The magic (or curse) of ongoing conversations

”The point he was trying to make is that in leadership and in organisations it all boils down to the frequency and quality of ongoing conversations.”

A few years ago while reading one of Ken Blanchard’s blogs I came across a simple sentence that became a big eye-opener for me. Quite honestly, I can’t remember the exact words but the point he was trying to make is that in leadership and in organisations it all boils down to the frequency and quality of ongoing conversations.

Of course, I thought. It’s all there! The frequency and quality of ongoing conversations provide insights about an organisations’ history and expose the values, assumptions and principles that govern the organisation today. Furthermore, conversations also reveal what is emerging and may help predict how the organisation is evolving and adapting, in what direction, and at what pace. If we just listened carefully enough.

Unfortunately, listening to what ongoing conversations are actually telling us is much harder in our own organisations, where we easily become blinded through habit and assimilation. As the saying goes, “you can’t read the label of the jar you’re in”.

Organisations are not just boxes connected by reporting lines on the organisation chart or a set of optimised processes for maximum efficiency. At a more fundamental level, organisations are groups of people who need to talk to each other to create and recreate meaning.

“We move in the direction of our own conversations.”

Last week all these thoughts bounced back to life in my head during a conference call with our American friends and peer consultants Joe Slatter from Better Practices based in Denver, CO, and John Lazar from JBL&A Coaching, based in Chicago. At some point, while discussing what individuals and organisations need to know in order to be able to actualise their visions and aspirations and close the famous gap between knowing and doing, Joe summarised his thoughts in a short, sharp statement: “We move in the direction of our own conversations”.

If we are set to change something within ourselves, we will need to reconsider the conversations that are keeping us where we are. If we want our organisations to grow and learn, we need to understand the consequences of our current conversations and upgrade those to match the reality of our desired future.

And yet, I know, “conversations” is a pretty general term. What exactly do I mean by conversations? And how do we define the quality of a conversation? The word “conversation” has had different meanings through the centuries. Today, most would agree that it is the interactive communication between two or more people to exchange news and ideas.

What is interesting from the perspective of an organisation are the consequences of the particular way in which these conversations — formal and informal— are taking place. The quality of conversations links to the perceived value they are generating for the organisation and the people involved. Are our conversations as they occur helping us move closer to what we collectively want to achieve? Are they aligned with our ultimate purpose? Are they generating or draining energy? Are they encouraging or frustrating individual commitment?

High-quality conversations feature a number of interconnected attributes which also correspond to concrete skills that can be practiced and learned, individually and collectively:

Listening: The ability to be fully present and visit someone else’s experience with the purpose of first trying to understand rather than being understood. It requires the ability to detach — at least temporarily— from our own thoughts, preconceptions and emotional reactions.

Curiosity: The authentic willingness to inquire and explore other perspectives that may differ from the organisation’s prevailing views or my own personal opinions.

Clarity: The habit and skill to check that communication is actually taking place and that all involved experience it that way. This requires openness, empathy and patience to make sure common ground has been reached and that any questions regarding the why, how, and what of a particular matter have been addressed. It also demands a level of trust sufficient to transform conflict into a source of learning and alignment.

Appreciation: The sincere appreciation of others as unique individuals and as valued partners in achieving things that are greater than anything we can achieve on our own. This skill also emphasises on trust and people’s strengths.

”When necessary interaction is deterred by fear, distrust, silo mentality or other barriers, organisations pay a high price.“

Frequency of conversations is also an important aspect to consider. How long time does it take before a necessary conversation takes place? This is often discussed when related to building a healthy feedback culture but it extends to all forms of communication. When necessary interaction is deterred by fear, distrust, silo mentality or other barriers, organisations pay a high price. Timeliness of communication is highly influenced by leadership practices, degree of transparency and meetings’ structure.

Necessary and unnecessary conversations

In addition to observing the conversations that are taking place, it is equally important to recognize what are the conversations that are not taking place despite the fact that they should. There is huge value in digging up these topics that have fallen in denial or that have been censored in one way or another, bringing them to the surface and make sure they get the attention they deserve. In communication as we know, what is not said may be equally or more important than what is.

On a similar fashion, it is common to identify some unnecessary conversations that have established themselves as some kind of rituals, legacy from the past than no longer helps the organization in moving forwards. To embrace change we must let go of these dead weight which comes in many forms, including formal meetings that have lost their purpose, and never-ending informal rants by the coffee machine about everything that is wrong and whose fault it is.

Individual and organisation self-talk

Another conversation requiring attention is self-talk. At an individual level, this is the internal dialogue we have with ourselves, the chatter going on in our heads. The sum of all the individual self-talks is a major force influencing the internal dynamics of every organisation. Individual self-talk is determined by many factors and many of them are not created by the organisation as such, but there is an obvious ongoing interplay between individual thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs, and those of the organisation or of more specific groups.

There is also what we could call an organisation’s self-talk, namely the way an organisation describes and reasons with itself, how it values (or not) it’s own abilities and opportunities. As with individuals, the nature of organisations’ self-talk can vary greatly and be a huge source of resilience and adaptability or an insurmountable roadblock to success. Self-talk is also an ongoing conversation, and a very essential one.

“Conversations in organisations don’t tell us everything, but they are without doubt a visible expression of the underlying cultural fabric that defines our identity.“

Pay close attention and be rewarded

In understanding and describing how organisations function, it is a challenge not to feel disheartened by mind-blowing complexity or falling prey to overly simplified models and one-dimensioned explanations. Conversations in organisations don’t tell us everything, but they are without doubt a visible expression of the underlying cultural fabric that defines our identity.

Paying attention to patterns in ongoing conversations, in form and in content, is one useful way to understand why a particular organisation behaves the way it does. Modifying, boosting or discouraging some of those same conversations can be, in turn, one of the fastest ways to unlock deeply rooted beliefs and behaviors and give way for something new to emerge.