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.

Better dialogue – the power of tone

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 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.

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!

What makes a good conversation?

I’m delighted to welcome you to my blog. I’m excited to be starting a conversation with you about… conversation. I believe that talking together is central in our lives. If we improve how we converse, we enrich our lives.

HSBC Ad: A world of investments is just one conversation awayWalking down Oxford Street in central London last week, I saw an ad in the window of HSBC bank. It read: “A world of investments is just one conversation away”. It made me think how valuable a single conversation can be and how a career can change as a result of one short talk.

Some years ago, I spoke with a fellow consultant about my passion for dialogue. I was inspired by Bill Isaacs’ work, particularly his book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. We often think of dialogue as between two people, but Bill had described how to create a conversation amongst 20 people so they could access their collective wisdom.

“But what’s your thinking on dialogue?” my colleague asked. “What do you have to say?”

I was so stirred by his question that I went home and sketched out some ideas. Several years later, when I received an unexpected email from the commissioning editor of Duncan Baird Publishing asking me to submit a proposal for a book on conversation, I dug out the scrappy notes that I’d tucked away. Because of that short talk years earlier, I wasn’t too overwhelmed at having to write a book proposal. Nearly a year later, when I delivered the manuscript for my book, Life-Changing Conversations, I gave thanks for the gift of that question from my colleague.

Let me know what you think

I look forward to exploring with you how we can expand our capacity to talk, even when there are tough things to say. I welcome your comments, queries and insights, and I want to hear your stories about the power of good conversation in your lives.