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Dialog as a Radical Act


If you have ever attended a professional classical or jazz music concert and really listened to the music, you know what a dialog can be like. The music has an ebb and flow that is beautiful to listen to. The musicians must stay close to the music, listening carefully for their cues. When each note is played, it is in keeping with the rhythm and the context of notes that come before it and bridges the way for the notes that follow. There are nuances and changes in the musical language that give special meaning to the listener. So it is with a form of conversation called dialog.

Dialog also has an ebb and flow and it requires the need to stay close to the words, inflection and tone of the conversation. There is a rhythm and ease in the language and interaction. Many of you may have experienced a dialog that created the kind of flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Dialog is a rare event in our modern organizations. Most often when we are speaking face to face with someone, it is a one-way conversation reminiscent of staccato in certain types of music: detached, abrupt, disjointed and disconnected.

It is radical

Dialog has an important place in your leadership. It can create the space where the important things that have been left unsaid get expressed. It’s the foundation for leading at a higher level than you’ve led before. It creates, solidifies, and sustains the relationships you need to support greatness in your organization.

However, dialog in the workplace is a radical act because:

It requires you to slow down, going against the pace of your work life.

It requires personal courage to avoid the tyranny of the urgent and the daily distractions you face.

It takes your undivided attention and your presence.

It isn’t considered of value and it isn’t rewarded in most organizations.

Dialog requires skill

Many of us aren’t hard-wired for dialog. It requires practice and skill development. William Isaacs, who wrote a lovely book called “Dialog and the Art of Thinking Together” says that in dialog, people are not only speaking together, they are creating together. According to Isaacs, in order to speak and create together, you must:

Listen to yourself and others without resistance and imposition;

Respect the integrity of another’s position;

Suspend your assumptions and judgment;

Speak your truth.

We all know that we need more of these things from the leaders in our organizations. Practice them. Start the dialog that needs to occur in your organization and watch music happen.

What’s one small step you can take to start a dialog today?

11 Responses to “Dialog as a Radical Act”

  • Dearest Mary Jo,

    I find this topic fascinating and I am truly grateful that you have written a great post on this topic.

    Reading your post reminds me of so many coaching sessions I have with leaders and teams about dialogue and the importance and difference between conversation and discussion.

    I am feeling inspired…by your post. I would like to follow up with one of my own. I will credit YOU with my inspiration.

    Mary Jo thanks for inspiring me!

    Admire you greatly

  • Dolly, I can’t wait for your post. No need to credit me, really. You are a great inspiration for me as well!

  • Susan Mazza:

    Wonderful post Mary Jo. It seems hard to believe that a practice that as you put it “takes your undivided attention and your presence.” is considered radical, yet it is. One way presentations and debate still seem to rule. Perhaps a place to start is to ask a compelling question that opens a conversation rather than elicits an answer, that you have a natural curiosity around rather than a sense of knowing.

  • Great suggestion, Susan. It’s certain to start the conversation off as a “two way”. Thanks!

  • Mary Jo, I believe you have hit the jugular vein of our social and political dysfunction. Successful communities or every kind always have a degree of consensus underpinning their relationship. It used to be taught in school in civics class and one would think that leaders/teachers would have given it more press now that we are multicultural and multi faith et al.
    I use ‘consensus’ regularly in my speech and writing in an attempt to permeate the cultural vernacular, and I find young people especially open to the concept.
    Thankyou for having your finger on the pulse of everyone.
    Mary Jo for President :-)
    Greg in Toronto,Canada

  • Greg, thanks for pointing out that the issue of lack of dialog isn’t only within our organizations, and for promoting the idea of consensus. Interesting that you find young people especially open to the concept. Perhaps they might be able to catalyze the changes that we need in the ways that we interact with each other. P.S. I’m already president of my company and the Professional Coaches Association of Michigan :); for the time being, I must admit that I’ll leave further aspirations to the people who can do it much better than I!

  • Great post! Totally agree. I have long advocated that questions are the best way to engage people, i.e. “What do you think?” We don’t ask such questions because, in my opinion, our whole identity is bound up with being solution generators. Our confidence is based, in large part, on our ability to provide answers. It’s like scoring goals in sports, providing a great answer or idea is what gets the most recognition and what helps us differentiate ourselves. No surprise that Hofstede found the US to be the most individualistic culture in the world. I have written a post myself on the many uses of questions:

  • Hi Mitch, Love your sports analogy, and thanks for the link to your post. I have also written extensively about using questions!

  • […] been inspired by @mjasmus, a thought leader on Twitter. A few weeks ago she wrote an amazing post Dialog as a Radical Act If you have not been to her blog, please visit and visit often. I know I […]

  • This is a radical idea and one that I have a personal intention to continue to focus on and grow more into. It is something I’ve thought about more and more lately. Yes, it takes self-awareness and a desire to embrace the “uncommon”. It’s an idea whose time as come! Thanks for this post!

  • Valencia, best wishes on the great work you are doing. Let us know how it goes, and thanks for stopping by.

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Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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