Dialogue: From Competing to Collaborating

business men and women trying to solve a puzzle by collaborating

In my last article, I introduced four styles of communication.  In this article, I want to do a deeper dive into the meaning of collaboration, the alternative to the patterns of dominating, accommodating, and avoiding.

The truth is that all these styles have their place in day-to-day life. However, collaboration becomes crucial as the topic of our communication becomes more sensitive, as emotions are aroused, as the stakes become higher, and/or as conflict is either simmering or escalating.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the only style of communication that can address high stakes issues and conflicts effectively.

Let’s go back to the four styles of communication model from my last blog post. Remember the two dimensions of communication? We have assertiveness which is concern for self and my willingness to express my point of view and take care of my needs. And we have empathy which is concern for others and my willingness to listen and support them in expressing their point of view and needs. Collaboration is high on both of these dimensions. We listen to the needs and perspectives of others and we vocalize our own needs and perspective in order to arrive at outcomes that are win/win in nature.

The Challenge of Collaboration

I’m going to suggest that collaboration is the most difficult of the four styles. It seems so much easier to fall back to dominating, accommodating, or avoiding when things get hot. It is challenging to be equally concerned for self and others; to assert our own views and encourage others to assert their views.

Collaboration requires that we suspend judgment and grapple with contradictions and complexity; that we remain open and flexible; that we expand our view of reality and look for a common good and not just our own self-interest. And yet, we grow in social and emotional maturity as we learn the art of collaboration. We develop greater confidence in ourselves, and richer, fuller relationships with others.

We Win or Fail Together

Collaboration means that we work together to solve our problems. We recognize our common interest and that, in the long-run, we succeed or fail together. It reminds me of the cartoon of two mules each pulling in opposite directions to get to a bale of hay just in front of their noses. They are at a stalemate.

mules pulling in opposite directions trying to get to bails of hay

In the next frame they both eat from one bale of hay and then the other. They can both get what they want as they cooperate rather than compete.

mules working together to eat bails of hay.

Collaboration takes this shift in mindset. It means that we stop competing through domination or acquiescing through accommodating or avoiding and start working together.

Unfortunately, it seems we’re losing our ability to do that as we become more tribal and polarized around our differences. We certainly see that going on at a national scale. I even see it in my small community in which a high school recently changed the name of their mascot. The debate became so heated and polarizing that some of those on one side or the other of the issue would not talk to each other. What a shame.

The Skill of Dialogue

So how do we move to collaboration? I’m going to suggest that the main skill of collaboration is dialogue. Here’s a definition. Interpersonal dialogue is a participative process of communication in which people listen to understand one another’s point of view and then agree upon options to solve problems and/or resolve their disagreements.

This process encourages deep listening, a willingness to share your own point of view, and search for solutions that are good for all and not just a minority. Dialogue is talking openly—even about subjects that have historically been too sensitive to discuss.  The more openly we can talk, the better will be our solutions to conflict and the more unified and committed we’ll be to carry them out.

Take a moment to study the following chart which illustrates the difference between dialogue and other forms of persuasion, such as arguing and debate.

chart showing differences between argument and debate

Notice that our intent, during dialogue, is to search for truth and the greater good rather than to “win.” If our desire is to “win,” we treat our conversation as though it were a sporting event with winners and losers which only sets up a climate of ill-will, resentment, and revenge. The losers stop seeing the value in their “opponent’s” arguments as their singular goal becomes to defeat them, to prevent them from getting what they want, even if it means hurting the collective good. This is the unfortunate state of our politics and public discourse today, egged on by entertainers in the media who want nothing more than high ratings.

On the other hand, if our intent is learning and understanding rather than “winning,” we approach conversations differently. We approach them from trust and goodwill rather than suspicion and distain. We see more nuance and complexity as we search for a common good. This doesn’t mean we always agree. In fact, diversity of opinion is our strength, if we are open and willing to learn from one another as well as preserve the underlying unity and goodwill within our relationships. Our diversity inspires us to find ways to walk forward together.

I love a saying from Africa. “We walk fast when we walk alone. We walk far when we walk together.” Dialogue is about walking far together.

A Personal Example

I want to offer an example. Earlier in our marriage, my wife and I decided to move from Ft Collins, Colorado to Parker, a town not too far to the southeast of Denver. We wanted to build a home and so spent time looking at property all over the county. After a pretty exhaustive search, we found a nice piece of property on a little hill. We walked up the hill and could see a vast range of mountains in the distance, including a great view of Pike’s Peak.

We were excited and decided to make an offer, which was accepted. So, we put down our escrow, hired an architect and started making plans to build.

However, the next time we visited I noticed the sign was in a different location. That’s strange, I thought. Then it hit me, is this two lots and not one? We called our realtor and, sure enough, two lots. We were disappointed, especially me. Not only was the lot half the size we had assumed, but we were on the downhill side and so did not have as nice a view.

I think back to our conversation over the next few days, how easy it would have been to polarize. “Tastes great. Less filling.” Judy taking the position that we needed to move forward and me digging in my heals and insisting that we continue our search. In fact, that was the initial conversation until we softened our approach by getting out of arguing and into dialogue.

