Dialogue and Effective Listening



In today’s flattened organizations, leaders must figure out how to bring out the best in their staff. They must enable people to work together in a highly collaborative, coordinated and creative fashion, without the need for constant heavy-handed, external controls. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs suggests “Dialogue achieves this by deepening the glue that links people together. This “glue” is the genuine shared meaning and common understanding already present in a group of people. From shared meaning, shared action arises.”

We will examine effective listening, for it is the cornerstone of dialogue. Without the ability to listen, collaboration cannot be born or sustained.

The Art of Listening

Listening means knowing what others have said and meant to say and leaving them comfortable that they have had their say. Most of us know at least some techniques of good listening. The problem is we all listen well only when we want to or have to. What we need to learn is how to listen when we don’t want to. (Leadership Architect, Lominger Ltd.)

  • Has anyone ever complimented or thanked you for listening?
  • Have you ever met anyone who didn’t want to be listened to?
  • How do people know you are listening?
  • How do people know you have understood them?

Listening is an act of respect and of valuing. Conversely, not listening is a sign of arrogance, impatience and insensitivity.

“To listen deeply and fully to another requires attention and internal silence to listen from a position of neutrality and detachment with a willingness to consider all perspectives.” (Ellinor & Gerard) Internal conversation, mental & emotional state, beliefs, and mood often make it difficult to create and maintain a focus on what the other person is saying.

Defensive listening is a survival mechanism based on fear and is very limiting. It comes from trying to discover: how to fit in, how to keep our job, to learn about how to deliver what someone expects, to figure out who has power, or to anticipate possible danger. This is where judging and sorting the useful from garbage, the good from the bad originates.

The following are some practices suggested by Isaacs for improving our listening:

  1. Be aware of our own thoughts and feelings- know that much of our reaction to others comes from memory, it is stored reaction, not fresh response.
  2. Stick to the facts – have I jumped to conclusions based on assumptions or beliefs?
  3. Follow the disturbances – learn to listen for the sources of difficulty, whether in yourself or others. Ask reflective questions about them. Listen for gaps in consistency and congruency.
  4. Listen without resistance – become conscious of the ways we project our opinions about others onto them, how we colour and distort what is said without realizing it.
  5. Stand still – be still and silent in ourselves.

Coaching Questions to Stimulate Reflection About Your Life & Work

  • Who do you listen to? Why? What benefits do you gain?
  • Who don’t you listen to? Why?
  • What factors account for the difference? Some examples: level, age, skills, smarts, like/dislike, gender, race, direction (listen up, not down?), setting, situation, your needs, time available, people who have something to offer/or not. people you need/don’t need.