The 10 skills of dialogue

Strengthen your family relationships by learning how to talk about anything.

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Key takeaways

  • Dialogue is the process of talking through topics to build shared meaning.
  • Family dialogue involves all parties being fully engaged and talking through a topic.
  • Goals of healthy family conversations should be to understand each other's perspectives, build intimacy in relationships, and align around interests and outcomes.

By Tim Habbershon, Managing Director, Center for Family Engagement, Fidelity Investments

Most skiers know they aren't ready to tackle black-diamond runs on a mountain without developing the necessary skills. Families faced with hard and often complex conversations around money, wealth, and estate planning benefit from similar wisdom.

Developing the dialogue skills to navigate challenging family topics requires intentional practice at every stage of life. Without these skills, your family will avoid necessary life conversations or have them in a way that has the potential to harm relationships.

Dialogue is the process of talking through topics to build shared meaning. In this process, families aim to understand each other's perspectives, build intimacy in relationships, and align around interests and outcomes. In dialogue, individuals avoid problematic modes of communication, such as telling people what to do or trying to get their way.

Just like skiing, dialogue is a skill-based, and there are many opportunities throughout life for you and your children to practice by tackling easier, bunny-slope topics. Start by talking through college spending money, buying a car, or gifting to buy a house. Then keep practicing the conversations as the topics get harder.

Through time, your family can develop the skills you need to talk about anything. You will be ready when it comes time for black-diamond conversations about topics like fairness, entitlement, integrating children's spouses into the family, and the complexities of elder care or wealth transitions.

To get you started with your practice, here's a quick overview of the 10 Skills of Dialogue we teach at the Center for Family Engagement.*

1. Monitor your tone of voice

Tone of voice dictates how people interpret what you are saying, regardless of what you actually say. And it is the main way you can communicate to others that it is safe to join you in dialogue. I often have family members restate a simple question such as, "Where are you going?" in 4 tones (aggressive, empathetic, suspicious, interested) to hear the different meanings. When people have unexpressed feelings that differ from what they are saying, their real sentiments often come through in their tone of voice.

2. Explore with key word questions

Many conversations are like a tennis match, with opinions volleyed back and forth until someone wins the point. To break that pattern and gain a better understanding of someone's perspective, listen for an emotional or meaningful word—one key word—and ask a follow-up question using that word.

If someone says, "I am really disappointed about this," you can ask, "What are you disappointed about?" In response to someone saying, "This is very important to me," try asking, "What's important to you about it?" Even if someone says something relatively extreme, such as "That's a ridiculous suggestion," you can explore their thinking by asking, "What's ridiculous about it?"

3. Be mindful of reactivity

A check engine light means that something inside a car needs to be investigated. If you have an outsized reaction in a family conversation, it's the same type of indicator—something is going on inside you that needs to be explored.

Generally, we blame someone else by projecting the reason for our reactivity onto them, which often triggers their reactivity. Instead, we can break the pattern by engaging in reflection, which is the flip side of projection.

Be mindful of your reactions so you can pause and "check the engine" by asking reflective questions such as, "Why did I react? What just happened in me?" This response will help you slow down and keep reactivity from escalating or becoming highly personal.

4. Choose not to personalize

Taking something personally is a choice, even in circumstances when a comment may have been meant as a personal attack. For example, if someone comments on how much money you spend, you have a choice: You can engage in a dialogue about spending or you can take it personally, viewing it as an attack on you, your behavior, your family's history, or your relationship. If the interaction becomes a debate about your spending, you can't get into reflective dialogue about the real feelings and issues.

When feelings escalate because you are personalizing, there is usually a deeper issue to address. Maybe you are fearful about family finances. Maybe you are also concerned about your spending. Or maybe you feel judged about your lifestyle.

5. Cultivate positive attributions

Attributions are highly organized beliefs about other people—characterizations that dictate our language and behavior. We tend to think of them as being beyond our control and true simply because that's how we view a person.

