Breakthrough Conversations:

How can we deliver outstanding results – something that my group, as it operates today, cannot achieve? How can we become a true team rather than a group of high performing individuals? What would it take for us to have a ‘breakthrough conversation’ and bring something new to the business?

These are questions that leaders I’ve worked with recently are asking. At the heart of the matter is the need to create a real ‘sense of team.’ As Professor Peter Hawkins said in his keynote address at the ‘Evocative Leadership: Calling forward potential’ creative dialogue hosted by nowhere (20 January 2011):

“It’s amazing how often you come across teams with an average intelligence of over 120, but the team functions at a collective intelligence of about 60.”

(Peter Senge to Peter Hawkins, personal communication)

For a group of leaders to become a true team – where the whole is truly greater than the sum of parts – they need to develop many capacities. Core to these is the ability to have robust conversations that cut through big issues to arrive at something new: an innovative idea, a novel way of working or a creative experiment. How can they do this? Read more

What is needed to call dialogue forth?

Group of leaders calling forth dialogueHaving worked with leaders and their teams for over 15 years, a crucial insight I’ve had is that the ability to foster better dialogue is a critical skill. Holding powerful meeting spaces to navigate critical business challenges and find solutions that strengthen the whole system is pivotal to better performance. In this post I share some practical suggestions about how you can create the conditions in your team that will improve problem-solving, decision-making and innovative thinking.

What do we mean by dialogue?

Bill Isaacs, one of the world’s leading authorities on dialogue, and a former colleague, writes in his seminal (1999) book, Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together:

“Dialogue, as I define it, is a conversation with the centre, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization in into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and correlated power of groups of people.” (p. 19)


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How do we have effective feedback conversations?

An effective feedback conversation between a couple of colleagues‘So much can happen in a single conversation’ a participant reflected at the Leading Systemic Dialogue programme I co-led last week. We were at the end of a full and lively two-days. We’d had some engaging dialogue including about some of the big issues of the day.

A conversation can make (or break) a relationship. It can spark a new idea. It can be the catalyst for change. This is particularly true when it comes to a feedback conversation.

The benefits of well-timed and carefully given feedback are huge. It energizes us, engages us and keeps our motivation running high. The damage caused by poorly-given feedback is also enormous. Someone recently told me the story of some critical feedback she’d received in a roughshod way seven years ago. The sting was still palpable, despite all the positive feedback she’d also been given over the years. She was left questioning her abilities as well as her resilience. How can we handle feedback conversations more effectively so that we get the benefits without the stumbling blocks?

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To have a conversation, create a container

This post explores how we can create the conditions for generative dialogue so that together we achieve more than we could alone. A “container” for a conversation provides a “holding” atmosphere in which the things that matter most can be discussed.

As a fan of the British writer Virginia Woolf, I recently went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to see an exhibition about her life and work. Virginia Woolf, a novelist, publisher, essayist and critic, was a leading light of the London literary scene during the first half of the twentieth century. Insights from her life and writings throw some light on how conversation can become a powerful tool for change both in organisations and at home.

The influential Bloomsbury Group of intellectuals, which also included John Maynard Keynes and E. M. Forester, has significantly shaped modern attitudes towards literature, economics and aesthetics. The Bloomsbury Set was not, however, a group in any formal sense. They were united by a belief in the value of the arts and a passion for talking together. As the commentary at the exhibition put it:

“Bloomsbury had no manifesto or party line. It was chiefly bound together by a love of conversation. This might include argument, analysis, gossip or debate, but it was a means by which its members deepened understanding of each other, and themselves, and the world around them.”

The power of conversation

Given the potential of conversation to transform our understanding of each other and the world around us, the question is: How do we make the most of being in dialogue together? How can create the conditions so that we shift our mindset? What is needed so that conversation deepens our relationships and generates fresh understandings?

There are, I believe, some clues in Virginia Woolf’s observations about women and writing. In A Room of One’s Own, she highlights how women writers didn’t begin to appear in any significant way until the early nineteenth century. Why, Woolf reflects, were the four famous names – George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen – all compelled to write novels? Two of these women were not, by nature, novelists. Emily Bronte should have written poetic plays. George Eliot’s capacious mind should have turned itself to history or geography, not just fiction.

