Bringing Dialogue Back to Government

For this week’s post, I want to challenge my readers to boldly think outside the box. This is definitely, almost guaranteed, not the kind of thinking you’re used to. We hear that phrase, “think outside the box,” and almost instantly attribute it as an objective or task – a means to an end or a box to check when it’s time for performance evaluations. It’s my belief that many of us, myself included, have become boxed in by the very box we’re supposed to proverbially think outside of.

What is this box? It’s a six-sided cube of the technologies, cultures, rituals, communities, norms, spaces and places we find ourselves a part of in everyday life. It’s easy to find a place of protection surrounded by these familiar walls, but there is an inherent entrapment risk. We can become too comfortable with that view, blinded by our own tunnel vision through which we see and make judgments on the world. After all, not everyone views the world through the same rose colored glasses you do. What we need is a resurgence of dialogue: relating, attuning and authentically relating to one another. Bringing dialogue back to government would be good for all of us.

What is Dialogue?

One of my greatest pet peeves is the common misunderstanding of what comprises dialogue. So, let’s start with what dialogue is not. Dialogue is NOT a conversation or a planned discussion. It’s not a cleverly devised speech or seminar. It’s also not a presentation to an audience – meaning you can’t “do a dialogue.” It really makes my blood boil when I see “dialogue” as part of someone’s clichéd attempt at a catchy title for their CV or speaker biography.

Dialogue, instead, is about relating. To use a phrase coined by R.D. Lang, it’s about “othering,” getting to know one and other through a series of mutual exchanges with a dyad or group of individuals encountering together. It’s a meeting that transcends the boundaries of all that boxes us in. It’s an escape from that box. It’s deliverance from that objective-subjective view. Instead, it’s that transformational moment we discover in the present, through othering, that just, well, happens. These moments are precious, indeterminable, going and coming as fast as you could blink an eye or snap your fingers. Martin Buber covers this extensively in his seminal text on the subject, I and Thou. He once said, “All real living is meeting,” and I think we should do more “real living” in government.

The Need for Dialogic Channel Shift

Channel shift is not a new concept but it’s becoming increasingly more popular. This is especially true as we build out new mobile platforms and other collaborative technologies in a race to get our customers to the right channel in order to deliver on our public promise to the people. For many organizations, it’s about the bottom line, the ROI and what predictive analytics are saying in terms of user behavior and expectations. That’s an understandable approach for measuring success, but I do have some concerns that we all to a greater or lesser degree allow the digital mainstream to drive – or heavily influence – our selves. The most important takeaway here is that technology can never replace dialogue and we shouldn’t empower it to do so. I believe we should shift our focus back to what it means to communicate under the original model – the human model, that is.

An Open Invitation

If one is to truly understand the breadth and depth of dialogic thinking, it is necessary to understand that the foundation lies in the manifolds of nature and its many changing environments. It requires an extension beyond our traditional, preprogrammed responses, calling for an authentic attunement and engagement with our immediate surroundings. So often our vision is narrowed that we fail to see all that which is truly worth the seeing. We get so bogged down with the need to respond to an urgent email message, help put out fires, or other technical demands of everyday work, that we allow ourselves to become precluded from living a life in dialogue. When we allow ourselves to become exposed to the world, place our vulnerabilities on the line and encompass a willingness to candidly open up ourselves toward other(s), potentialities of genuine meeting are greatly increased. We invite opportunities for dialogue to unfold.

Communion in Government

While it’s neither practical nor possible to always be engaged in genuine dialogue, I hold firmly to the belief that we could be doing more in terms of stage setting. Email, IM, SMS, video chats and internal collaboration platforms are great but they don’t quite cut the mustard, so to speak, in terms of creating opportunities for dialogue to unfold. Here are some tips that may help get you headed in the right direction. But remember, whether or not you enter into genuine dialogue depends on how much you and other(s) are willing to invest in making the effort, your invitation from one to the other and vice versa.

  • Ditch digital distractions during group meetings. Leave the mobile devices behind.
  • Avoid hiding behind email. Dialogue requires an in-person commitment from all.
  • Spend some time outdoors and really disconnect from your tech.
  • Be open.
  • Listen attentively.
  • Don’t try too hard. Dialogue is naturally occurring and it cannot be forced.
  • Dialogue isn’t limited to positive outcomes. There is certainly possibility for dialogue to occur from two or more very different points of view.

Relating is an Art

Based on Martin Buber’s philosophy, life truly is for us to make, not take. My hope is that many of you will embrace the basic tenets of this post and have a renewed outlook on how you’re relating with others – both colleagues and those you serve. Remember, relating is an art, a pastel of complexities and differences that when transposed on a static canvas, a once whitewashed landscape becomes a vibrant multicolored world of other(ed) goodness. Opportunities to encounter are all around us, infinite in abundance, but we ourselves must learn to condition our soul of souls to be able to hear and see.

Blake Scates  is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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