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Discussion and Dialogue

High performance team communication within learning organizations must be open, frequent, and powerful. With schoolwork environments becoming increasingly complex, schools have to become more creative and progressive in their practices to continually improve and meet standards of quality. The need for schools to communicate within and outside of their districts is becoming more and more vital. The practice of dialogue, a "higher order" form of communication (Senge et al., 1994), is necessary for maximizing the collective intelligence and capabilities of team members.

Work with Conflict

Conflict is often necessary for reaching deeper levels of dialogue and for bringing to the surface important issues that effect the team and/or school district. The mindset needs to be "resolving conflict" by working through conflict instead of avoiding it, and the term conflict is not necessarily synonymous with the term problem. Many methods for dealing with conflict include avoiding, accommodating, competing, compromising, and collaborating. Considerations of when to apply certain methods for working with conflict are centered around the importance of issues, the preservation of relationships, the existence of resources, the feasibility of the proposals, and the availability of time. Some conflict is best avoided, especially if there is not learning potential with working through it. Conflict that can provide deeper learning should not be avoided, but instead, worked through in a collaborative effort.

Dialogue Using Technology

Avoiding conflict is characteristic of one-dimensional thinking and bypasses many opportunities for learning and growing. Often positions represent people with unique capabilities, but instead of thinking in terms of exclusive jobs and assignments, schools must blend the talents of different people around jobs. The mindset that one job equals one person is describe as "one dimensional thinking" by Romig (1996). Although there have been movements in many organizations that move away from "one dimensional thinking," this mindset is still predominant within many school systems. A movement away from one dimensional thinking resulted in the total quality management movement that holds the idea that people can inspect the quality of their own work. Inspecting the quality of one's work also entails accepting feedback from others, and this feedback may be in conflict of one's own views. Another shift away from one-dimensional thinking is centered around the idea that people can help their organizations by being trained in multiple jobs (Romig, 1996).

A further shift away from one-dimensional thinking was the transfer of more difficult and technical job tasks to people that were thought to not have the skills to perform them. Schools have become accustomed to using specialist such as superintendents, curriculum directors, and technology coordinators for doing specific work instead of using them to facilitate work processes. A common practice in schools is to have one person such as a technology coordinator who installs software on teacher computers when in fact teachers are very capable of performing these tasks. By facilitating the process of teachers installing their own computer software, the technology coordinator is freed to work on deeper more elaborate things that require a specialist, and in turn, teachers have learning opportunities through low-level computer operations and maintenance.

Another step away from one-dimensional thinking is empowerment. In order to increase school system capability, empowerment is required, and in order to institutionalize empowerment, school system capability is required. Simply talking about empowerment, however, does not increase the school's capability to make empowerment occur. Teams are an essential element required for the implementation of empowerment and increasing school district capability because high performance teams model and practice empowerment.

Challenge Assumptions with Dialogue

Dialogue can serve as a vehicle for creative problem identification and solving, and serve as the underlying purpose of team meetings. Additionally, dialogue fosters high levels of trust that characterize open and healthy communication structures (Senge et al., 1994). Dialogue, as described by Senge, is different in terms of what most consider communication (1990). Dialogue moves beyond "discussion" where individuals explore complex issues from many different perspectives rather than being concerned with who is "right" or who has the most compelling argument.

Dialogue provides the means for teams to move beyond any singular understanding to a collective insight that is not possible individually. Dialogue should be considered a "core competency" because of its primary purpose for team effectiveness and team learning, and dialogue is closer to how individuals think that promotes higher levels of learning through interaction with others. Senge (1990a) contends that dialogue forms the foundation for teams to work while practicing the learning disciplines (systems thinking, mental models, shared vision, and team learning), and that dialogue helps to bring mental models to the surface so that they can be challenged.

Personal mastery implies an ability to build personal motivation for continually learning how actions affect processes and systems. Building shared vision among the team refers to cultivating commitment to the future, and the discipline of mental models emphasizes the openness needed to expose needed changes in team member's thinking. Team learning helps develop the skills for looking at the "big picture," and the big picture is usually beyond individual perspectives.

Systemic thinking brings to the surface the subtle variables of processes that operate in school systems. Dialogue is necessary for the needed shift in mindset from seeing oneself as separate from the world to seeing the interrelationships of all aspects within processes and systems. Dialogue is necessary for seeing problems as the result of one's own action rather than as caused by something external and beyond control. In schools that have become learning organizations, the people who work there discover how to create reality and how to change it. With a strong foundation of trust and empowerment, dialogue along with effective leadership and coaching enables teams to reach higher levels of performance. Higher levels of performance are the result of learning processes that examine systems and their interrelationships.

Dialogue Using Technology

According to Senge et al. (1994), dialogue requires four processes for success (invitation, generative listening, observing the observer, and suspending assumptions). First, participants must be given the choice on whether to participate through "invitation." Dialogue requires the absence of hierarchical structures, and thus is not successful if forced.

Secondly, successful dialogue requires what Senge (1990a) refers to as "generative listening." "Generative listening" is as much listening to what is not said as much as what is said. "Generative listening" is similar to listening to the meaning of music as well as the music itself; listen for the essence of what is said in addition to the words. "Observing the observer" is a process of observing thoughts that influence how people see the world and thus form their assumptions about the world.

"Suspend assumptions" is a crucial aspect in team dialogue that facilitates the ability to refrain from imposing views on others as well as discouraging the suppression of thoughts and views. "Suspending assumptions" is a process that can be visualized as one hanging their assumptions in full view of others so that the team can explore and reflect on what they are, and their intentions. "Suspending assumptions" does not imply suppression of them, but rather allowing others to explore them from new perspectives for determining why and how they were formed. In order to engage into dialogue one must surface their assumptions and establish an awareness of them so that they can be displayed.

Once assumptions are displayed, a process of "inquiry" becomes the invitation to others to explore one's assumptions and discover the hidden intentions behind them (Senge et al., 1994; Senge, 1995).

Characteristics of Dialogue

Checklist for Dialogue

Cautions with Dialogue

$Habits of thought continually pull us toward discussion and away from dialogue without suitable facilitation. Strong leadership and coaching is required for effective team dialogue.

$Discussion is a necessary counterpart of dialogue. Some discussion is necessary for effective dialogue, and dialogue is necessary for learning.

$Conflict frequently takes place within teams because people with different perspectives, skills, and values are placed in close proximity. Conflicts that occur within the team offer the advantage of triggering people into presenting their views with more clarity and precision.


Adapted from DuBrin, 1995; Isaacs, 1993; Senge et al., 1994.

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Last updated: March 10, 1998