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Creating an effective dialogue

Dialogue is about people engaging in discussions about the why, how, what and when of change. Watch Dr Julie Hodges explain how to do this effectively
A key part of communication of change is dialogue– having conversations with people. Dialogue involves listening and understanding what others are saying. To listen effectively, leaders and managers need to put aside their own perspective, and listen attentively to the point of view of others. Listening is one of the most valuable leadership skills. You want to always listen, be able to be inclusive in that change– not to dictate a change, and make people participate in that change. And therefore, be able to hear both perspectives on that change. It is often people within the organisation who will have ideas about the challenges we face. Listening to them can help identify different solutions.
The leader who listens is one step down the road in engaging the members of their organisation. On the other hand, leaders who do not listen, can quickly find themselves surrounded by people who are alienated, de-motivated, or disengaged. So how can we listen more effectively? Good listening is not just about hearing what is said, but being perceptive to what is left unsaid. There is also a fundamental difference between listening with an agenda, and listening without an agenda. You can’t listen effectively if you’ve already decided what you want to do, and are simply looking for sponsors that validate your belief.
This can lead to people being unfairly labelled as resistant to change, whereas it may be they are merely reacting to a proposed change which they think could be done differently. Of course, you will have views about what needs to happen, but it is important to put these aside in order to listen and empathise with what is being said. And just as important is the willingness to take these views on board, and adjust plans, if appropriate. To develop trust and ensure that engagement through the process is meaningful, I think it’s important to start from– are you actually going to change things? Are you prepared to change something as a result of what you hear back?
And I think everything that we asked we were prepared to change. So we asked questions about the structure and what it could be like. We did make changes as a result of the feedback,
and we were able to get back to people to say: here are some of the things that we’ve changed. So don’t ask questions if you’re not prepared to change things. I think it can actually undermine the whole process. It can undermine the trust that people have in you, as an individual, and the leaders of the organisation and in the change process. So make sure that the questions you ask are ones what you can respond to.
Listening provides an opportunity to understand people’s reactions to change. If employees believe that you are genuinely open to hearing what they have to say, then you will likely find that they will respond well to voicing their perspectives and ideas. Through the opportunity to voice their views, ideas, and opinions, people can help formulate change interventions. But how can you know that dialogue is being effective? Well, you can observe how employees react and respond to it, how motivated they may be, and whether it has stopped or limited rumours. Over the course of a change process, feedback needs to be sought regularly, and, where possible, acted upon.
I think one of the lessons we learned from previous change processes was you need to close the feedback loop. So previously, we’d ask staff for their views on things, but we hadn’t necessarily gone back. So as part of this change process, we had two surveys in relation to the organisational structure, and two surveys in relation to the office move. And in both occasions, we had an interim step where we gave some feedback, and people were able to see how things were developing as we went.
And then at the end of the process– and this was really important to building trust around the change process, and the staff engagement process– at the end of it we went back and said, so here’s what you said to us, here’s what we did. And if we never acted, here’s why we haven’t acted on something that you’ve said already. As part of dialogue, feedback enhances confidence and trust that people’s voices are being listened to, and respected. There’s a wide range of methods for capturing feedback from individuals, including pulse surveys, one-off surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews. Line managers are also an important part of the feedback loop.
Part of what we built into the process was a layering of the communications, so that the managers received the communications in advance of all staff. And that gave them the time and space to be able to ask questions about what does this mean? Do I understand this? Am I able to answer questions about this, if they’re raised for me? And that also formed part of a feedback loop for us, so by having the conversation with them, they were able to give us their immediate feedback on it. But they, then, could ask staff questions, or provide them support. And through that, they brought more information back to us that helped us think about how to take things forward.

We’ve seen that change is often an emotional process and spent some time thinking about ethical issues – part of responding well is to ensure that people are given outlets to express their thoughts.

At the heart of change communications is dialogue and creating conversations that lead to understanding and action. Dialogue is about people engaging in discussions about the why, how, what and when of change.

Although you may think dialogue is a straightforward concept, as you’ll see in this video, how you approach this as a leader and manager can have significant effects on your success.

Reflection point

Having watched the video, has it made you consider your own practices? How effective have you been at listening, eliciting feedback and acting on it?

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Leading and Managing People-Centred Change

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