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Facilitating dialogue – overcoming one-way communication

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Whilst travelling around the world I often experience conferences, where a presentation is the only way of communication. We can learn a lot from those presentations, especially if they provide insights in a real case and show a way to transfer the learning into our own situation. However, often the presenter exceeds the time dedicated and only a few minutes are left for questions and answers. No real dialogue happens. It is simply a one-way communication. This might be easier for the presenter to prepare and send messages he or she is familiar with. To hit the audience´s expectation may be accidental, because the people listening have often specific situation in mind, specific questions to be answered or specific insights they like to share themselves with the audience.

This is why my preferred style of communication during a conference is dialogue and the conference organisers need to ensure time and space for the facilitation of dialogue rather than piling up presentation after presentation. There are many formats available for facilitating dialogue in the business context. For the Research Conferences of GPM and IPMA we use several of them with great success. The easiest is a “workshop” format, which means to form a group, which discusses a question and the facilitator collects the insights on a flipchart or pin board. Another interactive format is the “World Café”. The atmosphere of the World Café should be relaxed, people discuss a certain topic or question standing around a table or flipchart and document what is important. After a while the facilitator asks them to join another table and the dialogue starts over again. After several rounds of dialogue there is a rich collection of ideas, which could be used to narrow down and follow up in other formats (e.g. strategy development workshop). The metaphor of a “Fishbowl” is used for another type of dialogue. A small group of people is asked to sit on chairs in an inner circle. One or two chairs will be left unoccupied. The facilitator starts the discussion with a question and the people on the chairs start the dialogue. The audience, people sitting around the inner circle (the Fishbowl) may listen only, but should be encouraged to join into the inner circle and sit on one of the unoccupied chairs. One of the other participants need to leave the inner circle to keep always space for people to join in. A vivid dialogue is going to happen and the organiser is to facilitate that format.

The “Open Space” is one of the most engaging formats I have ever used in facilitating dialogues. It is not me as facilitator to decide on the topic or questions to be discussed. It is the audience bringing the topics to the forum. The facilitator prepares a pin board with time slots and rooms available and encourages the audience to write their point of interest in one of the slots (e.g. on a moderation card or post-it). They present it in front of the audience and ask people to join in the session. During the session a vivid dialogue happens, facilitated by the topic owner who documents what happens during the session and reports back to the plenary of the outcomes.

There are several requirements for reaching a real dialogue. Firstly, the trust of the facilitator in the interest and active participation of the attendees. Secondly, enough time and a dialogue-friendly atmosphere and the equipment needed for dialogue. Finally, a dialogue requires the openness and active participation of people attending.

People may not be used to the format in the first instance, but if they experience how it works and see how the real dialogue starts, they will engage and share and have fun. Let´s facilitate dialogue and thus overcome one-way communication.

- Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defense, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is Past President of IPMA and Chairman of the Council, Honorary Chairman of GPM (the German Project Management Association), as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH.

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