Effective Dialogue

We need to engage in more dialogue and fewer discussions. Etymology of the two words provides a clue to how these conventional patterns differ. Dialogue is derived from the Greek words dia (through) and logos(word); hence, a dialogue is a conversation in which the meaning flows through all the participants. Discuss, on the other hand, comes from the Latin discutere, meaning cut off.

Dialogue is not something one does to another person but something one does with another person. It requires a shift in mind-set about what the relationship with others means and a mind-set of discovery. Dialogue is an exchange in which people think together and discover something, is the seeking for a greater truth.

In times of constant change and increasing complexity, where we cannot act as self-sufficient individuals anymore, we need to take into account our growing interdependence, and dialogue takes us there. Dialogue is a powerful combination of listening and talking and it is an important means to develop a culture of collaboration.

Blocks to dialogue

For some people, especially in a business environment, it is easy to get into a debate or an argument. In both situations, people are looking either for the right answer or to prove a point. They keep looking at the issue that is most important to them, which easily leads to disagreement.

A research in the USA has shown that in organizations about 70% of communication is filled with blocks to dialogue. It indicates why so many meetings take too long without adding any value.

There are four primary blocks to dialogue:

  • Passivity. This is when a person displays and uses language of withdrawal or nonresponsive behavior. The focus of the person is on inhibiting himself rather than engaging in problem-solving behavior.
  • Discounting. When people say something to minimize, maximize, disrespect or put down another person or themselves in some way. It can also include attacks.
  • Redefining. This involves changing the focus of the transaction by manipulation to avoid something that may be uncomfortable or emotional. They go in circles and there is no common ground on which to move forward.
  • Over-detailing. The dialogue does not proceed because the person gives excessive detail, overwhelming others with too much information, and the important point is lost or hidden. Many leaders give presentations that have far too many slides and far too much detail for any one person to reasonably assimilate.

There are six secondary blocks to dialogue; these may or may not occur in conjunction with one of the primary blocks:

  • Being too rational. Conversation is conducted too analytically without any personal warmth, emotion, or bonding. It includes being overly simplistic in responding to complex emotional dilemmas people in organizations often face.
  • Being too emotional. This is when an emotion such as anger, sadness, or fear takes over in the dialogue and the person stops thinking clearly about the subject.
  • Over-generalizing. Someone takes a small piece of truth and exaggerates it to an extreme or absurdity. This involves avoiding a topic by using general statements rather than being specific about an issue. Overuse of the words always and never.
  • Abstraction. This occurs when the conversation moves too far off subject. There is an aloofness or detachment in thought and thinking so that there is no connection.
  • Lack of directness. Avoiding an issue or problem, or talking around the subject.
  • Lack of honesty. When one or both persons are unwilling to be honest with the other, then an open dialogue becomes impossible. It can be reflected in a simple or serious lie.

Tools to remove blocks to dialogue

Blocking dialogue is usually a habit, sometimes learned in the family, which requires us to rewire the brain and learn to speak effectively. Our language can either block our creativity and bonding with the others or enhance them. Leaders must be aware of the blocks from the other person and respectfully deal with them in an effective way. Some practical tools that can help:

  • The red card game. It is recommended that organizations introduce “block to dialogue” red cards as the referees in soccer matches. During meetings, if someone uses a block to dialogue he gets a red card from the others. This technique helps people to learn to be conscious of language.
  • The yes, but … game. One of the most common phrases heard in business conversations is “yes, but …” It does not mean yes at all. Instead, it is a way to disagree and move away from the previous comment and state a different personal view. People should get used to start sentences with the words “yes, and …” This response requires the person to build on the previous point with a positive focus which allows the team to reach an agreement.
  • The four-sentence rule. The idea of making people speak in four sentences in team meetings encourages people to think clearly about what they want to say before they speak, thereby enhancing understanding and dialogue. Applying this rule many teams have reduce meeting time by as much as 70%.

Principles of dialogue

  1. The principle of quantity. Make contributions as informative as the people, context, and situation demand. Learn to know how to give the right amount of information and when to stop.
  2. The principle of quality. Make clear, interesting, easy to listen and truthful contributions.
  3. The principle of relevance. Make contributions that add value.
  4. The principle of personal presence. Use your body, your personality, your manner, and your attitude to communicate. Body language can reveal more about what we are thinking and feeling than does our actual vocabulary. Quoting Quintilian, one of the first great classical experts on oration, “I would not hesitate to assert that a mediocre speech supported by all the power of a delivery will be more impressive than the best speech unaccompanied by such power”.
  5. The principle of brevity. Be clear and concise when getting a message.

The impact of dialogue on health

Research shows that when we speak, our heart rate and blood pressure rise, and our body moves into a state of arousal. When we listen, however, our heart rate and blood pressure goes down. It is a physical test of whether one is truly listening or not. Our biology and physiology have a strong social component. It is important to regulate one´s levels of listening.

People who speak too quickly are more vulnerable to heart diseases, as they tend not to be able to listen, cannot reduce their cardiovascular arousal. Speaking without taking a breath generally leads to higher levels of blood pressure than speaking with an even-balanced rhythm, and violence occurs when the person is in a hypertensive state.

Furthermore, research on the benefits of confiding in others had being conducted. Many stress hormones are lowered after the person has disclosed a painful event. Blood pressure and heart rate increase during the confession and decrease afterwards.


Dialogue is one of the most challenging and rewarding exchanges between people. Everyone should put time aside to rediscover the joy of true dialogue and the strengthening of bonds that arise as a result both in home and business environments.

By learning to recognize and change blocks to dialogue, one can move conversations into productive, efficient, and respectful dialogues.


  • KOHLRIESER, G. “Hostage at the Table”
  • MORGAN, N. “How to Make even Weak Speeches Great” Harvard Management Communication Letter
  • “A Note on the Use of Dialogue Technique” Darden Business Publishing, University of Virginia