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Facilitating Dialogue

by Annette Simmons

Reprinted with permission from Executive Excellence.

The first time I tried to describe dialogue, my friend (a linguistics professor) looked at me with pity. I meandered into physics, group dynamics and back to philosophy without ever delivering a clear picture of the group process for creating collective meaning.

It all sounded like woo-woo, out-there, psycho-babble. And if I hadn't experimented with the process and proven to myself that it can save a design team months of looking at each other like they're crazy, transform a group of enemies into a team, or help heal a re-engineered group of survivors, I would've given up. But I know what it can do. And if you ever want a group to peel back the masks, check their guns at the door, and stick with it until they forge common ground, then you shouldn't give up your pursuit of learning how to facilitate dialogue either. It is an invaluable tool for anyone who needs to get work done through groups.

If you want to peel back the masks, learn how to facilitate dialogue.

Picture the Five Stages

There are five stages of dialogue.

1. Politeness and pretending occur when no one admits anything is wrong, blames everyone else, or pretends like the problem is unsolvable. Everyone is pretending and acting polite until they either think it is safe to speak or can't stand keeping quiet any longer.

2. Chaos occurs when the group finally stops pretending and allows hidden conflicts to surface. This assumes that you are talking about something of importance--if no one cares, you don't get chaos.

3. Discarding and redefining occur when the group addresses the conflict and each group member willingly risks their certainty about the "facts" and becomes flexible enough to generate a dialogue about the issues. This stage is marked with long silences and internal struggle.

4. Resolution and collective reasoning happen when the belief systems start to flow into each other, when the group thinks as a collective and builds a bigger picture inclusive of all positions, and finds its common ground. This new belief system is a collective view shared by all members. It did not exist before dialogue.

5. Closure occurs when the group moves back to a more stable state of lowered risk and less flexibility. This is important. New agreements and implementation plans need a firmer foundation than the flexible state of dialogue. The fact is, you can't stay in the heightened state of flexibility that dialogue creates for too long. It is exhausting. Besides, implementation requires action, not introspection. Dialogue is group introspection and too much introspection can paralyze a group (paralysis by analysis).

Limit dialogue sessions to twice a month. More frequency dilutes the magic--or teaches people how to fake it. To be potent, dialogue needs to be a special group process used only intermittently or for special occasions.

Use your judgment. Ultimately, your skills in the facilitation of dialogue will come from experience and experiments. I believe you should try anything that you think might help a group reach the state of dialogue. Creating the right expectations, teaching the group to facilitate themselves, keeping quiet if you can, and speaking up only when necessary are good principles to follow as you choose your experiments. But above all, trust your judgment--every situation is different and any recipe for dialogue needs to be adapted to the situation. Once you build your own technique you will be in great demand. People hunger to engage in meaningful dialogue. It is fulfilling work to facilitate a group to that place.

Annette Simmons is a senior consultant with Group Process Consulting and author of Territorial Games: Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work.

August 1997

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