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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

The Art of Dialogue

Discussion and debate have their place—but to bring out leadership and new ideas, consider practicing the art of dialogue.

The Art of Dialogue - Thumbnail
In a single one-hour time span on a typical school day, five leaders at one middle school used communication to build connections and achieve results:
  • The principal met with a group of parents who were interested in changing school start times so their children wouldn't have to get up so early. After exploring the reasons they believed change was needed and talking about the challenges it would present, they crafted a creative solution to present to the board of education.
  • The assistant principal for instruction met with a teacher to discuss an evaluation. Guided by the administrator's questions, the teacher came up with strategies for improving student engagement in her classroom.
  • A teacher leader met with her colleagues in a community of practice to explore reasons students might be reluctant to complete out-of-class reading assignments. The teachers decided to expand their inquiry by conducting interviews and focus groups with students.
  • A district leader met with school support staff to determine the best way to use classroom aides to help English language learners in regular classrooms. The support staff chose one of their number to visit a nearby district whose English language learners were posting high achievement gains to see how educators there deployed classroom aides.
  • The language arts department chair met with department members to help them understand what their school's new curriculum, based on the Common Core State Standards, meant by a challenging text. Teachers left the meeting with a better grasp of how to select challenging argumentative texts.
What communication strategy helped all these leaders achieve positive results? Dialogue.
When people think about dialogue, they often envision Socratic seminars. But dialogue goes beyond seminars. It's a tool that helps education leaders craft communication that is transparent and that promotes collaboration. Used well, it helps people dig deeper into ideas, become more thoughtful, listen well, recognize assumptions, and see connections.

Defining Dialogue

Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman (1999) describe four ways of talking:
  • Conversation consists of convivial, casual, friendly, talk about personal and social matters; it's usually not directed or facilitated.
  • Discussion is talk that has a purpose—often to make a decision. Discussion may seem unstructured at first as people brainstorm ideas and explore possibilities, but it becomes more structured as people choose sides. It may, in fact, begin to resemble debate.
  • Debate is an extreme form of discussion, in which the format dictates that people take sides and advocate for that side, rebutting points from the other side. Debates are usually structured and formal; they leave no room for compromise or building on others' ideas.
  • Dialogue is more structured than conversation, but less structured than discussion or debate. Dialogue engages people in building their understanding of an issue, without the pressure to make decisions or be "right." People inquire into ideas, rather than advocate for their own or others' ideas.
When members of a group are just trying to understand an issue, they may find that dialogue is all they need. When a group is trying to make a decision, it may still want to engage in dialogue to explore ideas, and then shift to discussion. The resulting decision will often draw from many more (and better) possibilities than it would have if the group had used discussion from the start.

Discussion vs. Dialogue: An Example

Let's look at two groups, both working on the same topic (changing the school bell schedule). One is engaged in discussion, and the other is engaged in dialogue. As you read the following two scenarios (adapted from Easton, 2011), imagine the tone and pace of the discourse and notice the wording.

Discussion About Changing the School Bell Schedule

S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 1: I'm in favor of longer passing times between classes. And not just for students—teachers need more time as well.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 2: But if we have more time between classes, we'll have to lengthen the school day.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 3: Anyway, we can't do that this year without approval from the school board. So I'm in favor of tabling this issue.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 4: I think we should try it for one week just to see how it goes.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 5: I agree with that.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 3: Why bother? If we have to get board approval, let's just wait until next year.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 1: I say we take a vote on this. How many are in favor of lengthening the passing period? (Continuing, after a show of hands) How many are against it?S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 4: Why did so many of you not vote?S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 5: I think we should just table this idea until next year.

Dialogue About Changing the School Bell Schedule

S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 1: What I'm wondering is, why do we need longer passing times between classes?S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 2: Well, we might look at this from both the students' and the teachers' points of view.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 3: Perhaps students are feeling that they have to go to their lockers between classes, and that they can't carry everything they need with them.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 4: It might be that students try to fit in text messages and return calls during their passing periods.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 5: Not to mention using the restroom and just walking to another hallway.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 1: Well, do we know enough about how students are using their passing periods?S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 3: We might want to do a little data gathering before we proceed with this issue.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 5: Yes, I am curious to know whether teachers need a longer passing period so they can clean up after one class and prepare for another.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 4: Perhaps we ought to gather some more information about that, too, before we try to make a decision.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 1: We also need to look at what the state says about the requirements regarding the length of a school day, in terms of actually being in class.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 4: I'm interested to know what other high schools are doing, both in our district and in other districts.S<EMPH TYPE="5">peaker 5: What if we table this until we can get some more information? We're not ready to make a decision yet.
Notice the differences in word choice and syntax. Phrases such as, "I'm wondering _____," "I'm curious," "I'm interested," "It might be _____," or "What if we … " are common in dialogue. These phrases slow the pace of speaking, giving people a chance to think and then share their own thoughts. Dialogue feels like a flow of ideas as people listen and stay with an idea for a few minutes. In contrast, discussion is often fast-paced and clipped; one person after another states an opinion, and people rarely build on one another's ideas.
People in discussion often listen for even the slightest pause. Actually, they may be listening only for a pause, and several people may jump in to capture airtime even though the speaker hasn't really finished but is just catching a breath! Discussion can be loud, and people sometimes speak over one another. In contrast, dialogue is more often quiet because participants are confident that everyone will get a chance to speak.
The two conversations on changing the school bell schedule—one a discussion and one a dialogue—led to different results. After the discussion, action was tabled indefinitely, as it had been for two years in a row. The topic might be resurrected when another group of people with enough passion about the schedule decides to meet. Chances are, however, that this future meeting will result in the same stalemate if the conversation continues to take the form of discussion.
The dialogue, on the other hand, led to a survey of faculty and students about two things—problems (if any) with the current schedule and how to address those problems. A student-faculty study team was formed, and various subgroups observed behaviors during a week and reported what actually happened between class periods; held focus groups with various constituents, including parents; gathered a sampling of high school schedules on the Internet; and researched state and district policy.
When the original group met again to engage in further dialogue, it was armed with data, information, and a variety of ideas for solutions. It eventually proposed to the whole school a solution no one had considered before: having shorter passing periods interspersed with longer break periods. It was not perfect, but both students and faculty felt that their concerns had been heard, and they were able to use breaks to accomplish longer tasks like texting, returning calls, e-mailing, visiting lockers, and preparing for their next classes.

