Dialogue is one of those frustrating multiple-meaning words. In the playwriting and novel-writing world, “dialogue” is a noun referring to the words that characters speak themselves in conversation with other characters. In the business world (and much to my English-major chagrin), “dialoguing” has become a verb form meaning “speaking with other people.” Dialogue has been a key term in instructional coaching as well, and for good reason.

In the instructional coaching world, the word “dialogue”  describes a conversation in which two or more people come together to talk about something important, and, in short, neither one is attempting to control the thoughts or actions of the other person. That sounds simple enough, but consider this: When was the last time you were speaking with someone about an issue you care about deeply, but you weren’t trying to persuade them to feel the way you do or to take action to support you? For most of us, those kinds of conversations are rare.

Now that my job involves a great deal of travel, I have redoubled my efforts to make sure that I communicate regularly with my husband when I’m away. He is, needless to say, beyond important in my life. I value his counsel above all others. I want to hear what he has to say. I want to have true dialogue with him perhaps more than with anyone else in the world. So why, then, when we talk on the phone, can I listen to his ideas for only a limited chunk of time before I start going down the list of everything I want him to do:

  • When is he doing the grocery shopping?
  • Did he fill the prescriptions?
  • How’s the dog? (She’s my obsession now that our kids are grown.) How does she look? Did he remember her medicine? Is he in touch with her doggie feelings?

Of course, conversations with our adult sons are not much better. I want to hear about their lives, their thoughts, their worries. But then I want so badly to tell my elder child to brush his hair, and I want to know the last time my younger son changed the cat litter in his house. Control, control, control. I so deeply want to believe that everything is under control. The truth is, I am not in control of any of them.

True dialogue involves letting go of the illusory notion that we can control other people. We simply can’t. As Jim Knight often says, “People are gonna do what they’re gonna do.” To move forward at work or at home, consciously letting go of control is the only way to let the people we are working with or living with know that we value them.

Jim’s work in developing first the Partnership Principles and later the Better Conversations Habits emphasizes the importance of dialogue in establishing trusting and productive work relationships. In dialogue, all participants are equals (equally capable of contributing to the conversation and of learning from each other). Each believes in the other as a willing and engaged participant, and each has the other’s best interests at heart. They can each share their expertise and knowledge, but they do not intend to persuade or to coerce the other into following their advice. They listen as much as they speak. They want to learn more about the other person and the topic they’re discussing and to understand that person’s perspective.

Dialogue does not occur by accident. It requires intention and self-awareness. It requires a level of metacognition to know when is the best time to speak and when is the best time to listen. To break down the barriers that top-down organizational structures have in place that thwart true partnership, dialogue is one of the best ways through to a better culture.

Jim’s research began with a focus on understanding adults and change, and that area is complex, with many more factors playing a role in resistance to change than one might imagine. This post focuses on the element of dialogue because dialogue was the missing element in several entries submitted for our ICG coaching certification process. Perhaps it was absent because it is so challenging to engage in true dialogue, but it may also be absent because of misconceptions about what it is, what it looks like, and how to know whether it’s happening.

ICG Certification: What Scoring Taught Us This Year about Understanding Adults and Change

Dialogue was the key issue when scoring the Understanding Adults and Change entry. The entry itself involves using the Fostering Dialogue (Looking Back) form from Better Conversations to analyze a video clip of the coach and teacher engaged in dialogue. In most submitted candidate videos for that entry, we saw the coach take the stance of listener in the video, not the stance of someone mutually engaged in the conversation. Conversely, in other videos tied to different entries, we saw some of the same coaches take a more directive stance, that of offering advice in a way where the teacher could have assumed that he or she was being directed to follow the advice. In both cases, dialogue was not evident.

The difficult element of providing follow-up on video submissions is that analyzing conversations is messy. There are not always clean lines between speaking and listening, and capturing a dialogue on video is admittedly challenging, That said, reviewing the three coaching approaches out in the world today may help to frame how we talk about the matter.

Facilitative coaching: This style of coaching is most common among life coaches and executive coaches. It involves a highly skilled professional seeking coaching supports that primarily involves questions that refine the professional’s thinking. In such a situation, a skilled teacher might approach a coach by saying, “I have an idea for how I want to approach introducing fractions. Can you help me think it through so that I make sure I have thought of all the stumbling blocks?” The coach then asks the teacher questions that help that teacher to anticipate and address all of the factors that may play out in the lesson.

Directive coaching: This style of coaching is often what many school systems have in mind when they hire coaches. They want coaches to work with teachers to help implement system-determined goals and initiatives (what Jim defines as technical support) and also to help perceived “weaker” teachers to become better teachers. The common notion of coaches as “fixers” has its history in this model, in which the coach is the “expert” and the teacher needs the guidance of an expert to solve classroom problems.

This “mentor-apprentice” model is common because it feels like control. It feels like “putting out a fire” in the school, instructionally speaking. But the research is compelling that it has limited to no effectiveness in engaging professionals in change or in long-term sustainability of change. It can be improved by taking a partnership approach as much as possible, but it is still fundamentally a top-down model of support.

Dialogical coaching: This style of coaching is partnership coaching, Jim’s model of coaching. In it, the coach and teacher are equally valued for their knowledge, but the teacher is positioned as the decision-maker in selecting the goal for students and in selecting the strategy to hit the goal. To aid the teacher in determining the goal and the strategy, the coach and teacher engage in dialogue about students to learn from each other, to have a deep sense of understanding the reality of that specific classroom, and to establish a trusting partnership. This is the model with compelling research on its side for school improvement.

Oftentimes, coaches are so conscientious about not wanting to dominate a conversation that they hold back perhaps too much, to the point that they are merely listening and asking questions (a facilitative approach). Conversely, a coach can so badly want to alleviate a teacher’s stress level when discussing student concerns that they rely too much on their inner “advice monster” (a directive approach), not always to control necessarily but because they genuinely want to help.

Moving toward a dialogical model (like engaging in dialogue itself) is difficult because it asks us to give up old habits and ingrained hierarchical thinking about job roles and status. Dialogue does not involve the default to solely listening or to dominating the conversation, It is a balancing act of knowing when to offer expertise and when to learn from the expertise of the other person. It is perhaps the most challenging element of instructional coaching or interpersonal communication. It’s also perhaps the shift that is the most likely to move students, schools, and relationships forward because it marks a shift that engenders trust and engages professionals in change.