The following is section 3 of 4 from Module 1 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict,” a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University. These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.
Collaboration As a Process of Shared Learning
In the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High the authors, Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler, describe a conversational context in which we:
- Have differences of opinion,
- The stakes are high, and
- We are experiencing strong emotions.
They go on to state:
Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feeling makes up our ‘personal pool of meaning’. This pool not only informs us but also propels every action. When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition, we don’t share the same pool. Our opinions differ. I believe one thing, you another. I have one history, you another.
When we are threatened by these differences of opinion we quickly attempt to resolve the threat by arguing who has the “correct” pool of understanding. A conversation of collaboration, on the other hands seeks to merge these two diverse conversations into a deeper, shared pool of understanding. This, by no means assumes that we are now in agreement on everything. In reality, we will find things on which we agree, things on which we remain individually and collectively unsure, and things about which we will fundamentally disagree. This is a typical state when discussing complex issues.
In the book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs comments on three types of conversational structure; debate, dialogue and discussion. The word debate, at its root, means to beat down. Your goal is to win the argument by “beating down” the position of your opponent.
He says dialogue…
…is about exploring the nature of choice. To choose is to select among alternatives. Dialogue is about evoking insight, which is a way of reordering our knowledge – particularly the taken-for-granted assumptions that people bring to the table. Discussion is about making a decision. Unlike dialogue, which seeks to open possibilities and see new options, discussion seeks closure and completion. The word decide means to resolve difficulties by cutting through them.
The value of dialogue for groups and teams is that it creates a process of shared thinking and learning out of which emerge new possibilities. Returning to the quote by Peter Senge at the introduction to this module:
The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.
What fundamentally creates value in collaboration is our ability to engage in conversations of shared learning. It is where we experience the value in diversity of opinion.
A fundamental task of any group or team tasked with a complex problem is to engage in shared learning.
Group discussion questions
As a group,use the following questions to increase your shared understanding of conversational structures that support collaboration and shared learning:
- Identify and describe examples of group conversations you have had characterized as debate, discussion, and dialogue.
- What contributed to the structure of each conversation? By intent? Unintentionally?
- What were the qualitative differences for you in each of these experiences?
- In your experience, what contributes to a group’s ability to engage in dialogue and shared learning?