Are we losing the art of conversation?
In an age where digital monologues, selfies, and superficial chats are the norm, the power of conversation is waning. Disconnected in our connected world, text, email, and social media exchanges are hardly interactive, let alone conversational.
TV, live-streamed and public-event ‘conversations,’ from political debates to discussion groups, tend to be immature, combative and divisive because there is something to ‘win,’ and because there is an ‘entertainment value’ to be optimised.
“… Communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale … Different groups … are not actually able to listen to each other … the consequent sense of frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust.”1
On campuses, where “the art of debate and discourse … has largely been lost due to students who no longer feel comfortable openly deliberating ideas that might get them labelled a racist or misogynist … sexist, xenophobic.” (Taboo campus topics include drug legalisation, sexual behaviour, the environment, abortion, capital punishment, war, economic equality, affirmative action and immigration).2
Edgar Schein, doyen of business culture, believes that we live in a culture that overvalues telling.3
Yet conversation is still needed and valued. In 2011, performance artist Taylor Baldry set up a card table and three folding chairs on a street corner in Minneapolis and announced free conversations. The response was remarkable. Without any doubt, people crave authentic conversation.4
What is conversation?
Meetings, debates, idea exchanges and conversations differ. Bohm rues the fact that we humans have lost our capacity for “participatory thought”: to partake of and to partake in those things that deeply matter to us – in a natural, informal way. He sees that “… In a dialogue (conversation) … people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together.”1 When we freely listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence, something new and creative happens. A sharing of meaning, purpose and value glues people and societies together.
Freud borrowed the phrase ‘the talking cure’ to describe psychoanalysis. I think we should use it to describe conversations.
There are conversations that we should be having at work
In many of today’s workplaces, there are topics never talked about but that should be. Like taking off our masks and being authentic, looking after the environment with a passion that goes beyond lip service, really caring for the communities we touch, not being so rules-based, overcoming change fatigue, aligning individual and organisation purpose where feasible, accepting spirituality, living the organisation’s values, introducing a loving environment, seeing past the habits and norms in different ethnic groups (eating, breastfeeding, religious rituals, marriage conventions), handling employment equity fairly and with sensitivity …
Avoided conversation topics are legion.
Employees in many workplaces feel muzzled. They believe that certain subjects are politically incorrect, will upset management or even be career-limiting if spoken about openly. Leaders introduce their own boundaries and taboos. On the few occasions where these topics do surface there is accompanying animosity, embarrassment, an adversarial attitude, anger and other negative emotions. People feel threatened and uncomfortable.
200 years ago a fable by Russian author Ivan Krylov introduced a wonderful metaphor – an elephant in the room. It is something big. So big that it fills the room. It simply cannot be ignored. It is really important. But incredibly, we fail to see it! And even if we do see it, we never talk about it.5
If they were allowed and encouraged, these conversations have the potential to make a huge difference to how people feel, think and act – to the benefit of themselves and their organisational culture and performance. A re-patterning, reframing, re-storying, re-genesis.
Imagine if …
If not allowed, left ‘underground’, then the lack of understanding, failure to express feelings, discontent and resentment festers, and opposite views take root all the more firmly.
When these ‘taboos’ are talked about in a safe, confidential and professionally facilitated manner, a lot of positive, constructive, beneficial things happen: people engage, gain understanding and insight, feel trusted and important. Teamwork and cross-department, cross-culture collaboration improves. Participants gain skill at sharing their stories, at listening to others, handling potential conflict positively. There is sense-making and problem-solving. The conversations become inclusive, connecting, positive, motivating. Not controlling, stifling. There is a new sense of pride, diversity is seen more positively. Outcomes are owned. Subsequent performance is raised, positive improvements and good results occur.
A sound conversation process is a wonderful way to trigger positive culture change without resorting to and swamping the organisational with highly structured, protracted, disruptive and threatening OD and change management interventions.
Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation. ~Mark Twain
Conversation in ancient Hindu, Sumer, Roman and Greek civilisations were crucial to progress. (Socrates believed that individuals are not able to be intelligent on their own, but need the stimulation of another, others. That we become intelligent through questioning, listening, sharing, contemplating, and processing ideas that lie outside of ourselves). This essentially human practice continued with the Knights of the Round Table. It was the engine of the Renaissance. Conversation enlivened French salons. They were integral to early North American culture. And served Shaka Zulu’s ukuxoxa impi, motivational tradition (warrior conversations around a fire to comfort and encourage each other).
Anita Diamant’s book, The Red Tent, is about the rape of Dinah. The red tent was a safe, special, hallowed place where women could talk about this taboo topic.6 The book has been published in 25 countries and a movie made. A spontaneous “Red Tent Movement” has sprung up. In red tents, there is no judgement, a chance for equal sharing, relating and learning. Everyone’s contribution is valued. This makes a lot of sense.
