dialogue-deck-3d-300x261Have you ever been in a situation and wondered, “What should I say now?” “The Dialogue Deck” is a definitive collection of phrases, tools, techniques, questions, practical advice and sample language to help create successful conversations with colleagues, customers, bosses, team members, family and friends.

Over the years, our clients have asked us to help them script important conversations. With thousands of conversations behind us, we have identified eight skill sets that make conversations turn out better. The skill sets have their roots in “dialogue,” a form of verbal communication based on inquiring into assumptions, learning through inquiry and disclosure and creating shared meanings. Compare that with “discussion” that happens more frequently in business and is a form of verbal communication based on justifying, defending assumptions, persuading, selling and telling. We believe that individuals, teams and organizations will be well served by developing dialogue skills and we are offering this deck as a tool to support you in this process.

Getting Started

There is more than one way to use this deck. Some approaches are more planned and structured and others are more fluid. No one approach is right or wrong. We are happy to offer the following suggestions that other clients have found helpful, and we look forward to getting feedback about what works best for you.

Suggestion #1: No Limits

Read through the entire deck and make a pile of the cards that intrigue you for whatever reason. Select the two or three cards that are most interesting to you and practice them every day for a week. What differences in your conversations with others do you notice? What improvements are you experiencing? Make notes and track your progress. After a week, move on to the next two or three cards you selected. Repeat the process until you have practiced all of the cards you selected. What is different about your communication skills at the end of this process? Which skills do you want to continue to strengthen?

Suggestion #2: By the Numbers

Read through the descriptions of the eight skill areas. On a scale of 1-10, (1=low and 10=high), rate your current level of proficiency in each skill area. Begin with the focus cards and practice the language and tools every day for a week. Make notes and track your progress. How is the quality of your conversation changing? How are others reacting to you? What results are you experiencing? Feel free to keep the cards with which you are working on your desk or in an easily accessible location so that you can refer to them. If people ask you about the cards, share what you are doing. Invite them to provide feedback over time about the quality of your conversation. In the beginning, the language may not feel natural and people may laugh when they hear you saying things that you normally don’t say. So what? You are learning a new skill for the purpose of more consistently achieving the results you want. Keep at it and you will become more proficient every day. After a week or two, if you choose, move on to the next skill area and repeat the process.

Suggestion #3: If Only…

Many people know they have a skill area that could be stronger. Maybe they have gotten feedback from colleagues, customers or family members about their abilities to listen or see things from someone else’s point of view. If you have a skill area that could use some work, select the cards in that area and review them. Practice one tool or language from that area every day and make notes about your experiences. What does it take to make the language “yours”? How is the quality of your conversation changing as you become more skilled with the tools and language? Consider which skill area you might move to next to build on your success.

Skill Building Sections

The cards in this deck are grouped in eight skill building sections: focus, listen, question, reveal, challenge, disagree, negotiate and commit. The order of the cards is significant.

Focus is a fundamental requirement. Without it, you run the risk of being an “accidental communicator.” Listening on purpose is also foundational. Once you have those two skills, you can frame powerful questions that enrich the quality of information coming into your conversations. Next, work on revealing your own thoughts and feelings. Challenging supports fluid thinking and allows you and others to consider more than one point of view. Disagreeing effectively is also important. Learn to disagree without derailing the conversation or the relationship. Negotiating skills support you in making connections and building solutions. Finally, learn techniques to commit to future action and follow up.

