Create Meaningful Dialogue: Eliminating Roadblocks to Communication

October 14, 2015

creating dialogue

If your team is experiencing problems in performance, the source could be a lack of meaningful communication. Emotional intelligence expert and esteemed author Daniel Goleman recently sat down with AMA to discuss how to improve your staff communication, and what obstacles you need to overcome.

AMA: Daniel, you’ve mentioned in the past that one of the most common vulnerabilities among organizations is communication. Why are there so many disruptions of communication in today’s workplace?

DG: The role of a leader includes managing and enhancing dialogue, and many leaders today aren’t addressing organizational weaknesses that lead to dialogue breakdowns. It stops teams from connecting, increases workplace conflict, and halts important projects in their tracks.

Not long ago, I spoke with my colleague George Kohlrieser, a professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), one of the world’s leading business schools. We discussed what gets in the way of healthy, worthwhile dialogue, the type that ensures that meaningful work gets done and projects remain on course.

We found that dialogue allows participants to discover greater truths, whether it be between two people or more. However, too often these sides exhibit behavior that blocks dialogue from occurring.

AMA: Are there any particular methods or types of behavior that are more commonly found to block dialogue from taking place?

DG: There are many different ways this can take place, and we can categorize them into primary and secondary blocks. The primary blocks are passivity, discounting, redefining, over-detailing, and what we call “The Four Sentence Rule.” The secondary blocks are generalization, rationalization, exaggeration, and a lack of honesty. While those certainly play a role, the blocks I tend to focus on are the primary blocks.

  1. Passivity occurs when one party is not engaged. It is simple and reasonable that if one party is passive, a real dialogue cannot take place.
  2. Discounting is when parties disrespect or put down each other in a conversation. This discounts the other party and changes the tone of the conversation, from a respectful dialogue to a hostile confrontation.
  3. Redefining is a block that takes place when a question is not answered or is avoided, and therefore the transaction is redefined. This has to do with reacting more to the tone or method of the question, rather than the substance.
  4. Over-detailing is when more details are given than necessary, and people begin to lose focus of the main message.
  5. Finally, the four sentence rule is the maximum attention someone can maintain in a conversation. Anything more than that and you’ve most likely lost their focus.

AMA: So now that we’ve identified the major primary and secondary roadblocks, how can we avoid them to create a truly meaningful dialogue?

DG: For each block, there are several practices that will mitigate these problems. To avoid passivity, prepare yourself to be fully present for a dialogue. Put your phone away, make eye contact, and focus on what the person is saying, not what you’re preparing to say yourself. To avoid discounting, plan your words carefully and think about your tone. Crafting your responses carefully can avoid having your message discounted.

If you don’t want your conversation to be redefined, think about your tone as well and be aware of your mindset. If you’re angry or frustrated, take a minute and find a neutral state before you start a difficult conversation. To sidestep over-detailing, know when to cut your answers short. You’ll find that the important parts of your message will always come to mind first. Finally, the four sentence rule can be followed by keeping your statements concise. Don’t force your audience to spend a lot of energy listening, or you risk losing the potential for a great dialogue.

When you work on eliminating these primary blocks, you’ll see that you create some truly memorable conversations that lead to real results.

Learn more practical communication techniques in Daniel Goleman’s new collection, The Executive Edge: an Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership.

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About The Author

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, a Times bestseller for a year and a half—with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages—has also been a bestseller in many countries. He has written books on other topics as well, including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis.

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