Virginia Woolf notes how the creative outpourings of these women were shaped by the physical conditions of their lives. Their novels were shorter than the books of the men writing at the same time. They were framed so that they did not need long hours of steady and interrupted work. Significantly, a woman writing in the nineteenth century would have to have written in the common sitting room; she had no separate study to which to retire. Virginia Woolf is famous for saying that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”

A woman writing at that time would also have been constantly interrupted. It would have been easier for her to write prose than to write poetry or a play, as less concentration is required. Jane Austen had to be careful that servants, visitors or anyone beyond her own family did not suspect her occupation. When the hinge of the door to the sitting room creaked, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting paper.

Why creating a “container” matters

To generate creative output, physical conditions matter. In the workplace, if our meetings are interrupted, we are unlikely to do our best thinking. If our conversations are broken as we check emails on our smartphones, valuable insights are unlikely to emerge. If we try to talk with a colleague about something important squeezed in between other meetings, we are less likely to get an extraordinary outcome.

What our creativity and our conversation both need is, in short, a “container”. Container comes from the Latin con, meaning “with”, and tener, meaning “to hold”. The essence of a container is, therefore, the sense of being held. Our attention is held, our energies are engaged and our minds are open.

A container has both physical and psychological dimensions. On a tangible level, a conversation that takes place in a circle of chairs with no table in the middle to hide behind can go places that a boardroom discussion typically cannot reach. A meeting in a light-filled room has an expansive atmosphere that a meeting in a windowless room cannot match. A presentation without Powerpoint slides rolling means that eyes don’t glaze over.

On a more subtle level, a container emerges when people feel it’s safe to open up and talk. People are energised when others start to say what’s really on their minds. When there is a palpable sense of the potential, people’s energies gather together. When there is more understanding than criticism, a decidedly different atmosphere appears. Each one of us can bring to the conversation the psychological qualities that co-create a container: authenticity, acceptance and appreciation.

With a strong container, our conversation and our creativity can go to the next level. As an individual, we might find that we can write not just prose, but plays and poetry too. As a team, we might develop a new strategy that no one could have come up with thinking alone. As the quality of our container expands, so does our dialogue.

For reflection

  • How can you create a “container” for yourself? When do you do your best thinking? Where do you feel “all of one piece”? What rhythm or routine can you establish to anchor a “holding” environment for yourself? It could be to go for a coffee to a quiet café or to take time to gather your thoughts before going to a meeting. Pay attention to the conditions that nurture your creativity.
  • What is needed for you to create a container for a group that you are part of? In what way could you change the physical environment so that it becomes more supportive? What resources could you draw on to create conditions that are conducive to conversation? For example, you might remove the table, place chairs in a circle and switch off laptops. Attend to the space in which you meet.
  • How can you shape a conversation that matters in more subtle ways? Before an important meeting, could you speak to individuals to create some connectivity? What questions could you ask people so that they start their thinking process before you even meet? When you do get in the room together, how could you use some appropriate self-disclosure to help others to feel safe and open up? Be aware of how you contribute so that people leave the room feeling excited, energised and engaged.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 28 October 2014.

We need to talk

To live is to be related. Nothing and no one can live in isolation. We are all interdependent, and increasingly so, on this planet of nearly seven billion of us. If, as the population forecasts predict, we double in number to 15 billion by 2100, the need to talk and get along with each other will become even more pressing.

The human challenges we already face, individually and collectively, are unprecedented. War rages on in many corners of the world where individual’s dreams, family life and national stability are blown to pieces. In my travels with work around the world, I’ve been disturbed by how much disintegration and destruction there is, socially, environmentally and politically.

Here in the UK, levels of anxiety and loneliness are reaching an all time high. A recent report by the Mental Health Foundation found 1 in 10 in Britain are lonely. The proportion among the young is higher and rising. Many old people report that the TV is their best friend. A 2012 survey by Macmillan Cancer Support found that the average 18-35 year old has 237 friends on Facebook. When asked, however, how many they could rely on in a crisis, the average answer was two. A quarter said one. An eighth said none.

