To create an experience online that is more than just a digital correspondence course requires that we: (a) have a common understanding of what dialogue means; (b) create the right environment; and (c) balance inquiry and advocacy.
First, we need to establish a common definition of dialogue. According to Ellinor and Gerard (1998) dialogue is “like a river that has no beginning and no end, there is no single clear definition of dialogue” (p. 19). Great, now what? They go on to describe the Greek roots of dialogue as “dia (through) and logos (meaning)” (p. 19). Webster is a bit more specific and defines dialogue as “interchange and discussion of ideas, esp. when open and frank, as in seeking mutual understanding or harmony.” For our purposes, if we define dialogue as an open, frank, and professional interchange of ideas with the purpose of seeking meaning and greater understanding in order to maximize learning, then I think we have a common idea of what it is we are trying to create.
Creating the Right Environment
To ensure the open and frank exchange of ideas the online course room needs to be a place where we can explore ideas, no matter how “out of the box” they may be, without the fear of being hurt or put down. Consequently, I expect that all of us will treat one another as professional colleagues. I don’t have all the answers nor do I expect that anyone else does either. My hope is that through the active interchange, we will look at what is being presented, reflect on it, think about it as applied to better understanding modern organizations, raise thought-provoking questions, and offer frank responses.
I expect that all postings and responses will be directed to what has been written and not to who is posting it. I also anticipate that your postings will be presented and accepted in a positive manner. This does not mean that we do not challenge the ideas presented, for that is the essence of a frank and rich scholarly dialogue. It does mean that when we challenge ideas, we do it in a manner that does not demean the individual and we do it in a way that is in the spirit of trying to understand.
As you might already know, the asynchronous discussion forum does not allow for full two-way communication. Nor does it allow you to hear the non-verbal communication, which is often more powerful and more telling than the actual words that are said. Consequently, it is always a good idea to also have a bit of tolerance for a variety of communication styles that at first glance tend to ruffle your feathers.
Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy
In the mid-1980s, the airlines and the U. S. Air Force discovered that they were crashing airplanes that were flyable. Overall aircraft accident trends had decreased since the 1940s due to advancements in the technology and the reliability of airplanes. However, accidents due to crew error were not decreasing and in some cases showed signs of increasing. The reason – problem-solving in the multi-place cockpit was not as effective as it could be. In fact, in many instances through post-accident investigation it was discovered that someone on the crew did have the right answer to the problem but for some reason, usually team dynamics, that solution did not get implemented. United Airlines along with other airlines and later the U.S. Air Force started programs to teach crews to effectively solve problems in the high paced stressful environment of the modern cockpit. One of the keys to effective problem solving was the ability of the crew members to balance advocacy and inquiry. Ellinor & Gerard (1998) and Blake and Mouton (1982) identify balancing advocacy and inquiry as a key characteristic of effective dialogue.
According to Blake and Mouton (1982) “inquiry indicates a quality that causes an individual to question, scrutinize, and investigate all that is happening. It is curiosity, skepticism, interest, and the opposite of complacency” (p. 27). They go on to propose that “inquiry maximizes learning and awareness at all times and ensures larger gains in knowledge from each experience” (p. 27). Ellinor and Gerard (1998) propose that we should “use inquiry for the purpose of digging deeper into whatever we are talking about” (p. 25). They propose that inquiry is used to ask about assumptions and underlying thinking and to clarify and expand our knowledge with the overall intention of learning more (p. 25). Inquiry is the essence of the graduate learner. So, what great question did you ask in the course room today?
Blake and Mouton (1982) describe advocacy as “accepting the obligation to speak out in support of a course of action different than that currently being planned or followed while at the same time listening to viewpoints that may be contradictory to one’s own” (p. 28). Ellinor and Gerard (1998) propose that advocacy is appropriate “if it is to offer some perspective for the purpose of the group’s learning. The intention is not to force the group to come around to your perspective as the right one, but rather to build shared meaning” (p. 25). Passion makes life more meaningful and interesting but can get in the way of learning. Although Blake and Mouton (1982) with their cockpit context do not propose which should come first, advocacy or inquiry, Covey (1989) proposes that we should “seek first to understand, then to be understood” (p. 237). In the academic environment either sequence works but if in doubt I find it always best to follow Covey’s concept of seeking first to understand then to be understood.
Creating an online dialogue requires that we all participate in a way that facilitates the open frank exchange of ideas. Some of the best dialogue comes from building on one learner’s original posting and taking it to new places that no one of us could have done on our own. Enjoy the journey!
Blake, R. & Mouton J. (1982). Cockpit resource management. Denver, Colorado: United Airlines and Scientific Methods, Inc.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Ellinor, L. & Gerard, G. (1998). Dialogue: Rediscover the transforming power of conversation. New York: John Wiley & Sons.