Lead a Breakthrough Dialogue In 3 Simple Steps

When hostage negotiators say “Let’s put emotions aside.”…

Not only is having conversations important for our well-being, it can help us achieve growth in our relationships and careers.

As part of the inaugural SkillsFuture Festival Executive Series @ WeWork co-organised by Emergenetics Asia Pacific and Lifelong Learning Institute, the Director of Wei Forward Tan Hong Wee, shared with us how we can lead a conversation to motivate, counsel, coaching or brainstorm in various contexts. These simple and applicable tips will help you engage, connect with and influence others effectively through dialogue. 

What is a breakthrough dialogue?
Hong Wee established the definition of a breakthrough dialogue as one that has “3 As”: 

  1. Awareness of the situation
  2. Acceptance of responsibility
  3. Action is committed to be taken

To successfully achieve a breakthrough dialogue, both parties have to understand the thought process of each other, trust each other’s intentions, and practise active listening.

There are 3 basic steps that we can take to lead a breakthrough dialogue:

Hong Wee asked that we watch this short video clip – It’s not about the nail.
How did the man eventually connect with the woman? He did not have to solve her problem – he showed that he listened and understood her pain.

When it comes to connecting, Hong Wee outlined that it is important to:

  • Acknowledge the emotion – help the other party identify the emotion, even if you are unable to pinpoint the exact emotion, but show that effort is put in in identifying it.
  • Share similar experience – keep your sharing to 30 seconds to avoid hijacking the conversation
  • Complete the emotion – ask “What can we do about it?”

Hong Wee also shared that sometimes, hostage negotiators say: “Let’s put emotions aside.” Do they really mean to disregard emotions of the hostage taker? Hong Wee suggested that while the hostage negotiators may say this, they don’t mean it. In fact, hostage negotiators constantly tap on the criminals’ emotions in order to influence them to do the right thing at the critical moment. Tapping on emotions is key when working towards having a breakthrough dialogue.

Do we understand what mental model he/she is taking into our dialogue? Are we clear about what own mental models and prejudices are as we enter into a dialogue?

Hong Wee shared that mental models are explanations of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.

There are 3 laws to mental models:

  1. Mental models determine how and what we see, think and act.
  2. Mental models simplify life, provides a lens for making sense.
  3. Mental models are always incomplete, and may often limit our thinking.

Some common mental models include:

  • “This is my right.”
  • “This is not right.”
  • “It’s not alright.”
  • “Who do you think is right?”

So how do we leverage mental models to achieve breakthrough in our dialogue? Hong Wee provided some tips:

  1. Read the other party’s mental model out loud for awareness. (Eg. This is your/the current mental model..”)
  2. Say “This is how WE have interpreted the situation…” Use “we” to build trust between both parties, as using “your” may seem accusative.

Hong Wee’s point about understanding mental models reminded me of how I use Emergenetics to understand how people around me think and behave. I can see how having an insight into a person’s way of perceiving the world can help me understand the rationale behind their mental model so I may form strategies to better build trust and bond with the people I dialogue with.

The third thing that leads to a breakthrough dialogue is “influence”. Hong Wee outlined a toolbox of influencing:


  • Formal power given through organisation structure
  • “Because I am the boss.”

  • Inter-personal powers of persuasion
  • “Because it is in your best interest.”

  • Norms, rituals of ‘how things are done around here’
  • “Because it is the right thing to do

How may we influence at the inter-personal level to build trust?
  • Share your experience/perspective – “This is my perspective/mental model..” and offer a new perspective if the situation allows.
  • Invite – “Do you think it is relevant in this case?” When you give him a choice and ownership, he may consider taking up your solution.
  • Customise – “How can we apply this in your case?”

Hong Wee asked the audience how they have successfully influenced others. A member of the audience shared his tried-and-tested method:

  • Find common grounds as a bridge to understand and work on.
  • Having a common ground leads to more opportunities for conversations and consensus.
  • Sometimes when you sacrifice to help the other party, this may encourage them to do the same for you on another occasion.
  • This builds trust and forms long term relationships where there is give and take.

 "This is a journey, not a one-off conversation."

As the session came to an end, my own reflection is that having conversations are essential, even when it feels difficult. As someone who is comfortable to stand on the first-third part of the Emergenetics spectrum for Expressiveness (meaning, I prefer to keep to myself and avoid conversations if possible), I realised that avoiding a dialogue is not a solution. And so with Hong Wee’s tips, I know that I, too, can lead a breakthrough dialogue, even if my own preferences are to stay quiet. I just need to bear in mind to practise “connect, understand and influence” and make these steps my own.

This article was originally published on the SkillsFuture Festival Executive Series @ WeWork

About the Speaker
Mr Tan Hong Wee
Mr Tan Hong Wee

Founder and Director,
Wei Forward

Tan Hong Wee is a Leadership Development consultant and trainer, specialising in Systems Thinking, Design Thinking, Team Effectiveness, Coaching and Facilitation.

Hong Wee is a published author (Leader As Coach, Leader As Facilitator) and is planning another book on Systems Thinking.


Leader As Coach, Leader As FacilitatorLeader As Coach, Leader As Facilitator
Leader As Coach, Leader As Facilitator is a practical guide to equip leaders with coaching and facilitation skills, enabling you to have engaging and breakthrough conversations with your staff.

This book is written with a particular focus for leaders in the Asian workplace – it enables you to:

  • Help your staff uncover his strengths and weaknesses
  • Draw out the innate potential of your staff
  • Motivate your staff to achieve extraordinary results
  • Hold team building and team bonding conversations
  • Surface and integrate different perspectives amngst your team
  • Forge a group of individuals into an effective team of performers

Like the art of bonsai, developing your people requires skills and tools. Packed with real life examples and insights from more than 20 years of leadership practices, this book provides you with proven and easy-to-use techniques and tips to make you a better coach, a better facilitator, and ultimately, a better leader.