A couple of years back I had the great pleasure of seeing Peter Nixon speak at the IABC World Conference in Toronto. It prompted me to revisit my own work on dialogue and a fabulous interchange occurred on a blog post about dialogue. I think it is still my favourite post.
Peter has recently published “Dialogue Gap” and I have just got around to reading it.
In short – it’s great and very valuable to all of those who wish to create change, whether it is in the workplace, home or society.
There are elements that may grate – Nixon’s definition of communication as “an exchange of information” and dialogue as “thinking together”. Communication academics and practitioners will bridle at this – it is a dated definition and one that does not represent what is taught in communication degrees, nor what professional business communicators do. I understand how it would resonate with people that do not have a heavy involvement with the profession though, and this is the audience where this book has potentially most value.
There is a liberal use of the word dialogue as a verb. I know, it’s a nit-picky complaint, but it is distracting. While Shakespeare may have been fond of dialogue as a verb, in Australia it’s irritating North American jargon and “discuss” would work just as jolly well. What can I say? I’m reading as an Australian…
The digital natives and immigrants may also be frustrated with dismissive approach to technology in the book. A significant concept in the book is that of the Digital Tipping Point. This is defined as “the point at which we spend more than half our waking hours digitally rather than personally connecting with people” and positioned as a barrier to effective dialogue.
There is scant consideration of how the online environment permits, encourages and facilitates dialogue. I would love, love, love to see Peter engage with a digital dialogist for a follow up edition. I happily acknowledge how technology has clearly contributed to what Nixon refers to as the “dialogue gap”. But I also would argue that the web 2.0 life world has encouraged behaviours and an ethos that makes dialogue more likely to occur through the norms of sharing, collaborating, respectful interaction and an opening of time and place. For many of us spending time digitally is personal connection and permits dialogic interaction.
Where this book really stands out though is in its ability to make the abstract concrete. While many of the examples of dialogue in this book are what I would call Big D dialogue – eg large interventions, the greatest need I see in organisations is that of little D dialogic capability. Nixon talks of large-scale transformation with leaders of organisations, communities and governments
“CEOs need to be more skilled at dialogue to deal with complexity”
Most of us engaging in change work do not get the opportunity to engage in large scale dialogue within the organisation – but we can assist and help in facilitating the “thinking together’ of teams, managers and employees, divisions and stakeholders. Dialogic capabilities are critical to innovation and continuous improvement, but so rare as so few people know how to engage in dialogue even on a smaller stage.
Typically books on dialogue talk in lofty principles and frameworks. Nixon takes these concepts and provides really useful templates, diagnostics, techniques, and tools to teach people how to engage in dialogue (try a whopping great 46 ways to engage in dialogue with supporting links). I can’t emphasise enough how important this is. So many times change managers, communication professionals and change leaders are told to “win the hearts and minds of the employees”. But the “winning” implies a loss to some-one. If employing a dialogic approach, and thinking together, there is a symmetrical quality to engaging the hearts and minds of managers, stakeholders and employees. An “optimal outcome” – as described by Nixon.
The book is organised in three parts — Part one introduces the concepts, definitions and describes how the dialogue gap arose. Part two provides solutions to the dialogue gap and goes into detail on elements of the “dialogue puzzle”. Part three focuses on dialogic leadership and how to improve dialogic behaviours. There are ample case studies and examples.
So who is this book most useful for? It would be trite to say ‘everyone’…but you know what? If you want change, you need dialogue. It’s that simple. I think the generosity of practical tools in this book make it a must read for teachers, community leaders, senior management, change managers and communications professionals.
I really hope for all our sakes, this one becomes a best seller…