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The Art of Dialogue

Dialogue is the starting point to all human relationships. This piece will help understand how we can alter our dialogues to embrace new perspectives, show respect and learn from one another.

Ever wondered why you may be making the same point repeatedly but for some reason, people don’t seem to listen? How about in those office meetings when you try to get your point across but it’s almost never taken?

If you’re amongst the majority to raise your hand (and all of your fingers) to these questions, let me try to share some insight that could help. I’ll start with a small anecdote that a lot of folks may be able to relate to. The other day, someone from my team told me that one of our colleagues had been saying a few ‘not so lovely’ things about me. As is natural to a lot us, my first reaction was to defend myself. But after having taken some excellent lessons on conducting difficult conversations from my former boss in the US many years ago, I decided to take a minute and think about how to respond to the situation.

The best way to resolve conflict in any situation is by having a dialogue with the person involved. By dialogue, I don’t simply mean telling them assertively – Hey, look dude, you’re wrong. I think this is the right way to go about things, so try to understand my point of view, otherwise this relationship is kaput.

Having a mutually respectful dialogue is one of the most difficult things to do in life. Whether it’s with a co-worker, a boss or a family member, it requires a tremendous amount of courage. It’s almost always easier to shove the situation under the rug and move on. But that of course, comes at the heavy cost of your peace of mind. So what can we try to do when put in a situation which requires some level of confrontation?

Gauge the need of the conversation- It is critical to first ask ourselves how the outcome of having a conversation would affect our daily life. Is this a conversation that requires to be had immediately or could I put it on pause? Is it affecting how your peers view you at work? Could it affect your relationship with your supervisor? Or, are you overreacting and getting involved in petty politics by indulging in an unnecessary battle? If you’re not too sure, talk it out with an objective friend or partner. By weighing your pros and cons, you’d be able to think critically about the need of having this dialogue.

Have a play by play – It’s difficult when you hear something about yourself that isn’t true. Or at least to you, it isn’t. Going into what may seem like a difficult conversation, it always helps to have a few coherent points of what you’d like to say. What did you disagree with? Why did you think so? And what outcome would you like the conversation to have? Think about all this prior to having the conversation so you don’t come across as someone who is just defending themselves without any logic. Of course, the other person in the conversation will have their own narrative – so be gracious enough to accept that too.

Separate the facts from the fluff – What exactly was said about you? In my case with my colleague, I was on a long maternity break and enjoyed having little to no communication regarding work while on diaper duty. After resuming work, I had little interaction with this colleague who was based in another city. So what exactly was going on? Could there have been a miscommunication? Or was I just not looking at the situation from her perspective? I decided to give her a call and have a conversation. It was important to understand what was actually said, or even more importantly – was something said at all?

Addressing the other person with respect – This can be a difficult one but so important in order to have a conversation with dignity. The other person could be wrong and may have said things about you that made you lose your sleep for a week. But it’s important to be able to have a dialogue in which they feel respected too. In no way does this mean that you must start your conversation with an apology or with fear of coming across as too direct. Be firm, to the point, but maintain respect and keep in mind, that they will most likely have a reason to do what they did. When I spoke to my colleague, I first stated what I’d heard and asked her if it were true. When she said it partially was, that’s when I decided to delve further and understand what was going on. A simple trick to follow here, is to maybe write down a reminder on a piece of paper, that you are going to respect the other person and maintain the dignity of the conversation- no matter what. Keep that paper in front of you when you feel like pouncing on the other person and pulling out their hair. That maybe a bit dramatic, but you get my point. The only way to get respect is to give it. Even if you don’t see it immediately.

Being Firm – When my colleague pointed out some things that had upset her in the last year, I wanted to quickly apologize and move on. As a person, I do not like confrontation. A lot of us don’t. But in life, to be able to state your opinion with dignity is a skill. It also requires a hell lot of courage. I maintained what I had learned about conflict resolution. I was gentle, yet firm. I mentioned how this incident had disappointed me and what we could do to address it. Not to my surprise, she responded with equal respect and camaraderie.

Acknowledge your mistakes – We aren’t perfect. As people, all of us have our flaws and our strengths. During any difficult conversation, it is important to stay objective and understand that we could be wrong too. We may be rock stars to our own innermost circle of peeps. But those aren’t usually the people we’re having difficult conversations with either. While you may have your reasons, acknowledge that they have theirs. In most cases, people aren’t out to get you. They’re simply reacting to a stressful situation in their lives or acting out of something they’re going through – external to you. Keeping this in mind will always remind you to have compassion for the other person.

Decide the outcome – What outcome do you hope to achieve from this relationship? Is this relationship important to you? If it’s a work situation, you would need to keep it professional & amicable. In that case, you can go up to the person and ask them to chat with you on their next smoke or coffee break. I’ve found food to always be the best conversation starter – so grab a quick meal together. If it’s a conversation of a very serious nature, there are people at every workplace who are there to help us lead these chats- Supervisors, Human Resources, Counselors, People Development teams etc.  Reach out to them and see how they could help.

If it’s a family relationship, you need to take a call if this person is an important part of your current life or if you would like to love this person from a distance for a while. Sometimes, the other person might be in a different place than you. They may be at their own stage of evolution and you may be somewhere else. Forcing a conversation at this stage will only end up biting you in the backside. Give them time and let them fight their own battles. You on the other hand, continue to work on you. Revisit this in a few years and then take a call on what would work best. Your time & energy is valuable – invest it wisely.

I tried to have my conversation keeping this in mind and it seemed to help. My colleague gave me her reasons for feeling a certain way, and I was able to provide more clarity on the situation. It also turned out that she had been having a very stressful year and just didn’t know how to deal with everything together. We ended up chatting for a while and closed the conversation with a plan to meet up informally in the coming week.

At the end of the day, we’re all hustling multiple things in a world that isn’t always easy to live in. Showing compassion to one another and embracing each other even when the going gets tough, helps nip multiple issues in the bud. And if we can’t do that in the moment, take some time for yourself and give it a break. Starting off on a fresh perspective always helps. Sharing a quote by Japanese philosopher & leader, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, that resonates strongly with this piece, “Dialogue is an adventure, an adventure available to anyone. And sometimes it’s an adventure whose outcome can change history”.

And after all, aren’t we all here to create our own history?

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