Leadership As Dialogue?

My recent reading has focused on the practice of creating highly productive working relationships has encouraged me to consider how to most positively influence the space between us, and therefore create the social engagement process. I can see that there are only three things that can fill space between us – our words (what we say), our emotions (what we feel), and our physical bodies (either through contact, or indirectly via body language). It would then stand to reason that we can create powerful connections by properly leveraging these three items.

Clearly, physical contact only plays a part in work relationships via handshakes, but notice of the power of a confident handshake and you’ll be even more convinced to watch out for the impact of body language during interactions – it makes an impactful psychological statement. All too often, feelings are sub-consciously denied in the work place, as if they don’t exist, but it will create strong connections if you bring feelings into the conversation. For example, saying how you feel about something, without blame, simply disclosure, or asking another person how they feel – perhaps as a result of their body language. Emotion is a strong connector. But for now, I’d like to focus on the importance of the words, how can we create really productive conversations that further our own and our organisational aims?

In his book, Dialogue (Isaacs, 1999) William Isaacs helpfully defines many key words in this communication area. From Latin, conversation is the process of ‘turning together’ (con verser), taking turns to speak – this also clarifies the body language issue where people are speaking, but their legs are turned away, or their feet are pointing away, from each other – essentially they are not in real conversation! When we hear each other’s words, we like some bits, and pay attention, but the pieces that we don’t like, we either drift away, or react to them. We essentially go through the mental process of ‘deliberation’, which means ‘to weigh out’, seeing what we agree with and what we don’t, and how much, so we have a guide as to what to do next. As this point, Isaacs suggests, we have a choice. Either we ‘suspend’ our thoughts, and remain open to input, or we close down and ‘defend’ our current perspective. Given that this is not a conscious choice, the reaction is very quick, and highly noticeable if we choose to defend. Isaacs posits that the route to true dialogue is to suspend and listen without resistance, which leads to reflective dialogue where exploration of issues can take place to get to deeper questions and frame key problems. In turn generative dialogue becomes possible, where unprecedented possibilities are invented and new insights flow.

Clearly, this dialogue process forms the true engine of talking therapies and coaching. Whilst I’m not always conscious of it at the time, I can relate to its presence in my 1-1 client interactions. Given that dialogue helps individuals articulate their visions and energise to achieve them, I find myself wondering if good dialogue processes may be at the root of excellent leadership? A leader who can suspend their own perspectives and get into reflective and generative dialogue with her followers will be widely supported to easily reframe problems and produce the shared visions we associate with excellent leaders. Their meaningful interactions will also have produced extensive relational energy which can be used to power progress towards their organisational aims. As a result, the trust and respect that we willingly offer a good leader will grow as an important by product. This ability to suspend judgement feels very key here, and may well be the hallmark of a great leader.

However there will be times where a good leader must defend his cause, push forward his vision, or make a clear decision. Here he needs to stick to his guns, but still be open to the possibility that he may be wrong. Isaacs refers to this process as ‘skilled discussion’. It involves putting yourself in someone’s shoes and enquiring behind the evidence that supports their alternative position and applying the same logic to your own position. Skilful and tentative questioning will produce a dialectic, where alternatives are pitted productively against each other, but where space is created for new views to emerge out of both. In essence, this is collaboration through words.

Dialogue  comes from the Greek words ‘dias’ which means ‘through’ and ‘logos’ which translates to ‘word’ or ‘meaning’, so literally it is a ‘flow of meaning’. Logos also has an ancient meaning of ‘to gather together’ which is best rendered in English as ‘relationship’. So the extent to which people can generate dialogue, i.e. ‘meaning through relationship’ may offer a good measure of their true leadership potential.

Thankfully, these skills can be further developed through group coaching processes, which can, and should, form a key component of effective Leadership Development Programmes.



Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. Doubleday, New York.