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The Power of Dialogue

Mathieu Bonte


Mathieu Bonte



June 3, 2020

Meetings, deadlines, presentations, working overtime, reviews, … In our frenetic world, burnouts, a sense of dread and a feeling of a loss of meaning are always lurking around the corner. To counter this threat, we believe it’s of the utmost importance to get back in touch with a successful business practice. Yes, we’re talking about Dialogue.

We use the word “dialogue” every day, but what does it actually mean?

The word “dialogue” is derived from the Greek word “dialogos”, which is composed of the elements “dia” (which means “through” or “between”) and “logos” (which means “conversation”).

So no, a dialogue is not just “two people talking”. The word dialogue implies that the two people should be talking “with” each other. And not just “to” each other! Think about all the times you have attended meetings and (in)formal conversations, where every individual was only set on defending their own personal objectives based purely on their own ego?

Companies that are faced with these “multiple monologue” situations have started to realise the size of this challenge that in fact directly affects their overall performance and productivity. And that the only solution is reinstating the power of authentic and effective dialogue.

Dialogue is a great tool for avoiding becoming a hostage of others — or even ourselves. It’s a true exchange of ideas through which individuals think together, in order to discover new things. ­­­­

So next time you’re faced with a difficult situation, take the following question into account and decide for yourself how it resonates within you:

“If I don’t have a clear idea of what the other party considers to be the problem, of what they want, of the reason they want it, … Then how am I going to find a solution that caters to both our needs in an authentic, respectful and long-term way?”

No matter what kind of person you have in front of you — no matter the context — we have to listen freely to what that person has to say. We have to listen to their goals and motivation, to their opinions, and even their emotions! Only by doing this can we develop an effective, equal and authentic dialogue that will result in a long-lasting solution with the best interest of both parties at heart.

George Kohlrieser, a former hostage negotiator and organisational psychologist, has defined four dialogue obstacles, based on his own experience and decade-long research:

  1. Passivity: Indifferent behaviour, a lack of energy during the dialogue, a feeling of inhibition.
  2. Derogation: Devaluing somebody else in order to annoy or belittle them.
  3. Redefinition: Imposing your own frame of reference on somebody else’s. By doing this, the initial discussion is distracted from the actual subject on purpose. Individuals stop talking together and start talking “beside” each other.
  4. The avalanche of details: Giving way too many details in order to flood and drown the other.


Furthermore, he identifies six “worst” practices that will slow down (or even halt) a dialogue, in both a personal and a professional context:

  1. Being too rational: Hermetically closed discussion, with no emotion or soul, lacking any interpersonal connection while being too focused on facts.
  2. Being too emotional: Exaggerated expression of emotions of anger, sadness, … which takes the lead during a dialogue and eventually parasitizes it.
  3. Generalising: Taking a piece of reality and exaggerating it intensely, often stretching it to absurd dimensions.
  4. Abstraction: Interpersonal connection has become impossible due to excessive distancing from the actual subject.
  5. Circumlocution: Or more commonly known as beating around the bush.For example, having a very precise request but not knowing how, or not daring to, express it.
  6. Lack of honesty: Every open dialogue becomes impossible and a productive result is highly unlikely. 

Luckily, there are a number of tools and methods that companies use to avoid these pitfalls. Let’s have a look at some examples:

  1. The Red Card game

Make your colleagues (and yourself) more aware of the Dialogue Dynamic by making a “red card” available during meetings. When somebody draws a red card, this means that they feel like somebody is obstructing the dialogue. Of course, be sure to frame this game to avoid misplaced humour or overuse of the card. With proper use, this will have a positive impact on your company’s dialogues and will make them more authentic.

  1. Ban all “Yes, But’s”

It’s common knowledge that a “Yes, but”, actually means “No”. Encourage therefore your colleagues to use the expression “Yes,and” instead. This will allow them to instead build and develop a solution or proposition. Try it out and you’ll see how your meetings (and dialogues) will become much more efficient with a simple trick. 

  1. The Four Phrase Rule

Less is more! Ask your colleagues (and yourself) to follow the following rule: everything they want to say, needs to be said in a maximum of four phrases. These four phrases should suffice to say what they think and what they want to convey as a message.


The metaphor of putting the fish on the table

George Kohlrieser was a hostage negotiator for a good part of his life. It was he who developed the metaphor of putting the fish on the table, which has already been used by a large number of companies of all sizes and sectors.

It works as follows: Immerse yourself in your professional environment and imagine that “the fish” is a representation of “your problem”. What happens if you decide — in a conscious or unconscious way — to hide the fish under the table? Of course, it won’t disappear. And even worse, the more you wait, the more your fish will start to rot and smell bad. 

If, on the other hand, you decide to put the fish on the table, you will start accepting that you’ll have to do the “dirty task” of cleaning and cutting the fish if you ever want to turn it into a delicious dinner. The same goes for your problem, which you’ll have to dissect if you want to manage it and find a solution.

When you put the fish on the table, you take it as it comes. You’ll see its colour, its form, its species. It’s the same thing with your “problem”. It’s very important to put it on the table to see its naked truth so a solution can be developed under authentic and healthy circumstances.

If you integrate this metaphor and approach in your company, you will motivate your colleagues and yourself to be less defensive and more authentic. The visual nature of this metaphor will help you and your co-workers to be less defensive and more authentic in a light-hearted way.

As a communication agency with more than 15 years of experience in a wide variety of companies of all sizes and sectors, we keep “putting our fish on the table” to keep optimising the quality, effectiveness and authenticity of our Dialogues. Both internally, and externally with our clients, partners and experts. This is an integral part of our professional — and personal — behaviour and we strive every day to keep making it an integral part of our DNA.

If this subject interests you, and you feel that it might be a real benefit to you, I wholeheartedly recommend you read George Kohlrieser’s book: 

“Hostage at the table”, George Kohlrieser (http://www.georgekohlrieser.com/books/)

The writing of this blog post has been largely inspired by his work and the knowledge and skills I gained during my training at Nova Terra (Brussels, 2019-2020).

By Mathieu Bonte

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