How to run better dialogue in 3 simple steps


Executive Vice President Tapio Anttila is responsible for societal training at Sitra, in addition to professionally facilitating group processes. Anttila is passionate about effective dialogue. He writes about this in his blog, often with metaphors related to soccer. In this blog post, he shares tips on what to avoid when creating dialogue and explains why a “crawling phase” is sometimes needed.

The framework for good dialogue

Nowadays, dialogue is recommended as a solution to a wide range of problems, but dialogue alone is not enough. If the goal is to make decisions or find solutions to problems, dialogue must also be incorporated into various group processes.

Good dialogue is about thinking together, between people and individually, and about a willingness to challenge the mindset behind your thinking. Without these, it’s very difficult to create genuine dialogue.

It’s a good sign when people have the courage to openly talk about their experiences. This also involves trust: it’s natural to continue dialogue with people you trust. And good dialogue does not always get straight to the point: a little meandering is just fine. 

1. Timing is the key

When is dialogue needed? When no one seems to know where the group, community or organization is headed, or when discussion gets stuck—if not sooner. A time-out is needed.

In our complex world, it’s important to make people understand how decisions and actions affect other people. There has been a good deal of talk about “leadership at the edge of chaos” recently. Good dialogue can often prevent chaos.

It’s important that the participants in a discussion feel they have been heard, and that a mutual understanding is reached about how to proceed. And sometimes it’s necessary to slow down a little.

2. Entering the crawling phase

The crawling phase is needed in processes and projects when people feel that the load is too heavy and the direction is unclear. The process is not working, despite the creation of ambitious process charts. Or discussion gets stuck because people feel the situation is somehow unequal or unfair. In such cases, people don’t have the courage to speak their minds. They may have very different views on the cause of the situation, and their experiences may differ considerably.

In such situations, a clear change of pace is needed—a change so clear that it’s easily seen. This could mean changing locations, eliminating everything that creates a sense of urgency, or engaging in open discussion. However, dialogue is about everyone being heard equally, which cannot be achieved simply by putting chairs in a circle and starting to talk.

3. Support for introverts

Our modern world tends to favor extroverts. I have often mentioned the need to acknowledge and respect introverts: forcing everyone to participate in dialogue is absolutely the worst option. Digitalization and discussion on different platforms at different times help introverts in many ways. They have an opportunity to express their views at their own pace, in their own way.

The need for dialogue will grow in the future, as the world is facing an increasing number of major problems and challenges. Good interaction is needed, as imposing decisions and solutions from top to bottom does not work, nor does blindly believing in experts or people in power.

Digitalization holds great potential in this respect. As our working days become more and more hectic and full of interruptions, digitalization enables us to handle things at a time that suits us best. It brings a new rhythm—one that we can control ourselves.

Plus the 11 surefire ways to destroy dialogue

Dialogue is a great art—but the necessary trust can be fragile and easy to destroy. If you wish to create dialogue, you should never let the following sentences pass your lips:

Come on, everyone knows this. (There is nothing to talk about. I will convert everyone to my point of view.)

Sorry, but I know exactly what you are going to say. (I don’t need to listen to you, because I’m smart, and you’re so predictable and not very creative.)

I already have a solution for this. (I don’t listen to anyone, nor I am open to new ideas, as I already have the perfect idea, and I like to keep reminding people of this.)

You honestly think so? (I belittle others’ ideas by joking around or trying to be witty.)

Your arguments no longer make sense. Maybe you need a new opinion? (I think people are stubborn and difficult if they don’t agree with me. They should listen to someone smarter, like myself.)

It seems that everyone agrees. Great! Let’s move on. (You rush to announce that a decision has been made, without listening to others, who are left wondering what actually happened.)

Other ways to stifle dialogue: 

Final notes about the writer: Tapilo Anttila is responsible for ensuring the functionality of Sitra’s decision-making system. He serves as the chairman of Sitra’s management team and has previous experience in the education business, the banking sector, academia, and the Ministry of Justice. During his career, he has amassed experience in various aspects of personnel development, training, and facilitation.

If you’re interested in learning more about dialogue and digital ways of supporting it, please take a look at our Digital Facilitation Playbook!

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