We need to talk

The problems of our world are not new. They are, at root, the problems of us in relationship. Or, better said, the problems of us in the absence of relationship. We cannot bomb our way to peace and prosperity. We are deluded if we think that we will achieve long term quiet by blowing airplanes out of skies. We will not solve our problems, whether nation-to-nation, family-to-family or team-to-team, through the indiscriminate use of power, force and technology. Our inability to talk together extends to become a world problem.

How often have you read newspaper headlines saying that peace talks have broken down? Or that a merger has failed as the CEOs have not been able to bridge their differences? Perhaps in your own family, team or organisation, there’s been a breakdown in communication? Our interactions often fall short of their true potential.

The good news, however, is that we can learn to relate and communicate more effectively. Having a productive dialogue is within reach of all of us. Here are a few observations I’ve made about what helps us when we need to talk:

  • Each person who’s present participates.
  • People are encouraged to say what’s true for them.
  • Everyone is listened to.
  • People talk about what really matters.
  • No one tries to control where the conversation goes.
  • People respect each other’s differences.
  • The sense of potential is greater than the need to be right.

A real conversation opens up new possibilities. By talking with one another, we can arrive at an answer we never anticipated, resolve a situation that’s got stuck and decide on a new direction. When we do find a way to talk, we bring hope that another way is possible.

First published on LinkedIn on 20 August 2014.

Conversation matters

Conversation is centre-stage in most people’s lives. We might even see the whole of life—and work—as one conversation followed by another and then another. Talking together is what many of us spend a large portion of our time doing, whether it’s in the boardroom, across the kitchen table, on the factory floor or at the pub. Making changes to how we talk an, therefore, have a big impact on our lives. Conversation matters!

I became interested in conversation at a young age. As I listened to grown-ups talk, I discovered some patterns that years later have informed my practice as a dialogue coach. Even more valuable to me, however, was the realization of how much our everyday lives revolve around conversation. As a youngster I accompanied my grandmother to many coffee mornings and came to appreciate that talking together was the glue that kept these elderly women connected. It was how they supported each other, shared their stories and found solace in their often solitary lives. Conversation was what kept them alive.

The benefits of conversation

Listening to my grandmother and her friends talk made me realize that even an apparently trivial conversation matters. Talking together:

– Forms friendships

– Airs issues

– Informs our decisions

– Creates new ideas

– Deepens connections

– Changes how we think about things.

Research proves how much we talk

No wonder we spend so much of our time talking! The research bears this out. If I asked you what proportion of your waking life is spent talking to other people, what would you say? When I put this question to managers and leaders at the dialogue workshops I run in the corporate world, the typical response I receive is somewhere between 40 and 80 percent. Moreover, a consistent pattern emerges: the more senior a leader, the more time he or she spends interacting with others.

A survey carried out in 2010 by Courage Beer also reveals how much we talk in our everyday lives. They found that in a sample of 3,000 British adults, the typical person has 27 conversations a day, lasting an average of 10 minutes each. This adds up to a rather staggering 4.5 hours a day talking.

Even more revealing, however, was the finding that while conversations were very commonplace, nearly half of them (43 percent) were deemed to be pointless. If we were to make our conversations more meaningful, it would make a huge difference to the quality of our lives. And this brings us to the question: What makes a good conversation?

I’ll cover some of my own thoughts on why conversation matters in the next post. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think!

Published on LinkedIn on 12 August 1014

Better dialogue – the power of tone

Tone Affects Energy

The tone is a crucial point of leverage in interactions between people. The quality of the tone determines whether people’s energy is amplified or diminished by the conversation and this, in turn, impacts their levels of performance, commitment and satisfaction.

Research shows that the quality of the “field” operates as a key differentiator between high, medium and low performing teams. Psychologists Losada and Heaphy at the University of Michigan Business School have found, for example, that high performing teams generate an “expansive emotional space” where their dialogue shows a healthy balance between grounded positivity and measured negativity. They operate in an atmosphere of realistic enthusiasm that propels the team to reach and sustain the heights of excellence.

