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Despite the fact that we’ve shared the one thing, we’re still left with two questions. First, how does this free flow of meaning lead to success? Second, what can you do to encourage meaning to

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HERE’S HOW DIALOGUE WORKS Despite the fact that we’ve shared the one thing, we’re still left with two questions.
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flow freely?

We’ll explain the relationship between the free flow of mean­ ing and success right here and now. The second question-what you must do to stay in dialogue, no matter the circumstances­ takes the rest of the book.

Fill ing the Pool of Shared Meaning

Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings,

theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feelings makes up our personal pool of meaning. This pool not only informs us but also propels

our every action. When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by defi­

nition we don’t share the same pool. Our opinions differ. I

believe one thing, you another. I have one history, you another. People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe

for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool-even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.

As the Pool of Shared Meaning grows, it helps people in two ways. First, as individuals are exposed to more accurate

and relevant information, they make better choices. In a very real sense, the Pool of Shared Meaning is a measure of a group’s IQ. The larger the shared pool, the smarter the deci­ sions. And even though many people may be involved in a choice. when people openly and freely share ideas, the




increased time investment is more than offset by the quality of the decision.

On the other hand, we’ve all seen what happens when the shared pool is dangerously shallow. When people purposefully withhold meaning from one another, individually smart people can do collectively stupid things.

For example, a client of ours shared the following story. A woman checked into the hospital to have a tonsillectomy,

and the surgical team erroneously removed a portion of her foot. How could this tragedy happen? In fact, why is it that ninety­ eight thousand hospital deaths each year stem from human error?! In part because many health-care professionals are afraid to speak their minds. In this case, no less than seven people won­ dered why the surgeon was working on the foot, but said noth­ ing. Meaning didn’t freely flow because people were afraid to speak up.

Of course, hospitals don’t have a monopoly on fear. In every instance where bosses are smart, highly paid, confident, and out­ spoken (i.e., most of the world), people tend to hold back their opinions rather than risk angering someone in a position of power.

On the other hand, when people feel comfortable speaking up and meaning does flow freely, the shared pool can dramatically increase a group’s ability to make better decisions. Consider what happened to Kevin’s group. As everyone on the team began to explain his or her opinion, people formed a more clear and com­ plete picture of the circumstances.

As they began to understand the whys and wherefores of dif­ ferent proposals, they built off one another. Eventually, as one idea led to the next, and then to the next, they came up with an alternative that no one had originally thought of and that all wholeheartedly supported. As a result of the free flow of mean­ ing, the whole (final choice) was truly greater than the sum of the original parts. In short:




The Pool of Shared Meaning

is the birthplace of synergy.

Not only does a shared pool help individuals make better

choices, but since the meaning is shared, people willingly act on

whatever decisions they make. As people sit through an open

discussion where ideas are shared, they take part in the free flow

of meaning. Eventually they understand why the shared solution is the best solution, and they’re committed to act. For example,

Kevin and the other VPs didn’t buy into their final choice simply

because they were involved; they bought in because they under­ stood.

Conversely, when people aren’t involved, when they sit back

quietly during touchy conversations, they’re rarely committed to

the final decision. Since their ideas remain in their heads and

their opinions never make it into the pool, they end up quietly

criticizing and passively resisting. Worse still, when others force

their ideas into the pool, people have a harder time accepting the

information. They may say they’re on board, but then walk away and follow through halfheartedly. To quote Samuel Butler, “He

that complies against his will is of his own opinion still.”

The time you spend up front establishing a shared pool of

meaning is more than paid for by faster, more committed action

later on. For example, if Kevin and the other leaders had not been

committed to their relocation decision, terrible consequences would have followed. Some people would have agreed to move;

others would have dragged their feet. Some would have held

heated discussions in the hallways. Others would have said noth­ ing and then quietly fought the plan. More likely than not, the team would have been forced to meet again, discuss again, and

decide again-since only one person favored the decision and the

decision affected everyone.




Now, don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that every decision be made by consensus or that the boss shouldn’t take part in or even make the final choice. We’re simply suggesting

that whatever the decision-making method, the greater the shared meaning in the pool, the better the choice-whoever

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