the honest conversation

Chicago: Beer-honest conversations (by BurntNorton)

I’ve had a few interesting conversations recently that took me back to Michael Beer’s keynote address at the Linkage ‘Best of OD and Leadership & Transformational Change Summit’ in Chicago. The core of his thesis for making strategic change really work was enabling ‘the honest conversation’.

Sounds simple, but it’s not easy! For many of us, there is a lot to loose! However, increasingly in my work and practice, we have been learning together (that’s us in the LifeTree team and the clients we have the privilege to serve) just how powerful it is to have ‘the honest conversation’.

OK, there is a lot that can get in the way to prevent us being honest, but we have learned some key things that enable us to enter this delicate arena. I’m thinking of writing an article on this, but if I can briefly summarise some of the keys we’ve found are:

  • Safety – creating a safe place to have this conversation. Much can be said on this!
  • Facilitation – it can be extremely difficult to have this kind of conversation without some facilitation. If we initiate/lead it, we may be perceived to be pressing for our agenda/solution. And, of course, I have to realise I am just as much part of the ‘problem’ as well as potentially part of the solution!
  • Readiness – I’m fond of quoting T.S. Eliot who says at the start of his wonderful poem, The Four Quartets, ‘run, run, run, said the bird, for human beings cannot bear very much reality’. A profound observation from the artist/master psychologist. So, how ready am I to have this conversation? How ready are the others?
  • Openness and humility – if the enemy of listening and learning is grandiosity and pride (from Heifetz), then the opposite to these are enablers. Can I let go of my fear? Can I let go of my need to be right? Can I let go of my need to ‘win’? Can I let go of my ‘position’?
  • Building the Inquiry ‘muscle’ – often, senior leaders are brilliant at advocating a position. That’s how they got to the top! However, I’ve also noticed that there is often a serious development need around inquiring into others perspectives! It’s much easier to bring others into an honest conversation if we can frame this in non-threatening language around inquiry and learning. If we can begin to ‘get in their shoes’ seeking to thinking what they think, and feeling what they feel. If we can truly ‘seek first to understand, not to be understood’
  • Commitment to the relationship – often, we are most afraid of the ‘honest conversation’ because it may damage our relationship with others. I’ve found the opposite – if we can create the right conditions, honest conversation deepens relationships and commitment to the shared task in a very significant way.
  • Focused on shared values – in our work in the public sector, one of the main things we do is help people connect to what is on their hearts to do. In the cut and thrust and complexity of multiple (and often conflicting) demands from many stakeholders. In the increasing demands for evidence and results – outcomes and targets, it’s very easy to loose sight of why I began this work in the first place! When I connect with my core values, and others to the same, it reduces barriers, and ‘positionality’ and allows space for a different kind of conversation that better serves clients/end users. There are a lot of fundamentals we can agree on, and it’s very important that we make space to bring these into the arena as it shifts the climate of our dialogue.
  • Give people permission – if we are senior leaders, we forget that people relate to us in our position, not as simply ‘Joe’! So, people are very tentative to say what they really think – out of fear of offending, getting on our wrong side – or anxious about their career options or even job security!

So… if you could have some honest conversations with your colleagues and key partners, what would you like to say? What do you think your colleagues, partners and customers/clients/end users might say to you if they were being really honest?

Post (c) Joe Lafferty Nov 1997. Feel free to quote provided you credit & link to the blog article.

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