Dialogue leaders work to keep harmony and productivity within a group discussion, thereby supporting the emergence of generative actions. David Kantor’s four-player conversation model suggests actions a person may take during a conversation: movers initiate ideas and transition the conversation; opposers challenge ideas and the conversation; followers complete ideas and support the conversation; bystanders provide perspective on the ideas and conversation. I recently took part in conversations to consciously explore these roles. Afterward, I theorized that movers and opposers are the actors best suited to set direction. The mover is like a skipper charting new waters, while the opposer drops anchors to explore the current waters. Bystanders and followers mostly provide crew support. I developed two theories related to Web-based, threaded dialogue. First, when a compelling perspective is voiced in online conversations, it causes a pause that opens a door for actors to change roles. Second, followers are less relevant online, where conversations include adequate time to respond and an archive to keep thoughts clear.
If I consciously remove myself from a dialogue leader role, the facilitator of balance, I’d consider myself most likely to exhibit traits of a mover or opposer, but it entirely depends on the conversation and my comfort level with it. But I’m inclined to act as an advocate. By working to increase my comfort levels in acting as a bystander and follower, I’ll transition more toward the motive of inquiry.
I left my comforts this week, actively practiced inquiry. Acting as a bystander, I offered perspective, reflecting on ideas and presenting new ways of looking at them. That role wasn’t too difficult. I consider myself a creative thinker who’s capable of divergent thinking. However, I noticed my perspective sometimes staled the conversation, as the other participant felt challenged by a completely new set of thoughts. For example, she was discussing how money is “getting sucked into the system.” There’s few tangible representations of financial currency these days, she said. I suggested this evolution seems to occur in other areas of our lives, too, like music. We left large records for clunky eight-track cartridges, and then traded those for smaller cassettes, and then compact discs. And now, music is an intangible file, stored computer lingo, such as MP3. She paused, recollected her thoughts, and then continued again. My perspective had changed her direction. It appeared a metaphorical door opened for me to switch to advocate, but I regressed. These types of pauses, openings for new leadership or role switching, also occur in online dialogue, when a threaded conversation stops.
After switching to a follower, I worked to ensure the speaker didn’t lose her direction, while withholding my tendencies to drift. I’m used to freely moving to new ideas, building on assumptions through association. But I couldn’t do that here, not as a follower. I tried to insert mental bookmarks as the speaker moved our discussion, voicing her ideas. As the dreaded “Where was I?” phrase surfaced, I often found my recollection wasn’t deep enough. For example, as we discussed how people value education with varying degrees of commitment, she briefly mentioned the difficulties of attending college in Jordan. She’s an immigrant to the United States. I asked, “How are they difficult – did something happen?” She didn’t want to go there, so she quickly changed the subject. Meanwhile, I was still wondering what might have been the answer. Soon enough, she asked once more, “Where was I?” But again, my mental indexing of our conversation didn’t go back far enough. With typed online dialogue, actors leave a trailing archive of responses, so the follower role is left less relevant. What’s more, they’re given time to better formulate responses, writing and editing before submitting.
In another conversation, I examined a family member’s workplace meetings, where dialogue is often caught in debate and tough talking. The business owner routinely pitches her concepts with little regard or respect for employee input. She chooses to minimize the need to hear their understandings or enlist their collaboration. Employee opinions are frequently devalued, leaving their self-worth in shambles. Recently a young employee asked for a raise in response to expanding work responsibilities. The owner laughed at her, suggesting “I could get rid of you” and “you’re easily replaceable.” Dialogue broke down and the employee resigned. My family member is frequently an opposer of the employer’s actions during these meetings. As someone who’s worked for innovative CEOs in Global 100 companies, she feels a sense duty to challenge the business owner’s troubling dialogue, which she says destroys initiative. After hearing about Kantor’s four-player model, she said lifting the discussions to generative dialogue would require her role to shift from opposer to bystander. She should contribute less to debate and more to perspective. By reflecting on the wave of cruelty experienced at the employee level, such as the moment the business owner laughed at her employee, perhaps compassion will be cultivated. By encouraging compassion, the meetings may transcend a tough container hardened by debate. Similarly, in tough talking online discourse, bystanders become critical as followers become marginal.