I was supervising a group of coaches recently when I realised, to my dismay, that we did not share a common understanding of ‘dialogue’. To me, coaching at its best is deeply dialogic – yet so many introductions to coaching – like the GROW model, and conceptions of performance-coaching – are not at all dialogic; just because talking is involved, doesn’t make it dialogue – we could be having a conversation, discussion, debate, for example! I thought it was time to clarify what I mean, as a Gestaltist, by ‘dialogue’…
Central to the Gestalt perspective is the notion that the potential for change and development lies not just within each of us, but more particularly within the relational space between us – for example, between colleagues, or between clients and consultants/coaches. In Gestalt, ‘dialogic’ does not mean ‘having a discussion’ but refers instead to the quality of relating that supports insight, discovery and growth through contact with another. In fact, a dialogic encounter can take place as much through silence or play as through talking!
Dialogue is about making deep and meaningful contact with another person through listening, understanding and totally accepting your own, the other’s and the newly-created perspective and experience between you. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber first introduced the concept of dialogue, or the “I-thou” meeting. It is about respectfully sharing yourself without hiding behind roles, while being genuinely interested in and accepting of others just as they are, without seeing them as means to ends. Sadly, the majority of our connection with others at work is much more in the spirit of treating the other as an object – which Buber described as “I-it” encounters. For Gestaltists, there are four ingredients of dialogue:
- Presence is about being authentic. It is the opposite of role-playing or trying to be anything, although it does involve becoming aware of your own defensive reactions and deliberately lowering them – which often requires will and sometimes effort. Presence includes being open to how you are impacted by the person you are relating with, whether that feels like a good or bad experience
- Inclusion is the opposite of carrying around your soap-box when you talk with another person – it allows for the possibility of hearing and being heard, by not assuming that our position is the right or best one... Inclusion is about trying to ‘park’ our prejudices and assumptions, and not judge in either a positive or negative way. This is the element of dialogue that can be most useful in organisational work. Most meetings we witness are about people talking, sharing their thoughts or defending their position. The deep-listening part of communication is a seriously under-utilised skill.
- Confirmation means that others are accepted as being “good enough” just as they are right now. From this stance, we are also validating all that the other person could be – their unrealised potential. It is akin to respect – to believing the best of people – accepting that people do not set out to ‘do a bad job’ and so, confirming their uniqueness and the strengths they have to build upon will often both motivate and upskill.
- Commitment to Dialogue is essential. In dialogue, all parties have to enter into uncertainty willingly – there can no predetermined outcomes, but a deep commitment to co-create solutions together, that no single party could have forseen! This means that everyone in dialogue has to remain open to being affected and changed by the conversational process.
To what extent is your coaching a genuine dialogue? How do you remain open to the impact of your client without trying to ‘fix’ them?