By contrast, low performing teams get stuck in a climate of negativity and self-absorption. This generates a draining atmosphere that is very difficult for the team to exit. Medium performing teams show a balance of positivity over negativity but their level of connectivity and enthusiasm are not high enough to pull the team into a new behavioural pattern.

The importance of the tonal level of communication is further supported by scientific research into marriage. Professor John Gottman, an academic psychologist at the University of Washington, is able to predict with 95 percent accuracy whether a couple will still be married 15 years later, based on an hour’s film of how they talk together about a contentious issue. When spouses show defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling or contempt, it could well involve a costly trip to the divorce court.

Setting the tone

Setting the tone is subtle but crucial work. We can “charge” the atmosphere with positive or negative energy that others will pick up and respond to. When we bring enthusiasm rather than cynicism, appreciation instead of criticism and respect in place of contempt, the quality of the exchange between us will be productive instead of destructive.

The term “ice breaker”, which refers to an activity early on in a group session that gets people to open up and interact, is an accurate description. There is always anxiety beneath the surface of any group coming together for the first time as people ask themselves: Will others like me? Will I be seen as competent? Will I be accepted? This tonal “ice” needs melting before the group is able to talk and think together creatively.

Try this

The use of a “Check-in” that brings all the voices into the room early on sets a pattern of full participation. It also helps to create a climate of trust as people get to know each other. Self-disclosure and the willingness to make oneself vulnerable before others creates, somewhat paradoxically, an atmosphere of safety.

Through a Check-in, everyone has the opportunity to find their voice and express it. They have the experience of being listened to without interruption. People’s thinking opens up to new possibilities that remain shut off if people feel cramped and judged. Questions you could use for a Check-in include:

• What did you give up or set aside in order to be here?
• What is top-of-mind for you right now?
• What really matters to you about this conversation?

When a participative and respectful tone is set right off the starting blocks, the atmosphere is conducive to creative thinking, generative dialogue and transformational results.

First published on LinkedIn, 6 August 2014

Collective leadership: From silos to shared intelligence

Published in the Network Review of the Scientific and Medical Network, Spring 2013

Before the meeting begins

There was ice in the air as the participants and I filed into the meeting room. Gone was the warmth of the informal conversations over coffee the team had just been having. People avoided looking at each other and their shoulders stiffened as they sat down.

I remembered some of the things that these executives had said when my co-facilitator and I had spoken with them a few days before: “We don’t trust each other”; “We don’t know what projects other people are working on”; “We have to compete with each other because opportunities for promotion are very limited”; “Our boss is aloof”.

When we’d spoken with the Team Leader, he told us about poor attendance at monthly team meetings. Morale was flat, and his team members were bypassing him by going to his boss for strategic guidance—and recognition. He needed to shift the dynamic but he wasn’t sure how.

As I sat amongst the team in the circle of 40 chairs, no table in the middle for any of us to hide behind, I took a deep breath. “Welcome”, I said, “to this session on Collective Leadership”. And off we went on our journey together.

While the story above, only slightly disguised to protect identities, describes some recent experiences with a team of senior leaders in an international organization, it could, however, capture the mood at the start of many a meeting. After facilitating leadership team meetings and coaching business leaders from the East and West over the last 10 years, I’ve found several themes to be very familiar:

– Poor communication, no strategic direction and ineffective decision-making.
– Lack of trust, rigid interactions and a cynical atmosphere.
– People working in silos and competing rather than collaborating.

These dysfunctional team dynamics are especially problematic in a global marketplace: the problems facing leaders today are too complex for any one person to solve. The issues this team were dealing with, for example—unsustainable population growth, environmental degradation and widespread pollution—are not limited to the borders of a single country or the boundary of an organisational department. Cutting a swath through these big, hairy issues requires a multitude of stakeholders thinking and talking together in unprecedented ways.

The challenge of contemporary leadership

In a recent article in the Network Review (Winter 2012), Keith Grint and Clare Holt, researchers at Warwick Business School, define contemporary leadership as “The art of engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems” (p. 21). They note the growing antipathy towards heroic leaders and the increasing interest in collective or distributed leadership and working in partnership.

