Trust, Service

& Accountability

Behaving Ethically

Effective Dialogue

The more novel and difficult the ethical choice we face, the more we need to rely on discussion and dialogue with others about the dilemma. Only by careful exploration of the problem, aided by the insights and different perspectives of others, can we make good ethical choices in such situations.

(Santa Clara University:

What is Effective Dialogue?

Effective dialogue is an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, especially a complex issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement. 

It is a common method used in all workplaces to scope out the nature of complex problems that need to be solved, to discover and assess issues, discover alternatives, challenge assumptions, evaluate the pros and cons of various possible approaches and develop solutions.

Effective dialogue is unlike ordinary conversation.  Effective dialogue encourages participants with diverse perspectives to interact; encourages participants to question any unspoken assumptions or worldviews that may be blocking new approaches; and recognises that the same discussion can be interpreted differently by different participants.  Participants go beyond polite conversation and small talk to develop an informed understanding of each other’s perspectives.  Unlike ordinary conversations, effective dialogue requires participants to take deliberate action to listen and understand the concerns of others.  It requires treating people with respect, listening with empathy and being open to new and different ideas. 

Having Effective Dialogue at work

For effective dialogue, participants are encouraged to:

  • Work cooperatively rather than competitively
  • Consider all aspects of the issue.  Discuss what the problem is, why it has arisen at this time, what the possible solutions are, which solutions are better than the others (and why), and how the best solutions could be implemented 
  • Play “devil’s advocate” (by speaking against generally agreed assumptions or generally agreed solutions) as part of the search for better solutions
  • Carefully evaluate the information and the reasoning that links the information to conclusions 
  • Recognise effective dialogue is not merely a rational exercise – it is always an emotional experience for many participants.  Respect different views and alterative perspectives 
  • Be especially watchful for barriers and biases that can easily occur in conversations that prevent a genuine informed understanding of different perspectives (see the following section).

Barriers to Effective Dialogue

Effective dialogue is useful in overcoming many of the biases that occur in everyday discussions. 

These biases, which are often unconscious and unintentional, include:

  • Groupthink: Where people within a group conform to the group (or its leader) rather than come up with options, problems or alternatives that may be a challenge for the group or a risk for the proposer
  • Cultural and other assumptions: Where the most extroverted and assertive speakers of English in the group “take over” the discussion and assume those who are quiet are agreeing with them or have nothing to add; whereas it may be necessary to restructure how the meeting is held so people can contribute in ways that are culturally appropriate, people can talk together informally before they feel confident enough to state their views publicly, and/or people can have time to reflect on what they have heard before they can present their views to the meeting
  • Bounded rationality: Where people, limited by their incomplete information and lack of time, adopt a satisfactory solution rather than the optimal one
  • Short-termism:  Where people seek short term “wins” without considering longer-term alternatives or consequences
    • This is similar to acting tactically without also thinking strategically – that is, carrying out detailed tasks or manoeuvres to achieve a specific objective as well as setting multiple, interrelated objectives as part of an overall, longer-term plan
  • Confirmation bias: Where people gather facts that support preferred conclusions and disregard other facts that support different conclusions
  • Premature termination of the search for evidence: Where people accept the first alternative that looks like it might work
  • Cognitive inertia: Where people rely on their familiar assumptions and understandings, and fail to update and revise their understanding of a situation when that situation changes
  • Selective perception: Where people actively screen-out information that is not considered important; and discount arguments with which they disagree
  • Framing bias: Where people work with others to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner
  • Sunk-cost fallacy:  Where people make decisions about a current situation based on what they have previously invested in the situation
  • Over generalising: Where people ignore important details or significant issues by talking in general terms as if all agencies, programs, policies, customers, governments (or whatever is being discussed) are the same
  • Ad hominem attacks: Where people question (or attack) the person giving the message rather than questioning the message itself
  • False causal links: Where people believe that – because something seemingly occurs in conjunction with something else – there is a direct causal link between the two events
  • Intimidation: Where people do not speak up or act truthfully because they fear – rightly or wrongly – that they or their career may threatened or harmed in some way by another person.

What is Saying No Constructively?

For many people, saying No to their managers or colleagues is very difficult to do.

However, if you are asked or directed to take some action that you are unable to do for some reason (such as your heavy workload at the time, or because you think the request is unwise or unethical) it is important to say No in such a way that you begin a discussion to find a solution that meets the needs of both parties.

Saying No constructively at work

There are two common ways of saying “No” if you are given a direction which you believe should not be followed (because, for example, it is unlawful, unethical, unsafe, or may produce unintended damage or unforeseen consequences).  One approach is to ask the person giving the direction to clarify the purpose of the direction - what their direction aims to do and for whom.  Make the point that, if you can understand what the direction is intended to achieve, then you may be able to suggest other ways to realise the objective in ways that are lawful, ethical and without producing budgetary, safety or other risks.

The second approach to saying “No” in a constructive way is discussed by William Ury (2007) in his book, The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. In this approach, give a short one or two sentence reply to the direction that addresses the following three points:

  • State what common interests you have with the person making the request.  Let them know you understand why the person is making the request (even though you may disagree with what the person wants).  Often you will share common goals, even though you disagree with their suggestion about how to meet those common goals
  • State why – because of your workload, conflicts of interests, priorities or values – you cannot meet the request at this particular time or in the particular way they have suggested
  • Suggest an alternative outcome or strategy that would successfully address the concerns of the other person.  This shows your intention to maintain the working relationship with the other person despite being unable to help in this instance. 

For example, “I’m happy to prepare the report for you and I’ve got the budget to complete by COB today so how about I get it to you by COB on Friday?” or “I agree it’s important to change the policy as you have suggested and I need to know what the financial implications might be before we do anything, so how about we ask Accounts to do a proper costing.” 

Having given your response, you are likely to begin talking with requester about how their request can be met in ways that suit them and address your concerns.  You may find, for example, that the requester has important information or reasons why the matter needs action now.