By Stephen W. Hiemstra
One practical implication of being created in the image of God is that when you speak with someone, it is like speaking to God himself. In fact, many times God speaks to us through the people around us. A second practical implication is that each and every human has intrinsic value in the eyes of God. Between the hint of the divine and this intrinsic value, everyone has an interesting story to tell—if one takes the time to listen. One only cares for something of value (Benner 1998, 21).
Dialogue in Writing
Screenwriters understand dialogue better than anyone. James Scott Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (Bell 2014, 12-13)
The role of compression is important. Bell (2014, 16-17) writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. Bell (2014, 22) sees five functions of dialogue: reveal story information, reveal character, set the tone, set the scene, and reveal theme.
In weaving a story, Bell (2014, 25) advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (Bell 2014, 35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other. The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other. Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (Bell 2014, 37-38)
Why do I go through all these writing tips about dialogue? When we listen to each other and to ourselves, much can be learned that might not be discovered any other way.
Dialogue in Business
Corporate lawyer Thomas Stanton (2012, 10) writes:
One of the critical distinctive factors between successful and unsuccessful firms in the crisis was their application of what this book calls “constructive dialogue.” Successful firms managed to create productive and constructive tension between (1) those who wanted to do deals, or offer certain financial products and services, and (2) those in the firm who were responsible for limited risk exposure.
The importance of quality dialog within the firm or government agency arises from the simple observation that no single individual, no matter how bright or experienced, could understand the totality of the highly technical financial environment that now exists. Having an open-minded executive is accordingly insufficient; the firm culture must embrace active learning and open communication.
Good Dialogue is Increasing Rare
If dialogue is important in caring for people, in communication, and in risk management in a corporate setting, why has good dialogue become so rare? These days we are used to commentators and politicians shouting at each on television with virtually no one listening. We are also accustomed to interactions on social media that share information not expecting a response and, if one is given, the person responding is de-friended.
It seems that our egos have become so fragile that we cannot hear anyone providing an alternative view. We even have a word for this fragile-ego syndrome: micro-aggression. A micro-aggression can be perceived by the smallest slight, like not paying enough attention to all members of a group.
In this context, it is hard for people to hear information inconsistent with their self-image or preconceptions of an issue. Dialogue dies.
Context for Dialogue
For authors (PGMS) collaborated in 2012 to write a book, Crucial Conversations, that became a popular in business circles. One tip worth the ticket of admission is the author’s breakdown of a dialog into four stages: presenting facts (see and hear), telling a story, feeling, and acting. They observe that once emotions take over actions get locked in. The formation of productive stories presents the last best chance to channel a dialog towards useful action.
An infinite number of stories can be told, but not all comport well with the facts or are organizationally helpful. Three kinds of unproductive (clever) stories—victim, villain, and helpless stories—arise that are usually counter-productive (PGMS 2012, 116-119). Claiming victimhood means accepting no responsibility for what happens next or even offering to help turn things around. The same is true for pointing a finger at a “villain” or claiming a lack of power to change things.
Dialogue is Transactional
Most dialogue is transactional in the sense that even when we disagree, we both have a stake in talking and are willing to talk to reconcile our differences. This does not imply that the discussion will be easy, but the outcome of the discussion is presumably open-ended. In the framework given by PGMS, this is a sharing of facts and a comparison of stories that explain the facts.
When we start off talking in terms of unproductive stories—victim, villain, or claiming helplessness, we shutdown dialogue with an expression of feelings in the PGMS framework and try to force the other party into surrendering to our interpretation of events. This sharing of feelings signals that the dialogue is over and a digging in of the heels. This all-or-nothing negotiating strategy is likely to produce resentment and risks a violent response. It is unlikely to produce compromise because it is a strategy that shuts down conversation.
A Biblical Example
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts us to be reconciled with our neighbors before going to church to worship. The example he gives is of a man who has failed to pay his debts. Jesus says:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. (Matt 5:25)
In today’s context, a lender may extend payments or settle for less than full payment for someone unable to pay a debt for reasons like illness or unemployment, but the debtor must be willing to dialogue with the lender, as Jesus has recommended. Claiming victimhood or having been cheated by a villainous lender will obviously not end so nicely.
Bell, James Scott 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.
Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Patterson, Kerry Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (PGMS). 2012. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Stanton, Thomas H. 2012. Why Some Firms Thrive While Others Fail: Governance and Management Lessons from the Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press.
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.