Planned Dialogue

In planned dialogue, people know in advance that the intended type of conversation is dialogue rather than discussion or debate. Planned dialogue uses specific ground rules, guidelines, or protocols that all participants are expected to adhere to. (For an example, see ".") School leaders who announce in advance that a meeting will be a dialogue—and carry through on that promise—earn the respect and trust of their staffs.
Protocols for planned dialogue often divide participants into small groups; focus on a common experience (perhaps a text); and provide alternating times for listening without speaking and speaking without being interrupted. A protocol creates a structure that makes people feel safe asking challenging questions of one another; it also ensures that each person's issues are attended to equitably. (Many useful protocols that encourage dialogue—such as the Final Word, Triad, and Three-Levels of a Text—are available in Protocols for Professional Learning [Easton, 2009]).
Using protocols helps people with little experience in dialogue achieve many of the benefits of dialogue without formal training or extensive experience. For example, one quality of dialogue is a slower pace of conversation. Many people find it difficult to achieve this when first attempting dialogue. By setting rules for who speaks, when they speak, and what types of comments and questions are permitted at different times, a protocol requires that participants listen deeply to others, practice pausing and being silent, and slow down the pace. Paradoxically, with structure, participants experience the freedom to express themselves honestly.

How to Start and Deepen the Practice of Dialogue

Take a Developmental Approach

Dialogue doesn't just happen naturally; educators must consciously learn and practice it. To expand the use of dialogue in your school, you might consider a developmental approach. After you've had some practice using planned structured dialogue with protocols, begin to incorporate planned open dialogue into your repertoire.
Although open dialogue follows clear expectations and guidelines, there are no strict rules that determine how much or when each person talks. The number of participants in an open dialogue can vary from as few as three or four to more than 100.
One of the most powerful open dialogue forms is the Socratic seminar. Selecting a provocative education article on best practices or academic standards and starting the Socratic seminar with a truly open-ended question can spark a rich dialogue that generates new ideas while building a sense of community.
Open dialogue has benefits and challenges not present in structured dialogue. The major benefits are the diversity of comments and questions that can surface from a large group, the new understandings and connections that emerge, and the sense of community and shared understanding that grow. The biggest challenge is providing the opportunity for everyone in a large group to contribute to the dialogue.
As a next step, begin to practice using dialogue spontaneously. Look for opportunities to use dialogue-compatible words and phrases, such as perhaps, I wonder, and what if? These phrases invite the listener to participate in making meaning. Model listening without interrupting, and only begin to talk when you're certain the other speaker has finished. Lower your voice; slow your pace. Demonstrate thoughtfulness by pausing and paraphrasing. Plan to ensure a time for each person to listen and speak uninterrupted. Then follow up on your intentions. The next time you want to alternate listening and speaking, suggest this dialogue strategy beforehand.
Eventually, share what you are doing with your colleagues and label it dialogue. Ask those with whom you are speaking whether they want to engage in dialogue before going into discussion. Don't be surprised if your colleagues begin to initiate dialogue themselves.

The Leadership Challenge

Genuine dialogue affects a school's culture. The resulting power shift breaks down traditional, hierarchical leadership. Leaders who value having the last word will discover that dialogue does not support this stance. Leaders who are accustomed to leading because of their titles may discover that real leadership depends on ideas, and in that sense anyone can lead.
If you want to bring more dialogue into your school, be prepared for others to express ideas that could be viewed as criticisms of current practices, including your leadership. Resist the tendency to be defensive as dialogue takes hold in the school culture.
In addition, recognize that people may revert to prior behavior—discussion or debate—when they are emotionally invested in a topic, even if they have participated in many successful dialogues. As the leader, you'll need to help everyone remain committed to staying on the path of dialogue.
Learning and practicing dialogue take time. Schools that understand and value the benefits of a culture of shared understanding don't just find the time—they make the time for teachers to practice both structured and open dialogue. The practice of genuine dialogue transforms the way people talk, relate to, and understand one another—and that shared understanding can create a vision of powerful learning for all students.

Easton, L. B. (2009). Protocols for professional learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Easton, L. B. (2011). Professional learning communities by design: Putting the learning back into PLCs. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press and Oxford, OH; Learning Forward.

Garmston, R., &amp; Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon Publishers.

Lois Brown Easton works as a consultant, coach, and author. She is particularly interested in learning designs for adults and for students. She recently retired as director of professional development at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado. Easton was also director of Re:Learning Systems, a partnership between the Coalition of Essential Schools and the Education Commission of the States, from 1992 to 1994. Prior to that, Easton served in the Arizona Department of Education as English/Language Arts coordinator, director of curriculum and instruction, and director of curriculum and assessment planning.

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