Robert Hargrove on Dialogue

by Donnell King

Robert Hargrove works along with such noted authors and consultants as Peter Senge and Chris Argyris to help managers and leaders apply ideas variously labeled "collaboration," "teamwork," "dialogue," and others that focus on effective groups. He presents ideas distilled and applied from the theories and practices of numerous theoreticians and practitioners. As such, he gives us both practical applications for these ideas and a road map to their backgrounds.

My impression from reading several authors in this area is that they all use the word "dialogue," but they all mean different things by them. Hargrove helps to avoid this by adapting Bohm's (1990) definition of dialogue, and then creating his own term for the particular application he makes of it.

Hargrove (1995) says, "A dialogue is a conversation where there is a free flow of meaning in a group and diverse views and perspectives are encouraged"(p. 176).

On the other hand:

Collaborative conversations are those in which people in groups seek to realize their noblest aspirations with others from divergent views and backgrounds. This involves reframing the way people think and operate as well as looking for specific implementable solutions. (Hargrove, 1995, p.210)

He also contrasts dialogue with collaborative conversation by looking at Bohm's original intentions for dialogue. According to Hargrove, Bill Isaacs said that "dialogue is not about building community, but about inquiring into the nature of community. Collaborations, in contrast, are based on inspiring visions and are deeply purposeful but are focused on practical, down-to-earth, day-in/day-out accomplishments that are carried out in conversations" (Hargrove, 1998, p. 161).

For Hargrove, it seems that collaborative conversation encompasses and builds upon dialogue rather than being a synonym. He references Bohm (1990) in this context, so it seems clear that he intends not to use the term "dialogue" differently, but rather as a component. Collaborative conversations, in turn, are highly practical, goal-related activities. Dialogue is important because "[i]t is the primary way by which groups think and interact. Lack of dialogue leads to poor decisions, lack of team learning, and a general deterioration of the group" (Hargrove, 1995, p. 176-177).

It is also more solution-oriented than Bohm's use of dialogue.

Collaborative conversations are those in which people in groups seek to realize their noblest aspirations with others from divergent views and backgrounds. This involves reframing the way people think and operate as well as looking for specific implementable solutions." Hargrove (1995, p. 210)

An ongoing theme of Hargrove's view of collaborative conversations is the way the improvement of listening, the slowing down of everyday conversation, and the focus on learning. He sees the usual business conversation as focused on winning a position, or at least on not losing. Even in regular listening, Hargrove (1995) contends that we don't really seek to understand other people, but rather to constantly assess what they say so that we can hold onto our preconceived notions (p. 211-212).

In order to accomplish collaborative conversations, Hargrove (1998) spells out five phases (as opposed to stages, as he talked about earlier) in a collaborative conversation (p. 165ff).

  1. Clarify the purpose of the conversation.
  2. Gather divergent views and perspectives.
  3. Build shared understanding of divergent views and perspectives.
  4. Create "new" options by connecting different views.
  5. Generate a conversation for action.
In practice, Hargrove (1995) sees groups going through five stages on their way from unproductive discussions to dialogues (p. 224-225).

Stage 1. Polite discussion. Diplomatic communication, avoidance of open conflict, leading to mixed messages.

Stage 2. Rational debate. Issues put on table, rational argument, suppressed emotions.

Stage 3. Chaotic discussion or war. Realization of conflicts that are not easily resolved and which could blow up.

Stage 4. Community dialogue or embracing the enemy. Authenticity and vulnerability. Discarding of biases.

Stage 5. Generative dialogue. Creating something new.

It helps to understand Hargrove's conception of collaborative conversations to realize that he does not require all such conversations to reach the same depths in order to be collaborative. He discusses four levels of collaborative conversations.

I. Conversations in which the group clarifies its purpose.

In reality, the only time people will collaborate is when they have a clear and inspiring purpose in which they have a lot at stake. Therefore, the first level of collaborative effort for a group is to have a free and informed discussion about its vision, purpose, and goals. Then, the group must create a mission statement. This should be done even in the case of a group assigned to a project by top management. (Hargrove, 1995, p. 212)

II. Conversations in which the group builds a community of commitment.

On one level, creating a community of commitment involves speaking to the personal visions and purposes that live in people's minds and hearts. On another level, it involves encouraging people to step back from the front lines and engage in a different kind of conversation.

The conversations that build community are those where people speak with authenticity and vulnerability about themselves, about one another, and about the problems they are faced with." (Hargrove, 1995, p. 213)

Building community becomes the cornerstone for productive conversations on issues and problems and makes possible decision, plans, and strategies that everyone can stand behind. (Hargrove, 1995, p. 213)

III. Conversations in which the group learns to think and interact better together.

People normally operate from a "cook alone" or "potluck" model of conversation: "You bring your ideas and opinions to the table and I'll bring mine." ... People do not disclose the reasoning processes or data that led to their views....

In the "cook together" model of conversation, people bring their different views and backgrounds along with all the ingredients of their thinking and enter into a shared creative process. Instead of serving up finished products, people take their raw ideas, cook them together with other's thoughts, question the reasoning process, and perhaps come to a new idea or insight. (Hargrove, 1995, p. 213-214)

IV. Conversations in which powerful commitments are made.

It's important to help them make a distinction between a promise and an "I'll try," between a request and a complaint, and between an offer to do something and an opinion on how things should be done. (Hargrove, 1995, 214)

Hargrove also provides numerous suggests for the practical encouragement of dialogue and collaborative conversations (Hargrove, 1995, p. 221-227 and others), drawing from and adapting the work of Schwarz (1994) and Senge, Roberts, Ross, Smith, and Kleiner (1994). The total effect is to provide a solid background to answer questions such as "what is dialogue?" and "what good is it?" along with pragmatic questions such as "how do I help it happen?"


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