Leading Change: Setting Criteria for Effective Dialogue

Katherine Tyler Scott

A skill that every leader, especially those leading significant change, must have is the ability to engage others in dialogue. The leader who can create safe space in which open, honest communication is practiced, ultimately creates a cohesive community of increased trust, understanding, and shared meaning. 

Obtaining the level of commitment necessary to reach a desired goal entails managing an array of human emotions which can, collectively, heighten the confusion, anxiety, and ambivalence that come with change. A leader’s capacity to manage conflicting states of human response equips individuals and groups with the confidence to tackle difficult issues and to deal constructively with change in the future. 

Building the Foundation for Dialogue

What is dialogue? The word dialogue comes from the two Greek words: dia, meaning through, and logos, interpreted as word or meaning To engage in dialogue is to engage in making meaning. In order for true, effective dialogue to occur certain elements must be present: 

  • Equality of participation. Dialogue recognizes the nature of human beings and our different perceptions, assumptions, and opinions that we bring to any given issue. Group norms or ground rules are necessary and they must include treating every person’s perspective with respect.
  • Each person has voice and their voice is heard and equally valued. Top-down structures of relationship and communication that exist externally among members in a group are non-existent in dialogue. 
  • No threat of retribution, judgment, or coercion is allowed and no one’s opinion “trumps” another’s. Title, position, and rank are not permitted to influence how individual ideas and options are received.
  • No preconceived outcome. There are no outcomes or decisions toward which the group is steered or manipulated. 
  • Open agenda. The agenda is not hidden, and the only purpose of convening the group is to engage in authentic communication. 

Making sure the above elements are present is the first step that will help open and manage effective dialogue. The other crucial piece to successful dialogue is through using deep listening skills to ensure participants don’t just hear one another’s words – they listen deeply for understanding and make connections.

Using Deep Listening Skills

To truly listen means you attend to, follow, and reflect upon what is being said by others.

  1. Attending: Ninety-three percent of what we “hear” in communication is nonverbal! Attending demonstrates that the listener is physically involved in hearing what a speaker is saying. Paying attention to the physical body, posture and movement, tone of voice, eye contact, and other non verbal cues will provide the listener with considerably more information. 

    Attending is a genuine intent to understand the other person. Inauthentic leaders are transparent in this respect. Healthy groups can read at the nonverbal level when the leader is being dishonest, reticent, or manipulative. Even when a group cannot articulate this they know there is dissonance between the leader’s intent and impact. Groups can sense a disconnect between what is being said and what is being done. Such behavior undermines the development of trust that is essential to dialogue, and healthy group development. Examples of authentic attending skill are a nodding of the head, sitting up and leaning forward toward the individual speaking, good eye contact, and being focused yet relaxed. 
  2. Following: This skill involves being appropriately and actively silent allowing the silence to be “the mother of the wisest thoughts.” The speaker uses language that invites more exploration and learning, which opens the space for inquiry. Examples of this skill are open-ended questions and “I hear you” responses used in a reasonable, non-rote, and genuine manner.
  3. Reflecting: This skill involves carefully listening and then integrating what was heard, and rephrasing in your own words, the content and the feeling conveyed by the speaker. The listener reads at multiple levels and verbally communicates what they understand the speaker is saying. This enables the speaker to affirm or correct the listener’s understanding. An example of this skill invites a brief case study:

    A colleague, Anna, is talking to you at lunch about something that happened at work today. She tells you that she turned in a report to her boss an hour later than the deadline. She explains that her daughter woke up not feeling well and in her rush to arrange alternative child care she arrived to work late. When she delivered the report to the boss he seemed perturbed. Because he was on his way to an important meeting regarding the report he showed no interest in hearing the reason for missing the deadline. Anna wonders what he thinks of her and what this means for her. 

    Someone not engaged in deep listening would tell Anna what to do, or share a time when they delivered a report late. A reflective response would be something like this: “You were concerned about your daughter’s health and wanted to make sure she was cared for. This contributed to your turning in the report late. Your boss needed the report for a meeting that morning. Now you are worried about your boss being upset and are concerned about what he thinks and what he will do.” The paraphrasing of what Anna shared will enable her to clarify her own thinking and the effect she may have had in the situation.

Deep listening increases individual and group capacity to be empathic toward others. It lessens defensiveness and paves the way to more freely exploring one’s own and others perceptions, assumptions, and opinions. At this point and this point only, is true learning possible. Not until participants are able to expose the underlying assumptions that construct their own views, are any changes of substance and sustainability possible. 

Dialogue and Effective Change: 

When there is an opportunity to use all the deep listening skills and adhere to the established criteria for dialogue, a group will develop the trust and shared meaning necessary to engage in the adaptive work of change. Dialogue creates an environment and process for empathic examination; and in so doing the choice to change remains within the control of the individual rather than in the leader or from the pressure of groupthink. Underlying assumptions which contribute to miscommunication and conflict will be brought out and the parameters of the issues being addressed will be clear. 

Too often, the tendency in a group dealing with change is to minimize the anxiety and tension by rushing into problem-solving and decision-making. Inevitably listening suffers. Engaging in dialogue helps a group get clear about the issues, thoroughly hear the multiple perspectives, and lays the foundation for establishing effective communication, a strong relationship, and long term trust. The sheer act of being listened to and understood without fear of retaliation, attack or judgment is healing in a group, especially one with a history of conflict or repression of differences. It takes leadership to use these skills and implement the ground rules and criteria for engaging in dialogue.


  • Increase trust.
  • Achieve mutual understanding before engaging in decision making.
  • Deal with emotion-laden, potentially divisive content.
  • Manage diverse opinions about a topic or issue.
  • Determine shared interests and establish common ground.
  • Create new ways of seeing and doing things.
  • Develop cohesiveness and community.

Dialogue is not a quick-fix approach; it is a process requiring thought, skill and effort. It is not a panacea for all that ails the performance of groups and organizations; it provides a solid foundation for the development of sustainable change. The most important variable for the successful exercise of dialogue is an effective leader skilled in applying it to many situations.