Despite this new approach to leadership having the potential to be the “universal future”, Grint and Holt also underline the current reality. Partnerships are often paralysed into inaction, many organisations still operate on the basis of traditional hierarchies and the “command” decision style, while perhaps unpopular, seldom gets replaced with any clear collective decision-making mechanism.

The benefits of collective leadership

While I agree that collective leadership is a difficult “nut to crack”, I’ve also personally seen enough evidence as a management consultant to know that this form of engagement is not only worth pursuing, but decidedly possible. When a whole team is fully involved in thinking and talking together about thorny issues, drawing on leadership qualities sourced as a group rather than as individuals, the solutions developed and the decisions reached are profoundly different in quality and usefulness from the norm. Team members draw on each other’s strengths, deal with resistance at an early stage and consider longer-term legacy issues. The formal leader often chooses to retain responsibility as the single point of accountability, but the decision-making process, which draws on each person’s distinct perspective, creates outcomes that stick.

It is my observation that a central role of powerful leaders is to create the conditions in which others can find their voice—and express it. They encourage those around them to “go beyond their tribe” and break the pattern of silo working and competing. They deeply understand that each person has a piece of the puzzle, and that it is in the mix of diverse perspectives that innovative thinking emerges. In short, these leaders have the ability to access the collective wisdom of the people around them to create new possibilities. And the only way to do it is to talk!

Research on dialogue in high-performing teams

A compelling piece of research published in the American Behavioural Scientist (February, 2004) supports this view. Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy observed the conversations of 60 management teams, each of about 8 members, in a large information-processing organization. Their dialogue was recorded, analysed and evaluated across three key dimensions, explained below.

The researchers found that high-performing teams accessed their collective intelligence by talking together in ways that were distinct from low-performing teams. In the teams associated with greatest profitability, best customer satisfaction and highest evaluations by colleagues, the team members had developed three capabilities:

1. They asked questions as often as they asserted their own opinions (a 1:1 ratio between enquiry and advocacy).
2. They showed as much interest in others as they did in themselves, rather than being stuck in self-absorption (a 1:1 ratio between focus on self and others).
3. They made many more positive than negative comments, so that enthusiasm, encouragement and support far outweighed sarcasm, criticism or cynicism (3:1 ratio of positivity to negativity with 6:1 as the ideal).

When all three of these behaviours were demonstrated, they created an “expansive emotional space” in which the team interacted. The atmosphere was buoyant, trusting and resilient. By contrast, in low-performing teams where people did not feel connected with each other, the atmosphere was cynical, distrustful and tense.

Harnessing the power of shared intelligence

At the heart of my own consulting practice is creating settings where people feel safe and energised to talk about what really matters within the context of the meeting. They can speak their truth—and be heard—without fear of rupturing a relationship. In such an environment, people can take risks in their thinking, share their “half-baked” ideas and, together, come up with new insights that no one person would have reached by thinking alone.

To harness this power of collective leadership, where shared intelligence is greater than the sum of its parts, leaders need to be effective enablers of face-to-face interactions. We are social animals, after all. We make sense of the world around us by being in conversation with other human beings. When there’s a sense of “We’re all in this together”, it maximises the likelihood that we will make life-affirming and sustainable rather than life-destroying and reactive decisions.

Returning to the story I started this article with, my co-facilitator and I were heartened to receive the following email shortly after the team sessions from one of the participants:

“Last week we had our first team meeting after the Collective Leadership session. I must say that there was a noticeable difference. The first sign of change was when everyone rearranged the tables and chairs so that we all sat closer to each other. Most people came well prepared instead of deliberating the matter on the spot. We were able to discuss sensitive issues that required the cooperation and consensus of everyone and it all went smoothly. No one interrupted each other and many who didn’t speak much at previous team meetings were voicing their thoughts.”

From my work with hundreds of different teams, I’ve seen that the capabilities for having productive, performance-enhancing conversations can indeed be learned (and taught). What’s more, these are key skills not only for senior executives and corporate teams, but for everyone. Leadership can no longer be defined by the size of the budget you manage, the number of staff on your watch or the complexity of the project you lead. We all have the potential to be leaders, game-changers or wayfarers in whatever mission field we’re working, whether as a parent, school governor, senior executive, lobbyist or parliamentarian. Expanding our capacity to engage in life-changing conversations is beneficial for us all.

