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Effective Conversations: They're Dialogues, not Monologues

By Edward Leigh, MA

All too often I encounter people who appear to be engaging in a conversation. However, upon closer inspection, I realize they are not actually conversing. One person is talking, while the other is simply waiting for them to finish speaking, so they can talk. After the first person has spoken, the other is not responding to their comments and they proceed to talk about their own agenda. They do not even need the other person – they might as well be talking to themselves!

I was driving to a meeting with two friends. They were sitting in the front and I was sitting in the back alone. I said, "At today's meeting, we need to discuss our long-term goals. Neither one responded to my comment and began talking about an unrelated topic! I felt like my comments were completely ignored.

Example with good and bad responses:


You are talking to a person at a supermarket and say, "The apples look great. I will get some for tonight's dinner."

Great responses from the other person:

  • "The apples do look great, I may get some too."
  • "The apples look delicious. We just had apples yesterday, I think today I will go with some type of melon."

Poor responses from the other person:

  • "Are the bananas on sale this week?"
  • "We are looking to eat healthier, so I am here to buy a lot of fruits and vegetables."

In this example, the great responses all take in account what you just stated. The poor responses indicate that the person was not listening to you and just wanted to follow their own agenda.

How do we avoid this common communication trap? Respond periodically to the other person's comments to indicate you are listening. As a person is talking, listen carefully and respond to what the other person is saying rather than formulating your next comment. In your comments give some indication you heard what they said.

Creating Effective Dialogues

Use Nonverbals / Short Phrases to Indicate Listening
If a person is telling you a lot of information, let them know you are listening. During the conversation, while the other person is talking, use nonverbals or short phrases to indicate listening, such as by saying, "Mmmm Hmmm," "Yes" or "I see." This is especially important if you are talking to someone on the phone! I have had many conversations where I would state, "Are you there?" The person was not saying anything and I wasn't sure if they were disconnected!

Think Synergy
Synergy is the working together of two people to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual efforts. A great dialogue moves beyond merely conversing or listening. Rather, a dialogue is a meeting of minds to create a dynamic relationship; an open exchange of ideas. Like the old saying, "Two heads are better than one."

Common Goals
A dialogue is collaborative – two or more people working together toward a common understanding. Finding common ground is the goal. People listen to each other to find meaning and agreement.

Avoid being Judgmental
A dialogue means you are open to what the other person is saying, not thinking about your own biases. However, this does not mean you can't have a difference of opinion, but it is how you approach the difference. For example, we have a family friend who does not excel at communication skills. We were talking about a movie, which I thought was great. He stated in a gruff manner, "I thought the movie was horrible." If he was a good communicator, he would have said, "We all have different preferences, however I did not care for the film."

Being right is not relevant; a dialogue does not have a winner. The two people are working as a team. Debates have winners, not dialogues. Yes, there may be disagreements, but the two people need to work together to find "common ground."

Focus on Learning
Rather than being in a position of simply telling your opinion, think about what you can learn from the other person. Look to the other person as a resource who can help you gain new knowledge.

Avoid Interrupting
Let the person complete their thoughts. Look for appropriate times to add your contribution to the conversation.

Use Questions Appropriately
Ask questions from a place of genuine caring and concern. Do not ask inappropriate probing questions. After my cancer diagnosis, people often asked me very personal questions that were not appropriate. One person actually asked this question, "Did they tell you how long you have to live?" I believe they were asking the question out of curiosity rather than considering my well being.

Silence is Acceptable, even Welcome
Many people tend to think of silence as an awkward time. However, we must allow for silence so people can ponder their next statement. If there are periods of extended silence, you can ask the other person, "I notice we have been silent, what are thinking about now? What are you feeling?"

Put these tips to use and you will engage dialogues that will change the way you see the world!

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