Shared learning works best among people who are skilled in dialogue, which includes both the art of listening deeply to other people and the art of clearly explaining one’s own thinking. To participate well in dialogue, we need to be open to sharing our ideas, our assumptions, and even our uncertainties. A colleague once told me he was hesitant to share his ideas in the group because they were “half-baked”. I encouraged him to share his ideas with the group; in dialogue we would bake them together!
When we engage in dialogue, we seek to genuinely understand another person’s (or group’s) point of view. We also explain our own positions by letting others know what information we have used to arrive at our conclusions and the way we interpret that information.
Story: listening to learn
At Otis Elevator, conscious practice of this kind of dialogue had an impact throughout the organization. As Sandy Diehl reflected, when he was Otis’ Vice President of Marketing for North American Operations, after his staff had learned the use of dialogue, “Now, people in meetings are conscious about whether they are listening to and learning from each other.”
As it undertook a major effort in organizational learning, Otis faced the challenge of gaining commitment from its field mechanics (those who repair and maintain Otis elevators) to new service standard procedures. As pre-work for a meeting of all of the company’s regional managers, I asked regional general managers to go out to the field mechanics and interview them, to learn the mechanics’ thoughts about how they would approach the managers’ most pressing business problems.
The Otis regional general managers came back impressed with the level of insight and information they received in their interviews with the field mechanics. When they approached their employees as learning partners, they found perceptions that were entirely new (and useful to them and the business).
They were so struck with the level of contribution that the president made sure to check out the likely impacts of a new strategic initiative with a group of field mechanics before he launched it. Rather than give a prepared presentation, he held a meeting with the sole agenda of holding a dialogue and listening to feedback about the new initiative. As a result, he learned about organizational obstacles that had been invisible to senior management. Admitting his willingness to learn from others enabled him to create more effective strategies and to build others’ trust in him at the same time.
Reflection Exercise: hold a dialogue with a core group of supporters
Engage with a core group of supporters who are working with you towards a common result. This will be a small group at first, but if it is aligned around a shared vision, it will be strong and will expand.
Be sure to explain your own thoughts and underlying beliefs about this initiative openly.
- How do you envision the future of what we are working on?
- What thoughts do you have that are different than mine?
- What are you seeing that I might not be able to see?
When you have heard each other’s thoughts, synthesize the best of all of your thinking, and come to a common understanding.
Barack Obama is quoted as saying, “Respect means listening the most when you disagree the most!” If we could all learn to do this, to listen rather than to jump in with our own opinions, we would be far more effective in all of our endeavors.
When you have engaged in dialogue in this way, you will understand better how others perceive the situation; you will be better able to align your thinking with others’ in pursuit of results you both care about.
Please share what you are learning with me as well!
For more on this topic, see Practice 5: Learning and Adapting to Change, in my book, Leading for Results.