A Simple Way to Simultaneously Learn More and Strengthen Relationships

I’m reading a great book called Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, by William Isaacs who teaches at MIT. (While Harvard has its big name and often big ego), 🙂 I’ve always admired those MIT folks.  They tend to bring an underlying and wonderful scientific skepticism – and scientific hypothesizing – to their work.  If you know the work of Peter Senge or the scientist David Bohm, you know what I mean.  Isaacs is in that tradition, where he plainly reveals how non-rational our ideas and behaviors can be. Here’s one such pearl:

Dialogue by Isaacs

We tend very quickly to identify what we say with who we are. We feel that when someone attacks our idea, they are attacking us.” In case that plainspoken truth is not enough, he then suggests just why we can be so adamant: “So to give up our idea,” Isaacs writes in the next sentence, “is almost like committing a kind of suicide.”* I belong — I assume Isaacs is in my circle — in the “fighter” group; I speak up, and then I do need to defend my idea; I don’t want you to kill my idea. I can debate as though my life and not just my ego are at stake.  Other people avoid this potential threat to ideas, ego, life by just not speaking; or by quickly backing down or exercising some other method of flight.

Isaacs spends hundreds of pages helping shift our paradigmatic thinking from discussing (percussing, concussing) to dialogue, or what he calls learning to “think together.”  The “simple way” I promised in today’s title involves two steps. First, consciously assert for yourself that your ideas are just that your ideas. Let them have their own life. Then you can eagerly hear others’ ideas, learning from their perspective; inquiring into what they see, why it matters, how it might enlarge what you see. When you do this, you learn. When you do this – listen to fully “get” the other – you build up trust. When you do this, paradoxically, you build their willingness to hear “your” idea.

In much of my coaching, in multiple contexts, I am encouraging my clients — as I am practicing myself — to adopt this “listen first” attitude, paraphrase back what you heard, and then follow it with two simple questions to ensure execution.  Ask:  (1) “Did I get it?” If they don’t give you an unequivocal “yes,” then ask about what you missed or about their hesitant response. Then when you paraphrase it back, ask “Did I get it?” If necessary, lather, rinse, repeat.  Then ask, (2) “Is there more?” If there is, loop back by paraphrasing and asking question 1: “Did I get it?”

If you do these three things: repeat back what you heard, ask if you got it, and ask if there’s more, you will be learning so much and building tremendous trust to

Lead with your best self!


* Isaacs, William (2008-12-30). Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together (p. 135). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  • If you are a UC Berkeley student, you can put this idea into practice in an intergroup dialogue course. (criticaldialogues.berkeley.edu) A few different topics are offered each semester including race, gender & sexual orientation, and spirituality. The highly interactive classes are small, less than 20 students, and teach you the basics skills of dialogue as well as providing regular opportunities to practice those skills while talking about issues surrounding the topic (race, spirituality, etc.). Students find the classes transformative as they learn to really listen and understand multiple perspectives which changes their interpersonal relationship skills, and deepens and expands their understanding of the topic and of themselves.

  • Follow these two steps for sure. Then you might try (3) “If we are still in agreement on what (Fill in the blanks) we are trying to accomplish/decide, using your idea(s), what would be
    our next step to accomplish the goal? If the first step would inform further discussion, and perhaps even help you make your point, go for it and continue building trust. If there isn’t a logical first step, your ideas may look a lot better right away.

  • I keep wondering, how it is that Dan is able to have a positive approach, when he would have personally seen so many counter examples of human behavior fro politics. I know there are readers of this site who do not want politics thrown in, but politics is one area of leadership. Remember when Jennifer Granholm would present ideas, which had been promoted by republicans, and get attacked for “her” ideas? Her ideas were wrong, because they were her ideas, but if a republican said or otherwise presented the same idea, it was right. So, using the three step process above, with people who really do attack the person, by attacking their ideas is not a good path to follow. As with all your ideas, Dan, we must use judgment as to when and how to apply them. Dan I applaud you for working for the right direction on how people should treat each other. You are Golden Rule Dan.

    • Mark John,
      You are kind. And you are certainly right that politics is a tough place to ask, “did I get it,” and “tell me more.” In actuality, we have to continue to aspire to that spirit. If we can “get” each other a little better, we can find some win/wins. If “everyday leaders” would engage in more of those conversations, e.g., in Michigan where the sides are again so harshly opposed, we could make progress.
      I appreciate your bringing realities to RFL, and I hope I “get it,” and that we can still aspire to a visionary approach!

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