Deborah and the Starlings – Chapter 6

“You will NOT order a dark roast today Jack!” Deborah wagged an admonishing finger at her colleague.

“Of course not,” Jack gave her a mock-wounded look before turning to the barista. “Antoniouna tazza grande di caffè tostato scuro senza latte o zucchero per favore.”

Deborah beamed. “Well, you obviously did your homework – I’m impressed.”

They settled into a corner booth and sampled their beverages with satisfaction.

“Speaking of homework Deborah, what did you glean from that material I sent you?”

“It was eye-opening, to say the least. I had always assumed that dialogue and discussion were the same thing.”

“That’s a common assumption. Did you see any application to the team that you are leading?”

Deborah nodded eagerly. “Absolutely! We’re pretty good at discussion. Thanks to your work with the Team Charter we’re able to analyze and defend the different views and ideas that people bring without getting paralyzed in disagreement.” She paused. “What I had not realized is that dialogue is something very different.”

“How would you describe the difference?”

Deborah looked thoughtful for a moment. “It seems to me that it springs from a fundamentally different way of relating to each other. Discussion seems to be rooted in advocacy and an individual mindset whereas dialogue,” she paused, “I’m not sure that I’m expressing the idea very clearly, but it seems to me that you have to prepare the soil for dialogue, that you can’t have it until people are coming to the table prepared to learn together rather than to be proven right as individuals.”

Jack’s eyes widened slightly. “That’s one of the most insightful summaries of the topic that I’ve ever heard.”

Deborah smiled. “Thank you. I must confess that your ‘executive summary’ intrigued me so much that I spent a couple of evenings reading all of the sources that you cited.”

“So what would it mean to your team if you could learn to dialogue?”

“I think that it would change everything! I mentioned before that it seems to me like so much individual creativity gets suppressed in this group. If we could learn to dialogue, really dialogue then I think that we could unleash all of that potential.”

Jack smiled at Deborah’s obvious enthusiasm. “What would it take for The Starlings to ‘become giants of dialogue’, to use your words?”

“We need to learn some new skills. Your summary talked about a ‘Learning Mindset’. I think that’s is what we need, how do we get there?”

Jack paused thoughtfully. “To be honest Deborah, there is no recipe for this. If I may mix my metaphors, Team Learning, which is what we are talking about here, is more like playing jazz than doing a paint-by-number. Someone can teach a group the basic skills and coach them to a certain level of proficiency in them but the results achieved depend completely on the group’s willingness to learn how to learn as a team.”

Deborah nodded. “I also noted that one of the prerequisites is that the members of the team regard one another as colleagues. That creates a problem for me. How can I lead this team and at the same time interact as a colleague?”

“That’s a real challenge. I’m assuming that you have dealt with similar problems in the past. How did you deal with those?”

Deborah rolled her eyes then smiled. “Thanks. I not only buy the coffee, I get to do all of the hard work.” She paused for a moment then spoke slowly. “It seems to me that the problem is bigger than what I just mentioned. I can’t teach skills that I don’t have myself. Furthermore, even if I had the skills, I suspect that putting myself in a teacher role would undermine my ability to act as and be seen as a colleague.”

“So what could you do?”

Deborah looked out the window at the autumn rain. “One of the references you cited talked about the value of having a skilled facilitator. Once upon a time I had a colleague do something like that when we needed to put a Team Charter together.” She looked Jack in the eye. “Will you help us?”

Jack nodded. “By happy coincidence I have some spare capacity right now. However,” he paused, “what if this was a choice that the team made of their on accord, what difference would that make?”

Deborah nodded vigorously. “I think that would really start us off well. Would you be willing to come to our team meeting next week and talk to us about the idea?

“I’d be happy to. This will cost more than lunch you know.”

“Given the prices at that restaurant you chose last month I’m not sure how to respond to that. Can we have a chat about that after the team meeting next week?”

Jack nodded and drained his mug. “Of course.”

Deborah stood up. “What was it that you ordered again?

“Caffè tostato scuro. It’s Italian.”