Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
By Glenna Gerard and Linda Teurfs
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Glenna Gerard and Linda Teurfs, "Dialogue and Organizational Transformation,"in Community Spirit: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business, Kazimierz Gozdz, ed. (San Francisco: New Leaders Press, 1995), pp. 143-53.
Gerard and Teurfs argue that the practice of dialogue has the potential to transform organizational cultures and build community. They describe the specific skills and guidelines needed to practice dialogue. They then describe the general transformative potential of dialogue, and its particular benefit to the problem-solving process. The authors close by reviewing two cases in which dialogue helped to transform organizational culture.
Discussion versus Dialogue
Within discussion participants tend to remain attached to their particular points of view. Each participant attempts primarily to persuade others to adopt her perspective. Discussion then can lead to division and rigidity.
In contrast, dialogue requires participants to suspend attachment to their particular points of views. It stresses respect for others, listening, trust, and the shared pursuit of deeper understanding. In effect, the practice of dialogue is a practice of community building. This increased sense of community can, in turn, transform the organizational culture.
The authors explain that, "we live in a relational world where the individual impacts the collective and the collective impacts the individual." Our usual thinking overemphasizes the individual. Dialogic thinking helps people to perceive the interconnectedness of the world. Dialogue helps people to transcend their individual perspectives in order to achieve a larger view of reality.
Dialogue requires four basic skills. First, participants must suspend both their attachment to their own positions and their judgements regarding others. This allows participants to be more accepting of other alternate perspectives. It is also key in creating a climate of trust where others will feel free to express their points of view. Second, participants must identify their underlying assumptions. Unidentified differences in people's basic assumptions will produce incoherent conclusions. Third, participants must listen actively to each other. Moreover they must remain actively present to each other. Finally, participants must engage in inquiry and reflection, in order to uncover deeper issues and create more profound levels of understanding.
Gerard and Teurfs suggest a number of guidelines for the dialogue process. In addition to suspending judgement, participants should suspend status and roles. They must acknowledge each speaker, and respect different views. Participants should avoid cross-talk, but should speak when they have something to contribute. They should seek a balance between inquiry and advocacy. Participants should not be focused on a need to produce a specific outcome. They should focus instead on learning and reaching a higher level of understanding.
Dialogue and Transformation
The authors claim that dialogue transforms organizational culture in three ways. First, it transforms participant behavior. Second, dialogue transforms the feeling of the organizational culture by establishing the conditions of community. Participants begin to sense what it would be like to be in full community. Last, dialogue transforms participants' attitudes. Collaborative and cooperative attitudes begin to replace attitudes of unyielding individualism.
All of these transformative effects are enhanced through the ongoing practice of dialogue. Dialogue skills are improved and transformative effects are increased through practice. Dialogue sessions act in effect as practice sessions for building community.
Using Dialogue in Problem-Solving
Dialogue can be very helpful within the context of the traditional problem-solving process. The first stage of the problem-solving process is problem identification. Regular dialogue helps people to identify problems early on. Groups which practice dialogue also are better practiced at setting group priorities.
The second stage of problem-solving is generating solutions and making a decision. Dialogue can lead to a clearer understanding of the problem. Dialogue can also help participants to generate a broader set of possible solutions.
The final problem-solving stage is implementation. Groups who have practiced dialogue through the earlier stages will be more united behind the final decision, and more committed to it.
Dialogue and Community
The authors argue that dialogue helps to create community. Use of dialogue also helps participants as they move through the stages of community building. In the early stage of pseudo-community participants tend to deny their differences. Dialogue sessions create a safe environment for the expression of difference. As differences are raised, participants move into a chaotic stage. The guidelines of dialogue can provide the structure needed for participants to transform chaos into a source of creativity. Dialogue also provides a safe arena in which to express the often turbulent emotions occasioned by the community building process. Finally, dialogue provides a process by which full communities can continue to identify and respond to problems and issues, and so maintain themselves.