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In my leadership development classes, a learning dialogue is inspired and honors three principles expressed by the following three quotes:

• “Learning is acquired by experiences in the environment.” Maria Montessori

• “Reflection is the critical mean by which people discover each other to be ‘in a situation.” Paulo Freire

• “If you don’t dispute it you don’t learn it.” Jane Vella

Whether we are talking about a simple dialogue with a learning partner, a moment of silence, a group dialogue among team members or a learning dialogue with the entire class failure is always an option when you try dialogue for adult learning. However when my dialogue have failed – meaning there is a lack of participation, engagement, educational value or interest – I have observed that a few conditions for dialogue were consistently not met. What are those three necessary but hardly sufficient conditions?

The silence of the PRESENTER (Are you afraid of silence, especially yours?)

The condition for dialogue to flourish in the class is rather simple for the trainer: he/she needs to be silent more. Or as Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill wrote:

 “…curbing the compulsion to say all they would like to say in the interests of promoting engagement and participation.” (Discussion as a Way of Teaching, 1999)

People learn best when they talk about what they are learning. I am advocating giving time for people to talk about the content and to extract their own personal meaning about it. A teacher’s knowledge shared in the class is valuable, but far more powerful is a trainer promoting students learning by helping them find their own voices.

I don’t know a better way to do this than to let trainees talk: whether in a conversation, a debate or a question panel—a real-world problem opens as questions to the trainees will create personal meaning from the material to be learned. This is far more effective than even the most inspired lecturer.

A safe ENVIRONMENT (Does your class invite interaction or discourage it?)

No learning dialogue is possible if the environment has not been clearly identified as safe. Dialogue has started already by setting  the right class atmosphere. Steer away from conference rooms and use or replicate informal living room settings with natural light and round tables.

A set of clear ground rules (Do people understand the rules?).

Additionally, to ensure a learning dialogue is properly conducted and fully participated in, it is important to state and clarify ground rules to improve people’s thinking together. Here are the ones I circulate to build peer leadership:

  • Shift focus from ideas, to the connection between ideas
  • Shift focus from conflicting views, to how differences bring new insight to the whole
  • Shift focus from the person to the idea, respect the last always be skeptical the least

Learning dialogue is the way. But what is your purpose?