Here’s a pretty good summary of our conversation.

picture of Roger K. Allen and wife on a hike

This is not the property. Ha, ha. We’ve aged a little since those days but hung in there together, working through many issues through the years.

Roger: So how are you feeling right now about what we’ve learned?

Judy: Disappointed. I thought we had put our money down on the whole property so this is a bit of a shock.

Roger: Yeh, for me too. I’m feeling really upset. We both remember the sign was up higher and in the middle of the hill. The fact that the sign has been moved makes me think it was intentional. I think we were conned. I don’t want to give up the view.

Judy: You think there was some deceit involved which makes it really hard to accept.

Roger: Yes. I think it was intentional on someone’s part. And deceit or not, I don’t want to give up the view. What do you think?

Judy: It is disappointing and I know you love your view. But, we’ve looked at a lot of properties for months and I still think this is the best we’ve seen.

Roger, asking a clarifying question: Even though it’s not as big as we thought?

Judy: Yes. Some of that is on us. We may have been naïve and didn’t check it out.

Roger: It’s true we didn’t check it out, but because it wasn’t an issue. I didn’t even think about it.

Judy: I didn’t either.

Roger: But what I’m hearing you say is that you think we should go ahead because you don’t think we could find anything we like more.

Judy: That’s right. Plus, we put money into an escrow which we’ll lose if we back out now.

Roger: That’s true unless we tell our realtor that we feel like we were deceived and want out of the contract.

Judy: I wonder how hard it would be to get out of the contract?

Roger: I don’t know. It would probably end up being a big battle.

Judy: Another reason to go ahead is that we’d hoped to build before school next year so we wouldn’t have to move the kids in the middle of the year.

Roger: That’s true. It would be nice to move ahead now. So, it seems like you’re ready to move ahead. You think that it is still the best property available and you don’t want to spend more time looking. Besides, you don’t want to lose our escrow and you feel an urgency to move ahead so our kids can start in their new school. Is that right?

Judy: Yes, that sums it up for me. But what about you? We both have to feel good about this.

Roger: I’m just aggravated, having a hard time accepting that we’re not getting what we thought we were.

Judy: Yup. I get that. So what do you think we should do?

Roger: Part of me wants to back out, on the principle of the thing. But I know we’ve looked all over the county and unless we’re willing to expand our search, we’re not likely to find something we like a lot more. And, frankly, there is a lot I like about this property. We still have a good view, just not great. Plus, I like the neighborhood. But I still feel a bit ripped off and need to get over that. I just need a few days to call our realtor and share this concern. I’d like to know what he has to say and I want to register my complaint about the placement of the sign. So, I’m not ready to make a decision right now. Give me a few days.

Judy: Okay, but we do have to act pretty soon.

Roger: I know.

The end of this story is that we did build a home on this property and it was a good decision. Not the only decision we could have made, by the way, but a good decision that we could both support.

Most importantly, I hope you can see the process of dialogue, with the two of us going back and forth, finding a balance between stating our own point of view and listening to the point of view of the other. We were doing our best to express ourselves and make it safe for our partner to do the same. Neither was trying to manipulate the other to his or her will. We were on the same team trying to come to the best decision for “us.”

And that is what collaboration and the skill of dialogue are all about, talking in a way that preserves (or builds) unity, creating a pool of shared understanding of the problem from all points of view, and then searching for solutions each party can support.

Conflict Resolution Course

Learning to use dialogue is not easy. We are so tempted to fall back on our old tendencies to dominate, accommodate, or avoid as tensions rise. One key is to learn the language of dialogue (predictable phases and steps). Another key, perhaps bigger key, is to learn to manage our own thinking and emotions so we can enter and navigate these conversations calmly and confidently.

Check out my new course entitled, “Become a Master at Resolving Conflict at Home and Work.” Sign up and turn disagreements and conflict into productive conversations and satisfying relationships.

And please feel free to share this article and/or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.



  1. Chris

    As always. Great articles and worth reading more than once.

    I have gone ahead and saved the images from this article to my phone as a reminder on how I want to behave with my communication, and ultimately what the intention behind those behaviors are.

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Chris. Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you can use the images as a reminder of your communication.

  2. Sandra Rush

    Hi Roger, as always found your comments to be on point and helpful. I also completed your “Become a Master at Resolving Conflict at Home or Work” online course through Udemy, and LOVED it! Jay and I have been working on these processes ever since we met you back in the 1980’s, and are determined to master these skills to promote more harmony in our home. Last night I diffused what could have been an explosive conversation, by thinking, then speaking in a way that invited collaboration rather than confrontation. We all went to sleep last night with smiles on our faces. THANKS Roger. Keep up the good work.

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Sandra. I’m glad you loved the course and have been able to use it already. Nice to go to bed with smiles on your faces.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Write Your Story

    Once you submit your story, I'll review it and get back to you. This may take a few days. I'll let you know when it will be published and invite you to then share your post with your friends and family.