Creating Conversations That Matter

May 1, 2017

“Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization may make in renewal is to begin talking with other people as though the answers mattered.”

– William Greider

That insight has never been more important to our future than right now.

Just about everyone I know and speak with these days is appalled at the state of our “national conversation.” When we talk about policy and political issues like healthcare, immigration, tax reform, climate change, and terrorism, there no longer seems to be any middle ground – or any room for objective inquiry.

Just think about all those collective challenges we are facing right now, every day. Do the answers matter? You bet they do! Yet most our conversations about them seem limited to sound bites, tweets, and protest marches characterized by clever signs that make the messengers feel good but all too often appear to have very little effect on anything (I do recognize that many recent marches and other forms of resistance do indeed appear to have had some impact on Congress, but they have not really generated any understanding or agreement).

I believe the future of our society is at stake right now, and yet neither our national leaders nor our organizational leaders seem capable of showing us how to talk with each other as though the answers matter.

We have lost the ability to engage in even a halfway-meaningful exchange of ideas among people who approach those topics from different perspectives.

We have to relearn how to talk to each other about things that matter. Whether our focus is on national issues or local ones, whether we are talking about public policy or our organizations’ strategic plans, we will not survive if we can’t figure out how to listen, learn, find common ground, and at least reach compromise.

While I am focused primarily on conversations at work, I find our descent into public name-calling and outright unwillingness to listen to each other incredibly discouraging, not just about what we say to each other but also about how we say it.

Alan Webber suggested over 20 years ago that the core work of knowledge-based organizations is conversation – the creation and exchange of ideas, information, knowledge, and even wisdom (see “What’s So New about the New Economy?” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2003).

Then Webber asks and answers an important question about the role of management in a knowledge-based business:

If the new work of the company is conversation, then what is the job the manager? Put simply: [it is] to create an environment where employees can have productive conversations rather than counterproductive ones, useful conversations rather than useless ones.

Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence (Bibliomotion Press, 2014), suggests that:

Conversations are the golden threads that enable us to move toward and trust others, but these threads can also unravel, causing us to run from others in fear of loss and pain….Yet few leaders understand how vital conversation is to the health and productivity of their company culture. (p. xiv)

Ms. Glaser identifies three kinds of conversation:

Level I:

“Transactional” conversations that enable us to exchange information and other forms of value.

Level II:

“Positional” conversations in which we express points of view and seek to influence others to understand or accept our perspectives.

Level III:

Transformational conversations aimed at transforming and reshaping reality – what she calls “Co-creating Conversations®”.

Judith Glaser clearly prefers, and advocates, Level III conversations, which I see as perhaps the collaborative equivalent of the top of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy (self-actualization). And I fear that too many of our conversations these days are Positional, where one “side” or the other is attempting to influence and persuade, while steadfastly refusing to be influenced or persuaded.

As I suggested earlier, I am convinced that high-quality conversations are the essence of healthy societies as well as effective organizational cultures. It’s time to change the way we talk to (and with) each other.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing more of my thoughts about conversation as a basic process that we simply must master if we are to have any future at all.

What are your insights about conversation? What make a conversation both meaningful and memorable?

Don’t face the future alone. Jim Ware designs experiences that enable organizational leaders to hold constructive conversations about the future.

Contact Jim today, or call him right now at +1 510.558.1434 to learn how his workshops, keynote presentations, and expertise in orchestrating powerful conversations can put the future to work for you.

Download "Creating Conversations That Matter" as a PDF

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Leek May 2, 2017 at 11:05 am

Thanks for starting a transformational conversation, Jim. It is widely believed that the advent of the tools of social media has completely transformed conversation. The ability to hide behind a keyboard has emboldened people into creating a new version of positional conversation. I cannot imagine most people using the same rhetoric or dialogue in person when discussing topics like politics, or race, or fear, or other topics as they do in the comfort of social media. I believe many people have developed two personas: one for their professional environment where consequences still exist, and one for their online environment where the only consequence might include at most being unfriended, or at least an escalating war of words centered on positional influencing anyone who reads the thread.

Meaningful and memorable conversations exist in both realms. What I believe is that I am measured by what other people think about me, and that view is informed every time I have a conversation, either written or verbal. Therefore, if I want to be viewed in a positive way, to be trusted, to be engaged in a conversation instead of judged by a sound bite, I should strive to embody the basic tenants of great conversation: listen, seek to understand, be inquisitive, show empathy, and remain open to the possibilities of ongoing learning from everyone I engage with anywhere. It starts with how we each want to behave with, and be influenced by, others. I own my outcomes.


Steven Beary May 2, 2017 at 3:17 pm

This is an incredibly important, and relevant piece of thought.

Thank you for putting this out there. How can I help? Is this something that we can build the “back end” of our recent phone discussion about hiring for collaboration?

Thought: it’s much easier to have a conversation that is constructive with someone who already believes in the benefit of collaborative processes. Second thought: How do managers, in the role you lay out for them, below, foster collaboration when not everyone who is involved in the conversation believes in the benefits of collaborative processes?



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