Shifting from Drama to Dialogue

We often express irritation and exasperation with other people’s “drama”.
However, how careful are we in avoiding the pitfalls of drama in our own lives?

WHAT IS THE DRAMA CYCLE?

I am thinking of drama as being characterized by negative side-talk, vilification, righteousness, and increasing escalation. That means that, in a conflict, we are participating (or supporting someone else) in:

  • talking about people behind their backs, often in ways that are sarcastic, caustic, highly charged, and one-sided
  • making someone into a villain 
  • justifying how we (or those we “support”) are “right” to make the choices we did and think the thoughts we are thinking
  • adding fuel to the fire by expressing horror, outrage, adding more examples of villainy, pulling more people into the issue, creating “sides”, engaging in retaliation, and/or freezing others out

We can tell that we are engaging in drama, versus trying to address an issue, because we can see an ESCALATING CYCLE in which the issue gets worse and everyone feels MORE upset and more entrenched over time.

Drama can feel “delicious” and even a bit addictive, because it activates our emotions and taps into our needs for belonging and validation. 

In other words, the behaviors above are an understandable response to feeling alone, confused, and hurt. The behaviors are a signal indicating that we actually need more support, company, understanding, and safety.

Unfortunately, over the long haul, drama LOWERS a group’s sense of safety and belonging by creating divisions, eroding trust, and inducing fear.

Thus, over time, the negative drama cycle contributes to a culture of conflict rather than a culture of collaboration.

WHAT IS THE DIALOGUE CYCLE?

The dialogue cycle is definitely less “sexy” and appealing in many ways. This is because dialogue is an INVESTMENT into each other and into our group’s culture. 

Dialogue is something to which we COMMIT, even though it may not feel as pleasurable.

Dialogue is characterized by:

  • curiosity in other people’s perspectives
  • self-responsibility (for our parts in the issue)
  • getting to “understanding without agreement” (Kit Miller)
  • sharing “truth with love” – with the goal of improving what matters in our group

We can tell that we are engaging in dialogue, versus drama, because we can see a DE-ESCALATION in the conflict over time, and an increase in collaboration and constructive solutions.  

While seeming to be time and energy intensive, over the long haul, dialogue improves team morale and a sense of safety by creating cohesiveness, building trust, and increasing creativity and hope.

Dialogue is something to which we COMMIT AGAINST THE ODDS, as part of a desire to create a culture of learning, growth and connection.

In my 25 years of experience, dialogue about difficult issues is not something that ever “feels good.”

Thus, to me, dialogue is not something we learn to LIKE as much as something we learn to VALUE.

DOES THIS MEAN I CAN’T VENT ANY MORE?

No. It does not!

Sharing concerns, getting emotional support, talking things through, and getting input on difficult issues are critical ways of connecting and becoming better leaders. Not all venting is created equally, though.

Most kinds of venting escalate us and entrench us further in our negative and righteous thinking, rather than shifting our perspective.

To engage in the kind of venting that helps rather than hinders, try approaching venting with a different intention.

Think of the kind of support you might get from a useful podcast, a great essay, an interesting book, or an insightful mentor. What you probably gain in all these cases is learning and enlightenment through reflection and a focus on solutions.

SHIFTING FROM DRAMA TO DIALOGUE: THREE SMALL STEPS

The shift from drama to dialogue happens over time as we make multiple small choices to do it differently.

Here are three small steps that can serve as a reminder or support in your own shift:

1) COMMIT to shifting from drama to dialogue in your own work and personal life – rather than focusing on the “ridiculousness” drama of other people around you. We begin with ourselves and our own integrity, modeling and walking the walk in small ways every day. Even more powerful is to see whether a small group of colleagues or friends want to join you in this.

2) CONVEY what you want from others, rather than letting them assume or guide the conversation into habitual territory. Let people know you want to end up with some reflection and understanding, rather than feeling escalated and righteous at the end.

Here are some phrases I have used or have heard others use successfully:

  • “I want to vent for a bit and then move on to problem solving, if that’s ok”
  • “I want some fresh perspectives on this mess, without making myself or the other people seem like stupid idiots”
  • “I’m wondering whether I am paranoid, but I don’t think it will be helpful for us to de-humanize the other person together, if you know what I mean”
  • “I need some strategies that don’t escalate the situation further but also give me some relief because I am at my wits end!!”
  • “Hey – I know it’s hard. But I believe in the power of talking it through. I can help.”

3) CAPACITY – learn some new ways (or refresh your current skills) for having difficult conversations, listening for understanding without agreement, and telling truth with love.

Although there is definitely an art and science to constructive dialogue, many of us know more about it than we care to admit. For instance, most of us probably know that it is helpful to:

  • Eat before having any difficult conversations!
  • Schedule a time rather than improvising or bamboozling someone in the middle of something else
  • Get in the zone by doing something that grounds us, or being very clear and focused about the goals (increase understanding, truth with love, etc.)
  • Take turns to listen and reflect meaning
  • Have someone who is not directly involved support the dialogue, even if it’s simply witnessing the conversation with a peaceful presence, or giving everyone some small reminders

Working on moving from Drama to Dialogue in your life? Let me know how it’s going (elaine@conflict180.com).

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