was in prison. I suspect government officials feared freedom of expression—maybe they realized the power of dialogue, or perhaps they knew it would bring people together and expand possibilities for creating meaning and change.
That’s a big reason why I so love the freedom of speech and open conversations. When I left Cuba in 1970, it was a delight to communicate freely. I studied everything I could on the topics of effective and open communication, change, and leadership. I was in love with communication.
But first, I had to conquer the language. When I started college, I did not know any English, and my mouth was in prison again—only this time because I couldn’t communicate in English. But, of course, even though I’ve never gotten my accent right, eventually, I was able to have freedom of expression again. This experience increased my love of conversations and language even more. This affection spurred me to eventually earn a doctoral degree in organizational behavior. I was sure everyone must share my passion for speaking freely and exchanging ideas. Or so I thought.
Imagine my shock as I began to work with executives whose sentiments toward communication mirrored those of the communist government I had left behind in Cuba. Was I hearing them correctly? How could this happen in a country that had—and prized—freedom of speech? I realized that authoritarian leaders, whether in government or companies, create a logjam in the free flow of communication. Not surprisingly, these companies were the same ones to struggle with quality control and profitability. A suppressive environment is not conducive to dialogue—it leaves a slim chance for positive results.
That’s why I’m so passionate about facilitating transformative conversations.
How do transformative conversations benefit and support a leader’s excellence?
Poet and Fortune 500 consultant David Whyte said, “The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversations real.” Transformative conversations save money, foster collaboration among team members and across the organization, fosters creativity and innovation, cross cultures, and increase productivity. It helps the leader to connect and to influence.
Leadership is about creating opportunities for conversation. Talk may be cheap, but the genuine dialogue is priceless. Your leadership voice shows itself in every conversation, interaction, and thought exchange, both verbal and written. It takes a free-spirited conversation to generate smart ideas, influence others, and creatively solve problems. The quality of the conversations you facilitate shapes the quality of your interpersonal relationships and, ultimately, the organizational culture. It all happens through conversation.
Why are old–school conversations important in today’s technology-driven environment?
Old-fashioned conversations are worth their weight in gold. The multidimensional nature of today’s work requires more sophisticated and deliberate levels of communication than ever before. Though texting has its benefits, it leaves a lot to chance.
And because of the latter, what do we risk losing if those conversations slowly dissipate?
We can lose social cues, real emotions, and therefore opportunities for innovation and for building consensus.
Throughout history, dialogue has been a lens into differing cultures. Can you share some examples of how different cultures have used dialogue?
Throughout the ages, indigenous cultures have practiced the art of dialogue by sitting in a circle and talking. History often refers to council circles, women’s circles, elders’ circles, and campfire circles. It’s where stories are told and retold, where meanings evolve. Whether in the Americas, Africa, Iceland, Ireland, Australia, the Pacific Islands, or any other pocket of the globe, dialogue circles were the cradle of systems, civilizations, and organized society.
According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the world itself sprang forth as a result of a dialogue among the members of the Triune God (Genesis 1). It was the Word of God that converted God’s plan into action (Genesis 1). Later, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the Word incarnate, who is both God the Creator and God made flesh. By discarding his hierarchical robes and becoming the “light” that “shines in the darkness,” Jesus initiates making God known through a dialogue that is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-18).
Jesus was in dialogue with individuals of all walks of life: men and women, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, uneducated fishermen and doctors of the law, sick and whole, believers and nonbelievers, criminals and soldiers. He taught through stories, metaphors, and questions. Jesus was a master at introducing openings for conversations to occur.
Following Jesus’ example, Christians through the ages have opened up a dialogue among people and have held the ideals of equality and collaboration. For example, in the dark history of slavery in our country, although some Christians misused the Bible to protect slavery, many others opened their homes and their hearts to runaway slaves. And the abolition of slavery came about as a result of many controversial conversations not only at the highest levels but also throughout the entire country.
The importance of dialogue can be seen through the lens of cultures far and wide. The Greeks saw dialogue as the cornerstone of civic practice, inseparable from self-governing. Their capacity for exchanging ideas among themselves established the foundation for democracy. Many present-day words and concepts about dialogue originated from the Greeks. One could argue that early American settlers’ desire for freedom of expression emanated from ancient Greece.
The settlers’ harrowing journey to the shores of the New World created a rich environment for dialogue as they communicated their most cherished beliefs, values, and traditions. Trust was central to their dialogue, as they wanted to share openly without fear of being condemned as dangerous or criminal.
