To the degree that one life intersects with another – at home, on the job, socially (yes, even via social media) – few things are more central to progress and success than the art of dialogue.

Whether a political agenda, the endeavors of enterprise, social awareness and reform or a family’s pursuits, progress is impossible in the absence of an intentional and consistent focus on better conversations.  Better than what?  Better than those we had last year…last month…yesterday.

There is little value in having the same conversations over and over.  Eventually, no one is listening.  So, here are five ideas – two things to steer clear of, and three proactive steps — that will instigate better conversations and more productive dialogue.

1) Avoid the devils you know.  These come in all shapes and sizes.  They may be rooted in legitimate analysis or the ghosts of self-awareness.  And though understanding the past is one of the ways to avoid repeating it, conversations (in the context of any relationship) that begin with the issues of past experiments and experiences rarely last long enough to break new ground.  Change – indeed progress – is born of aspirations.  Better conversations focus here.

2) Pass on the blame game.  It’s popular, and everyone plays it.  So much so that, masquerading as analysis, the language of blame (or CYA) is often the default language in any change related dialogue.  Understanding what precipitated difficulties of the past might be instructive (though I’m not convinced of that fact).  But attempts here almost always polarize and stymie.  Affixing blame is a waste of time, and an inhibitor of real conversing.  When it is of consequence, you can bet those who need to already have a sense who is to blame.  Play a different game.

3) Change the discussion.  This is the game we should be about, because it facilitates connection.  Much of the time the reason progress is so slow and minuscule is we’re engaging in the same discussions…over and over.  The same debate.  The same case.  The same retort.  And the same result.  Rather, invest in creativity and innovation.  Want to stand a discussion on its ear?  Drop pre-conceived agendas and seed a new idea.  Where true progress is the objective, new ideas – not agendas or platforms – will fuel a better brand of dialogue.

4) Be about solutions.  Conversations that begin with the problems rarely move past them.  Should you need a case study, witness the current non-dialogue in Washington, D.C.  Solutions, on the other hand, require creative thinking, broad (and deep) perspective, and a measure of courage.  Solutions to real-world-issues – without respect to venue – come laden with responsibility.  Whether on a personal level, in the workplace, or in the most convoluted of socio-political environs, solutions to multi-layered challenges always require on-going dialogue.  Solutions to our greatest challenges cannot be communicated via sound bite.

5) Listen more than you talk.  Ah! Here is the rub.  To the degree that conversation is merely what we tolerate in order to make our point and present our agenda, there is no real dialogue.  Dialogue is about erasing the whiteboard, and beginning anew.  Dialogue invests in intentional listening – without agenda, in search of shared aspirations, because this is where connection occurs.

At the risk of stating the obvious, all of this flies in the face of a communication strategy that says identify your message and stay on point no matter the topic or specific question might be.  Dialogue is hard work.  It is not media or camera-friendly.  Good sound bites are the accidental product of actual communication.

And so enterprise cranks out its marketing-speak; politicians rehearse and reiterate their sound bites; client service groups invent new ways to deflect criticism; we all learn to speak the same language, engage in the same conversations over and over; no one is listening…and dialogue is minimal.

I’m determined to be a part of better conversations.  Not only will the past not define the future, the mistakes of yesterday will not cloud today’s conversations.  If just you and I were to commit, what opportunities might be discovered?