Buddha and Jesus addressed large crowds, but also had conversations with small groups and (often spontaneously) with individuals. They would connect, converse and interact, use stories and anecdotes (often incorporating a parable or koan as a ‘riddle’ or ‘teaser’, as well as powerful questions) to invoke reflection, participation, and support positive action. Their teaching styles were participative, caring, and conversational.
Neither one sponsored and initiated any formal, massive organisational development intervention and transformation programme. They were catalysts for natural, organic growth.
Jesus always addressed pressing needs immediately, and in a way that brought about positive, lasting outcomes. He discussed the undiscussable. He involved those who typically were (or felt) left out – interacted gently, at their level, focused on their needs.
Imagine a powerful new resource. A process that stimulated the conversations that should happen in organisations, in a way that they count, and make the difference.
A Powerful New Resource
I’ve combined expertise with Steve Banhegyi (Storytelling.co.za) to devise, test, develop and refine a method of conducting difficult conversations in safety, to the benefit of the organisation, its culture, and its members.
We begin the process with confidential and easy-to-participate, on-line surveys. Expert analysis supplies leadership with an overview of the issues preventing a positive, values-driven workforce. With this knowledge constructive, open and confidential group conversations are conducted, using anecdote circle methodology. (Pioneered and developed by Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd, anecdote circles are arguably the best means for businesses to unearth experiences, memories, feelings, personal stories and values around a common theme, a concern to the organisation, a challenge, or issue. Properly facilitated, they trump traditional interviews and surveys, allow you to get to root causes, and make sense of complex situations.
The entire process – confidential surveys, preparation, group compositions and anecdote circle methodology – all combine to create a safe container where participants may overstep the limits or ‘edges’ of what they would previously have discussed. The insights and understanding participants gain may then be reinforced with internal media and other activities, ensuring long-term, enduring change. Our experience is that organisations that adopt these facilitated conversations gain hugely in terms of positive, practical suggestions for smoothing, improving, fixing and healing processes, situations, relationships and cultural dynamics. The conversation events are not designed to influence, persuade, nor convert any of the participants. They gently trigger culture change in the areas that count, without the hype, imposed control, expensive and lengthy projects and initiatives associated with organisation development, change management, reengineering and transformation endeavours. Ownership is assumed by the participants.
The process (run directly by ourselves or via selected and trained in-house facilitators using our toolkit) is designed so that participants – while addressing particular ‘issues’ – also learn to:
- Share differences
- Raise and shift consciousness, understanding, possibility
- Move forward together as a conversational community
Advice from over 100 years ago: “The object of conversation is pleasure and improvement … In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”7
Naturally opposites or opposing views do emerge. But as in the Yin Yang symbol, they are contained by the surrounding circle. Within the anecdote circle methodology, there is room for ‘negative’ and ‘positive,’ for differences of opinion – in a safe, non-judgmental, supportive space. Contained within the anecdote circle are a freedom from normal socialisation barriers to talking about what needs to be talked about (for example, hierarchy, multiple or threatening perspectives, personal ‘edges’). In this environment we find that it is common for participants to move out of their comfort zones and let go of long-held prejudices, stereotyping, limiting beliefs, destructive emotions, obstacles to sharing, and aspects of a negative world-view.
There is in most organisations an enormous untapped source of wisdom waiting to be unleashed. The ‘Conversations that Count’ Process is in fact an adoption of System Leadership, characterised by:
- Deep and mindful listening, tolerance and shared reflection
- Developing collaborative solutions
- Courageously co-creating a future
Some conversation topics that we’ve been involved with include:
- What are the boundaries of what we’re prepared to discuss
- The masks we wear
- Escaping psychic prisons
- Change fatigue
- Diversity and discord
- What is the spirit of our workplace?
- Becoming story-competent
- Stifled creativity and innovation
- Making our workplace more cohesive
- Language, jargon, communication styles
- I or We in teams?
- Superior customer and stakeholder service
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.8
What conversations are you encouraging or discouraging? How are these conversations benefiting the organization and its members? I welcome the continuance of this conversation and look forward to your comments below.
For more on Story Circles, see The Halo and the Noose.
1Bohm, D. On Dialogue. Routledge 1996.
2Hardiman, K. (University of Notre Dame). Philosophy professor: Students too fearful to debate controversial topics. November 30, 2016, http://www.thecollegefix.com/post/30168/.
3Schein, E. H. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, California 2013.
4Baldry, Taylor. https://www.linkedin.com/in/taylorbaldry.
5Ralston, W.R.S, M.A. (of the British Museum) Krilof and His Fables: A transcription of the complete fourth edition, translated by W.R.S Ralston. Cassell & Company Ltd (4th Edition), 1883 Kindle Edition.
6Diamant, A. The Red Tent. St. Martin’s Press 1997.
7Martine, A. Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness. A Public Domaine Book first published in 1866.
8Wheatley, M. J. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco 2009.