With intentionality, we can all change or reframe our beliefs into kinder, gentler attributions that enable our families to engage more effectively. For instance, consider an attribution that someone is controlling. Imagine shifting your thinking to "they are just trying to care for me." That reframing can open the door to dialogue about how you sometimes experience their behavior as controlling.

6. Create space with doubt

When sharing perspectives, family members sometimes default to using absolute words or phrases (e.g., always, never, hopeless, forget it, I'm out of here, don't talk to me). This is a defensive mode that tends to cut off conversation.

To talk through topics, everyone involved needs benefit of the doubt, respect, acknowledgment, space to share an opinion, and an opportunity to engage. You can foster dialogue by shaping how you offer suggestions and observations.

Consider using phrases like, "What would you think about…" or "I'm not sure this is right, but maybe we could…" or "I wonder if there's value in thinking about it this way…." You can also focus on using words like can, might, often, may, and maybe.

7. Process out loud

Learning to verbalize what you are thinking and feeling—in a way that others can hear—is a skill that can be developed.

Clients sometimes solicit our advice by saying things like, "I keep putting off talking with my kids about my estate plans because our conversations tend to be confrontational. I don't know what to do." My response is always, "Say that to them! Process it out loud. The feelings and fears about having the conversation are the real agenda."

The skill is to identify an emotion, label it with a feeling word, and follow up with a related thought. You could say, "I feel uncomfortable and wonder if we can each just express our views rather than debate them." Or, "I am worried this conversation is taking us down a path we might regret. Would it be OK if we pressed pause and talked more about what we are hoping to accomplish?" Processing out loud lets you stay in dialogue when emotions arise that might derail the conversation.

8. Reprocess bad process

What is bad process? It's shouting, reactivity, put-downs, walking out, shutting down, or any mode that hinders healthy communication and relationship building. Reprocessing bad process involves acknowledging the impact of your actions and offering insight about what happened. It enables you to talk things through and reconnect with other people. It's also a way of reflecting on your own actions that goes beyond just saying, "I'm sorry."

Here are a few examples:

  • "I realize I derailed the conversation with my anger."
  • "I was feeling disrespected and unheard, which triggered some reactivity."
  • "I was caught up in thinking about how this situation impacts me and didn't listen closely enough to what you were saying."

9. Check in through process questions

When discussing sensitive topics, be mindful of how everyone is engaging. Dialogue is not saying anything you want, any way you choose, at any time you decide. By definition, dialogue involves all parties being fully engaged and talking through a topic.

To do so, check in about how the process is going for everyone. Periodically throughout a conversation, press pause and ask questions like, "How are you feeling about our conversation?" or "Am I pushing too hard?"

Process questions are especially important when there is natural hierarchy in the group, as with a parent and child—even an adult child. You need to ask if people feel there is a true dialogue.

10. Offer forgiveness and compassion

An absence of forgiveness and compassion can be a major impediment to dialogue. What's more, when hard feelings are codified—for instance, by cutting someone out of a will—the harm can endure for generations.

Forgiveness is intentionally letting go of any anger that is controlling you, even if you strongly disagree. And compassion involves intentionally showing kindness, even if you don't think a person may deserve it. These skills require a strong sense of self and an act of will. Some people consider them a double-black-diamond skill, but they are essential for ensuring relationships endure.

As with any skill-based sport, learning to communicate effectively takes commitment and dedicated practice. To get started, pick one skill and try it during a family conversation. From there, you can work together to build the capabilities needed to talk about anything. This is one way to make a collective investment in the most important asset of all: your family.

About the author

Dr. Timothy Habbershon is currently a managing director of Fidelity Investments. For more than 25 years, Dr. Habbershon has been an advisor, consultant, and coach to ownership and management teams of large family-controlled firms and family offices worldwide. Prior to joining Fidelity Investments, Dr. Habbershon founded three applied research and practice institutes for enterprising families at the School of Business at the University of South Dakota, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Babson College, where he also founded a global applied research initiative, the STEP Project, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in family enterprising. Dr. Habbershon received a bachelor of arts degree in psychology from Grove City College, a master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and an MBA and a doctorate degree in adult education from the University of South Dakota. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Fidelity Investments.

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