Before having any important conversation, you need to consider what you want the outcome to be when the conversation is over. In other words, if you envision having the conversation and it goes great, what does that look like? What is the result? What is the agreement that has been reached? How do you (or the other person) feel about the outcome? These are questions to think about as you prepare for the conversation. They will help you to get centered and to concentrate on achieving the results you have defined as “successful.” Review cards 1-6 and make note of the questions you find most helpful. Over the next week, ask yourself these questions and make note of your answers. What do your answers reveal about the way you approach important conversations? To what extent do you notice a pattern with specific individuals or specific subjects? How is this approach working for you or getting in your way? What might you adjust in order to achieve more consistently the results that are important to you?
Most people are not good listeners. They are distracted from what the other person is saying by many things: their own thoughts, background noise, feelings, conflicting information coming their way, etc. Effective listening is a critical skill and one that can be developed if you truly are interested in improving the quality of your communication with others. When you prepare for an important conversation, you likely will make a few notes about the points you want to cover. Making notes helps you to free your thoughts so that you can concentrate more fully on the other person and what they are saying. You can pay attention to how closely their verbal messaging and non-verbal messaging are aligned. You can consider the extent to which what they are saying matches their previous messages on the subject and to what extent it is new information. Listening is a key part of the process of sharing and discovering information that will lead you to the most effective conclusions or agreements possible. Review cards 7-12 and make note of the language and tools you find most helpful. Over the next week, practice that language and the tools you selected. Make note of what happens in your conversations. What is different? To what extent are you listening more carefully? Do others feel more “heard” by you? How do you know? What impact are you creating by strengthening your listening skills?
You can ask questions that you have prepared in order to go beyond the surface and to get more specific information on the topic. You truly can seek to understand the other person’s perspective and test that understanding using your listening and questioning skills. Frame questions so they go beyond “yes” and “no” answers. Encourage the other person to help you understand why they think or feel the way they do. The more information you have gathered, the greater chance you have at truly understanding the other person and recognizing the areas of commonality that exist between you. Review cards 13-17 and make note of the questions you find most helpful. Use these questions over the next week in important conversations and make note of the results. What is different in these conversations? How much more are you learning by asking questions? What is challenging about asking questions? How can you incorporate your favorite questions into your conversations? What is the benefit of doing so?
Once you have “heard” the other person, you then can ask to share your thinking. Generally, when people feel heard, they are more likely to extend the same courtesy to the other person in a conversation. When it is your turn, you can share your thinking and rationale and then bring the other person back into the conversation by asking them what you may be missing or other similar questions. It is important to frame your messages clearly and to be direct with care so that the other person is most likely to “get it.” At the same time, you will want to stay open to any new information that may come your way and to be responsible for how your feelings and reactions may color your thinking. Review cards 18-22 and make note of the language you would like to practice over the next week. If you are working with the cards sequentially, you are now in a position to leverage clearer focus and stronger listening and questioning skills. Share your thinking in a direct, respectful way. Acknowledging that you know only your perspective and demonstrating your sincere interest in learning the other person’s perspective are powerful behaviors that will support more substantive conversations. How easy or difficult is it for you to share your reasoning on specific topics? How easy or difficult is it for you to share your reasoning with specific people? What supports your efforts? How can you create these supports where they do not naturally exist?
Part of the process of working to a conclusion or a mutual understanding involves perspective-taking. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes or play devil’s advocate for the purpose of seeing things from more than one side. Challenging effectively is a skill set that takes practice since listening to and considering another perspective may feel threatening and may require a comfort level with ambiguity with which a person is not generally comfortable. Review cards 23-28 and make note of the language you want to practice over the next week. Incorporate this language into your important conversations. How easy or difficult is it for you to look at things from a perspective other than your own? How do others react when you take the time to consider a situation from their viewpoint? What is the benefit of increasing your skills in this area?
Sometimes you may disagree with other people. It is important to express your point of view and stay engaged in the conversation. Glossing over the difference or trying to force your point of view on another person is not effective and does not support a healthy relationship. Explaining your perspective directly, with care, checking to see where there may be some points of agreement on which you can build, citing objective criteria to the extent they exist, asking questions to further the conversation and working toward a solution all increase the chances that you will be able to craft a joint solution. Review cards 29-32. What language contained in these cards is new for you? How might you incorporate some of this language into your next important conversation? Over the next week, practice this language and make note of the results you experience. How do others react when you acknowledge their points first and then raise concerns? How difficult is it to eliminate “but,” “although” and “however” from your conversation and what happens when you do?
When you are in the midst of negotiating with someone else, it is tempting to see them as the barrier to the solution or answer you want. They are too “stubborn,” “inflexible,” “naïve” or “selfish.” If you find yourself focusing on the other people and directing a lot of energy their way, it may be time for you to consider your contribution to the situation at hand. How are you “being” in the conversation? To what extent are you working to really hear the other side? What can you offer as a way to create a solution? Remember, all parties contribute in some way — the challenge for you is to find common ground and build upon it. Review cards 33-37. Identify language and approaches you haven’t used before. Over the next week, incorporate this language and selected approaches into your important conversations. What results do you experience? What is different about the tone and outcome of these conversations? What is different about you in these conversations? Make note of your findings.
A commitment is a promise. In order for all parties to fulfill their promises, it is important for everyone to be clear about what they are expected to do/deliver and when. Don’t rush to adjourn your conversation once you hear the first bits and pieces of agreement. Acknowledge the agreement and then take the time to clarify the actions each person will take so that you are more likely to achieve the successful end you all envision. Build in some kind of checkpoints or ways to touch base to ensure that everyone stays on track. Make note of the agreements made and share those notes with all parties. If anything looks as if it will get in the way of you keeping a commitment you made, inform the other parties at once and work out a contingency plan. Take promises seriously and do your best to always follow through as agreed. This strengthens your credibility with others and gives you a strong base on which to build next time. Review cards 38-43. Select any of the tools that are of interest to you and apply them over the next week when you are having a conversation that should end with both/all parties making commitments to action. What result do you experience? How do any of the tools help to clarify next steps? What language or tools have the greatest impact for you? Make note of your findings.


Good luck! Please tell us how “The Dialogue Deck” works for you.

— Lisa Nabors & Virginia Bianco-Mathis, Strategic Performance Group