A more meaningful life

Article published in Watkins Mind Body Spirit – Issue 37 (Spring 2014)

Watkins cover

What makes life worth living? What makes you get out of bed with a spring in your step? What do you really want? “Feed your addiction”, says the ad for a shopping mall in London as if shopping were the answer to all life’s questions. While it’s true that retail therapy can work wonders, giving us a shot of energy when we’re flagging, the new shoes and smartphone can soon lose their shine.

With our possession obsession, it’s all too easy to get distracted from the things that bring a deeper meaning to our lives. Many of us are yearning for something more, even if we’re not quite sure what that mysterious something is. We may just have a sense, especially once we’ve got the guy, the car, the house or the job, of, “Is this it?”

Some years ago, I worked with senior government leaders who were responsible for interviewing graduates to be the “fast track” leaders of the future. At the end of a long afternoon’s assessment, one interviewer came back into the office saying, “If I hear another candidate say, “I want to make a difference”, I’ll scream!”

But what if these idealistic twenty-somethings were actually onto something? Is it possible that, as well as wanting to create a good impression, they had a heartfelt desire for something more than just a job? Perhaps they were simply articulating a yearning that we all have deep down – for a life that had some significance.

Substantive conversation

There are many ways we can create a more meaningful life. One simple way is to change the conversations you have. Because talking with another person is such an day-to-day activity, making this one small change can have a huge impact.

Recent research in Psychological Science found that a happy life is one filled with reflective, substantive conversation and not just small talk. Greater well-being is related to spending less time alone and more time talking to others. In this study the happiest participants spent 70% more time talking than the unhappiest participants and had twice as many meaningful conversations.

Try this…

So don’t settle for being superficial in your interactions with others – take a risk to make a deeper connection. Have a go at asking these questions:

–       “What are you most passionate about these days?”

–       “If you could do one thing and not fail, what would it be?”

–       “When you’re 80 and look back on your life, what would you like to say?”

Next comes the most important, life-changing part of all. Listen. The biggest gift we can give another person is not a present but our presence. Our attention is the scarcest – and most precious – resource we have. When we take time to connect with someone, heart to heart, we give them something that they’ll never forget.

Often what people most need is not a good talking to, but a good listening to. When we truly listen, not to our own inner dialogue about the emails we need to write or the shopping we need to do, but to what’s going on for the other person, it transforms a relationship. The other person feels “met” by us and not so alone. This is the biggest gift we can give.

Poor relationships are one of the biggest sources of stress – and sadness – in our lives. Connecting with the people around you is a great way to make life have more meaning. Every conversation is an opportunity to break down a barrier, open up to a new idea or deepen a sense of fellowship and this is what life is really all about.

It’s time to talk

I wonder if the following research surprises you. In 2008 Performance Coaching International surveyed 750 managers in public, private and voluntary sectors about how they addressed poor performance in their staff. They found that 70 percent of the managers said that they were either unable or unwilling to have the “courageous conversation” needed to address underperformance.

The managers gave two main reasons. Firstly, there was an underlying fear of having such conversations. Secondly, there was a lack of understanding about how to go about them.

When I’ve had to manage an under-performing member of staff, I’ve learnt that having some know-how about conversation makes a big difference. It’s enabled me to call up my courage, remove obstacles and bring about enhanced performance. It’s also made me feel good. Talking to someone when there were tough things to say without rupturing the relationship is a key skill, not just professionally but personally.

Having a courageous conversation

Here are a few observations about what helps a “courageous conversation” to happen:

–       Everyone who’s present participates.

–       Each person says what’s true for them.

–       Everyone is listened to.

–       People talk about what really matters.

–       No one tries to control where the conversation goes.

–       People respect each other’s differences.

What, in your experience, has helped you to talk when you’d rather not? How have you faced into difficult situations? What wisdom can you share with others?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to learn from you!