Upon their arrival, the American settlers survived and thrived by making meaning together. This included exploring the New World’s possibilities, overcoming its challenges, and making better decisions as a unit than they could have as individuals. Sewing circles, correspondence committees, and tavern talks were the womb that nurtured and eventually gave birth to the American Revolution for Independence. Just as the ancient Greeks used dialogue to create a democracy, the settlers made meaning together in conversation, which led to the birth of a nation.
Dialogue is as critical in the present world as it was for the ancient Greeks and early settlers. Dialogue is central to life. Being alive requires it. To live requires asking questions, responding, agreeing, disagreeing, and offering feedback and opinions. It’s ironic, then, that today’s society seems to challenge its merit.
Today’s tendency to diminish conversation is a challenge. Can society thrive without conversations, the essential glue that has always bound cultures? Renewal can only be achieved through dialogue. The Greeks needed it. The settlers needed it. Today’s fragmented society certainly needs renewal through dialogue. It’s the best way to keep democratic principles alive and ensure forward movement.
Can you share with us what leading with your “social brain” means?
Social neuroscience suggests the human brain is a social organ, always connecting to other brains. Your brain has a neural infrastructure of social connection: it’s called attunement and empathy. When you show empathy, understanding, and willingness to listen to diverse opinions, the mirror neurons of other brains will follow suit.
Mirror neurons are a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement. When you smile and conduct business in a kind, ethical manner, chances are the mirror neurons of team members will elicit a similar response. That’s why a leader needs to lead by example.
Attunement has to do with opening your mind to the influence and wisdom of others. The most powerful, profound changes will result when all of the brains in the group are in sync. Diverse minds offer diverse ways of thinking and creating. Brains firing together also help prevent oversights and mistakes. This kind of neurodiversity is critical for change to occur. This leadership model requires you to promote idea-sharing rather than rely on what you “know.”
You’ll be most successful when you believe and acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. Wider perspectives will allow ideas to emerge naturally, resulting in a rich array of solutions and strategies. True wisdom arises not only from personal intellect but also from a larger source within each person: it manifests in the collective social brain.
Brains that think together bond together. Your role is to facilitate the interaction of the brains around you. Don’t just make people feel they are part of the business—make them part of the growing and evolving future business, from planning to implementation. Their brains will bond, and the reward will be a positive and productive environment.
Why don’t all organizations harness the power of dialogue?
For the most part, it is because they have the false idea that there’s not enough time and space for dialogue. Many don’t offer an environment where people feel safe to speak, and often leaders don’t encourage open communication or value collaboration. Employees may talk to each other, but that’s not true dialogue. For ideas to flow freely, dialogue must occur.
And how important is it to master this as they go forward?
Human beings evolve, and organizations change. Dialogue provides the springboard for this transformation, and it allows individuals to overcome their fears, gain confidence, and release the creative energy required for new and innovative ideas to flow. If you want to create a team that responds to challenges with agility—which this new century requires—you need to master dialogue.
The success of your efforts is directly linked to employee buy-in. Individuals involved in the design of a new idea are more likely to take ownership of it. Their vested interest will fuel their imagination for the future, and they will find ways to make that future happen.
Discuss the differences between dialogue and discussion? How can we tell when a conversation is moving from one to the other?
People tend to use the words “dialogue” and “discussion” interchangeably, but their meanings are quite different. Dialogue suggests a stream of meaning flowing among, through, and between people. This makes it possible for new understanding to emerge. In dialogue, groups make meaning together.
Discussion, on the other hand, is to shake apart what others say. In a discussion, we break things down, fragment the whole, analyze the pieces, and compete to convince others of our insights. Everyone hastily offers viewpoints, while people involved in the discussion don’t actually listen or attempt to understand. They only listen to prepare counterarguments. Here’s the difference:
- Starts with listening
- It is about speaking with…
- Focuses on insights
- Is Collaborative
- Generates ideas
- Encourages reflection
- Promotes emergence
- Starts with talking
- Is about talking to…
- Focuses on differences
- Is adversarial
- Generates conflict
- Encourages quick thinking
- Promotes lock-in
Discussions don’t bring understanding or foster learning, as you’ve likely observed in too many meetings. As one side throws a viewpoint across the table, the other retorts with a counter position, and back and forth, it goes like a Ping-Pong match. By contrast, dialogue encourages meaning to emerge and leaves people feeling connected and energized rather than frustrated and angry.
If you’d like to purchase Dr. Gonzalez’s book, please visit Amazon by clicking here.
For Part Two of my interview with Dr. Gonzalez, click here.