Distinguished Dialogues

Effective dialogue requires give-and-take. This raises it from a question-and-answer to a creative interaction.

Recall the most valued conversations you’ve had. What elements made them positive? There are likely several. First, each person valued the view of the other. The give-and-take was one in which both parties could give undivided attention. And the outcome was that learning happened.

“Mindset” is the term for the tone-setting at the beginning of a discussion that ensures a meeting of the minds on three questions. If both mentor and protégé are of one mind on these questions, the discussion will have a positive outcome.

Why are we here? Both parties need to be clear on the purpose of the conversation.

What will it mean to you?The potential for both participants to benefit from the dialogue is important.

How shall we talk? Mindset also includes telegraphing the tone and style. Even if tone is implied, a brief reminder is useful.

The expression “priming the pump” has real meaning for people who grew up in a rural area in the 1950s. Located in most rural backyards, water pumps required priming to function.

The human version of priming the pump is assisting insight-making by helping the discussion accomplish its function. There are five skills for catalyzing the give-and-take of dialogue: asking initiating or clarifying questions, paraphrasing, summarizing, extending and using nonverbal cues.

I’ve previously explored in this column the art of stimulating learning through questions. The questions that work best are those that are direct but not leading, especially open-ended questions — those beginning with what, when, where or how.

Some examples: “What was the most challenging part of the task?” “How did your team approach the problem?”

The purpose of paraphrasing is to demonstrate that you’re listening to what is being said. Protégés appreciate knowing that they’ve been heard accurately; this serves to prime the discussion pump.

There are four types of paraphrasing:

Restatement: In your own words, rather than the protégé’s, state a condensed version of what the protégé said. Don’t parrot or repeat the protégé’s exact words; this communicates that you heard the protégé’s statement but didn’t understand it.

General to specific: If the protégé’s statement is a generalization, paraphrase it by expanding on one part of the statement or by giving an example. By stating the specific, you show that you understand the general.

Specific to general: If the protégé’s statement is specific, paraphrase by stating a generalization or principle. By formulating a broader response, you indicate not only that you understand the statement but also that the protégé’s statement can be generalized.

Restatement in opposite terms: Convey that you understand the meaning of the protégé’s statement by restating it in opposite terms. If the protégé says a manager should do something, you can restate by saying that the manager should not do the opposite.

Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing. The difference is that the goal of paraphrasing is to mirror the meaning to check for understanding, whereas the goal of summarizing is to synthesize. Be careful about how you use certain phrases when summarizing. Too many uses of a catchphrase can begin to sound mechanical and condescending.

Your nonverbal behavior can also prime the discussion to communicate understanding. Conversely, certain nonverbal behaviors can have a detrimental effect.

An appropriate gesture is to nod or say “uh-huh” to indicate understanding and encourage further dialogue. But don’t overdo either of these cues or the protégé may feel that you are trying to manipulate the discussion rather than listening and encouraging.

Above all, be yourself while setting the tone. Ask questions and sum up discussions with your protégé rather than doing anything artificial to keep the give-and-take going.

Discussions are ultimately opportunities to enhance learning — not for the mentor to teach. Stay out of the way to let the protégé think. Sometimes a simple “Good!” or “Thank you” is best.