[ 3-minute read ]
“The art of conversation is dead,” is an old cliché. But in many organisations, it’s also true.
While many people know how to argue a case, how to persuade others, and how to set a meeting agenda, far fewer can create the conditions for new insights, creative thinking and solid agreements to emerge.
The humble conversation is one of our most powerful tools for exploring options, building bridges between people, reaching consensus, and confronting unknowns together.
Part 2 of this article will share some simple guidelines for holding an effective conversation. But first, let’s unpack what conversation is not …
What conversation is not: debate, discussion and traditional meetings
A debate is a procedure for testing a proposition – you’re either for or against. (Or you genuinely don’t care, in which case it’s a bit pointless.)
Debates usually set up an either/or choice: one of two options must win. But, in reality, there are always more than two options. Part of the art of leadership lies in seeking the third (and fourth, and fifth …) option: the win-win possibility, the creative solution, that is more than a simple compromise.
Debates set up an either/or choice: one of two options must win.
Debates have their value. They require rigour, rational thinking, intellectual engagement. But they don’t necessarily build shared understanding or a solid basis for moving forward together. Someone wins, someone loses, and it’s rare for the “losers” to leave the table completely convinced.
Discussion is less obviously about winning. In principle, the focus is on content – on the quality of the ideas and alternatives under discussion. However, there are almost always other things going on too … Mark has his preferred outcome, Zanele has her own agenda, Sam just wants a decision that allows her to take leave; and so on.
The way most people practice it, discussion equals persuasion – convincing others to buy into my worldview and my preferred solution. So, most of us focus on what we’ll say next to get our point across, rather than really listening for the value in what others are saying.
Discussion = persuasion.
At its worst, discussion can turn into a battle between people’s pet positions, leading to an absence of resolution, or a descent into power-games and conflict.
Still, discussion can be a good way of processing ideas and options, and moving towards a decision, provided:
- you’re confident that you already have the “right” answer, and others just need to come on board; or
- the stakes are fairly low; or
- the terrain is well known, and the options are limited and clear – i.e. you don’t really need a creative solution.
Traditional meeting agendas and processes are good for dealing with routine business. They can help with efficiency, monitoring, accountability, and sometimes even provide a sense of grounding and connection. However, in some organisations, ordinary meetings become ritualised spaces where people “perform their importance”, rather than getting things done.
Ordinary meetings can become ritualised spaces where people “perform their importance”
This usually leads to boredom, disaffection, resentment – and lots of wasted time and energy. But let’s assume that your meetings are purposeful and well-run. Traditional meetings are still limited if we need to make something new, or get to an unknown solution. For that, we need a more open-ended and exploratory approach.
A final point on rational agendas and rational decision-making processes: they can founder in the face of complexity and end in a state of “analysis-paralysis” or “perpetual-planning syndrome”.
Engaging with data and evidence is essential, but it shouldn’t blind us to the reality that decision-making is almost never only rational …
As individuals and as organisations we are confronted by systems and environments of great complexity. The future is almost never perfectly predictable, no matter how much data we gather, how much analysis we engage in, or how carefully we plan. Gut feeling, intuition, imagination, empathy and creativity have their place in the decision-making process too. And a good conversation can help us engage with these as well as with the hard facts.
See Part 2 of this post for practical guidelines on how to move beyond discussion, debate and traditional meetings and enter into productive conversations.