2.1 Encouraging healthy dialogue
Within the scenario of Mandeep’s team, we find a vital question that all teams need to work out – how do we allow ourselves to challenge each other – to propose different ways of working and to test such proposals? How do we have a healthy dialogue, without it degenerating into adversarial conflict?
The analogy with politics interests us, because in many parts of the so-called ‘democratic’ world, groups are searching for a new kind of politics; a way to make politics more inclusive and less confrontational, rather than something top-down – ‘leaders’ (those people able to survive the political fight) fighting in a ‘battle’ of ideas.
Can there be bottom-up ‘leadership’ – a wider group of people engaged in constructive dialogue, through which different solutions can be tried out, refined, and the best ones taken forward? Whatever our hopes or fears for a wider political revolution of this kind – it is vital that we pay attention to a related ‘revolution’ within teams.
In his book Leading and Coaching Teams to Success, Phil Hayes (2011, p. 84) offers an insightful guide to how teams might shift from a context of ‘adversarial debate’ to one of more ‘constructive dialogue’. We’ll now consider one of his suggestions for making this transition.
Find one or two examples of recent meeting agendas. If your team meetings aren’t so formal, write down a brief list of topics covered at a recent meeting or interaction with colleagues, then comment on the following:
- the way people spoke to each other at that meeting. Was there a difference in tone or ‘energy’ used in different parts of the meeting – perhaps some agenda items were more controversial? Exciting? Difficult to talk openly about?
- from your recollection, which voices dominated different areas of discussion on the agenda?
- do you remember any areas of conflict (mild or severe) and whether and how conflict was settled or developed in the meeting?
Meeting agendas tend to be set to guide the content of a meeting. They describe the items to be discussed. More often than not, agendas say nothing about how the meeting should be conducted, or how participants should interact with each other. Customs and practice within a team can quickly crystallise – meaning that there emerges a ‘house style’ of meeting. Teams are locked into behaving in particular ways when they meet.
If your team is not getting what it needs from meetings, it may not be the meeting content that is at fault – it may be the meeting style. Meetings will continue to disappoint unless something is done to adapt the style of meeting to the needs of its content (the standard agenda) and to the nature of its participants.
Think about Mandeep’s scenario where meetings are too heated, too confrontational and full of conflict. For the benefit of those meeting participants, please complete the following paragraph of meeting guidance.
In the next part of this activity (adapted from Hayes, 2011, p. 84) put the following statements into the correct columns. Some comments are principles of adversarial debate, others principles of effective dialogue.
Drag and drop statements to where you think they belong.
Finally, choose one of the ‘principles of effective dialogue’ that you feel less comfortable with – perhaps one that you feel you or others in your team do not stick to. State the principle, then describe the ‘first steps’ you are going to take to promote and model this principle in your meetings.
Take home: to widen engagement, for authentic communication, teams need to be assured of the constructive style in which everyone is expected to interact. Different parts of a meeting agenda may require different styles of engagement (not everything needs a dialogue!). Setting some ground rules can help to set the ‘tone’ of a meeting. Decide (with others where possible) not just what you’re going to discuss, but how you’re going to discuss it.
Extension:talking about how coaching is becoming part of the regular managing toolkit, and how individuals and teams can be coached to realise their potentials. Note how effective dialogue principles such as ‘active listening’, ‘no preconceived outcomes’ and ‘inclusivity’ are central to coaching practice. The podcast is 27 minutes long.
Ideas featured in this section are informed by the practice of business ‘coaching’ and facilitated discussion. If you are interested in this kind of approach, you might like to consider studying our sister course BG023 Coaching for Performance.