The Four Key Roles in an Effective Dialogue

Being aware of the four roles in a dialogue can boost creativity, introduce new insights and strengthen your team’s relationships. Titus Kong is a Consultant (Organisation Development) at the PS21 Office, Public Service Division.
The Four Key Roles in an Effective Dialogue

Have you ever been a young officer whose ideas were repeatedly shot down by your seniors? Cowered into submission, you did not press your case, nor clarify why you suggested them. As a result, potentially good ideas ended up never seeing the light of day.

How well we engage in team conversations depends on how we balance “advocacy” (the act of arguing in favour of something) and “inquiry” (the act of searching for information). When we balance both well, we get new insights and new solutions, however wacky our suggestions may first sound.

If we only advocate our ideas and views, we will not discover the potential flaws in our own thinking. Neither will we learn about others’ reasoning, nor data that might conflict with our own. If we only inquire, we may deprive others of an alternative view that could strengthen or change the direction of the discussion. By not exposing our views to public examination, we might perpetuate faulty thinking that can lead to wrong decisions.

A team (especially its leader) that is highly aware of the need to balance advocacy and inquiry, and does it well, will get the most out of its dialogues. A team can achieve this balance by first understanding the roles that people play in a conversation.

Four roles

David Kantor’s Four-Player Model suggests that in any social system, there are four core acts that create the balance of advocacy and inquiry:

  1. Movers: they initiate ideas.
  2. Followers: they complete what is said and support what is happening.
  3. Opposers: they challenge what is being said.
  4. Observers: they provide perspective on what is happening. In a healthy system, any person may take any of the four actions at any time.

He’s not attacking your idea, really!

When “movers” throw up many ideas, making it hard for others to “follow”, an “opposer” who starts to question those ideas could be seen as attacking even though the intent is to protect the team from error. “Observers” often become “disabled”, imagining that no one wants them to identify what is happening. So the knowledge they carry is lost. The result? Interaction is unbalanced.

Leaders can restore balance

An attentive leader would realise when the advocacy-inquiry balance is off-kilter and move in to restore it. For example, during a town hall meeting, a leader offered his views on certain issues, but told his staff that his ideas were meant to serve as suggestions, rather than instructions for them to follow. This was a way for the leader to give his staff permission to challenge his ideas or to build on them. By enabling his staff to play out all four actions instead of being just “followers”, the leader created the conditions for a more generative conversation.

Back to the example of the young officer whose ideas got shot down – a good “observer” might intervene to invite the young officer to elaborate on the thinking behind her ideas, and to give her the opportunity to have a fair hearing before a decision is made.

Remember, we don’t have to be a leader to restore balance. Everyone in a team can play their part to encourage and support one another in the four actions. The simple rule: Pay attention to the actions that are missing and provide them ourselves, or encourage others to do so.

For balance, try these out:

  • Encourage people to jump on another’s idea with the intent of building on it by saying: “Let’s make sure we fully understand what John said before dismissing his idea as unrealistic.”
  • Encourage people to disagree for the purpose of correcting ideas and refining them for the group. Try asking: “If you don’t agree, can you tell us why?”
  • Encourage people to comment on where the team is to provide perspective: “I see some people have not talked yet. Shall we hear from everyone?”
    Jan 22, 2014
    Titus Kong
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