By: Steven G. Ezikian, MSBO Board President, Deputy Superintendent, Wayne RESA
If you were at the MSBO Annual Conference a couple of weeks ago and attended the Wednesday Lunch, Awards and Keynote speaker session, you would have seen that I had the privilege of presenting Mary Blackmon with this year’s President’s Award. Mary has served on the Wayne RESA board for coming up on 40 years and has a vast and exemplary resume of public service and other accomplishments, awards and recognitions. While that resume is exceptional, she was not selected for the award because of her experience and accomplishments; she was selected for the award because of how she has carried them out. As I said, in my introduction of Mary, many of the positions and offices that Mary has held have been political, but Mary is not a politician, she is a statesman. I say that because it has never been about position or party when it comes to the decision-making process; it has always been about getting to the best solution possible. Mary has always approached her governance role by wanting to be as informed as possible on an issue.
She accomplished that by the way she communicates. Her communication around issues always begins with engaging in a process of learning and exchanging ideas. She is a master of the art of dialogue. Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman (1999) describe four ways of talking:
- Conversation consists of convivial, casual, friendly, talk about personal and social matters; it’s usually not directed or facilitated.
- Discussion is talk that has a purpose—often to make a decision. Discussion may seem unstructured at first as people brainstorm ideas and explore possibilities, but it becomes more structured as people choose sides. It may, in fact, begin to resemble debate.
- Debate is an extreme form of discussion, in which the format dictates that people take sides and advocate for that side, rebutting points from the other side. Debates are usually structured and formal; they leave no room for compromise or building on others’ ideas.
- Dialogue is more structured than conversation, but less structured than discussion or debate. Dialogue engages people in building their understanding of an issue, without the pressure to make decisions or be “right.” People inquire into ideas, rather than advocate for their own or others’ ideas. When members of a group are just trying to understand an issue, they may find that dialogue is all they need. When a group is trying to make a decision, it may still want to engage in dialogue to explore ideas, and then shift to discussion. The resulting decision will often draw from many more (and better) possibilities than it would have if the group had used discussion from the start.
Much of the well-known literature on business negotiations, such as “Getting to Yes”, Interest Based Bargaining and The Win Win Solution are all based on a premise of dialogue. Just do an internet search on “Collective Thinking” or “Collective Performance” and you will find a lot of current research around the value of the dialogue process in decision-making.
Decision makers today seem to have forgotten about or never understood the need for healthy dialogue to inform the decision-making process. What conversation there is; is laced with preconceived notions, political position, misplaced idealism – the result is shortsighted solutions at best.
As I step down off of my soap box (I know some of you are thinking that Steve is a little overexcited about this topic) let me encourage all of you as leaders, decision shapers and decision makers to become a statesman like Mary Blackmon, and invest in the process of dialogue. I used the word “invest” deliberately, because real dialogue takes time, but real dialogue also results in better more long-lasting outcomes.