Change your world one conversation at a time

You are in conversations all your life. Conversations – the way we speak and listen to each other – are the DNA of our lives, the basic unit of human interaction from which all else flows. Think back over the last month to some important conversations which mattered to you: this could be at work, in your family or community.

Firstly take a moment to reflect on those conversations that went well using the ten questions below. Then switch to a conversation that didn’t go so well and reflect on that using the same questions.Notice any differences in your responses.What clues does this reflection give you on how you can create more productive conversations?

  1. How would you describe your quality of being as you started the conversation? What attitude of mind (e.g. compassion, curiosity, judgement, fear…), did you have about the conversation, and about yourself and the other person?
  2. What was the physical environment like for your conversation? What impact did it have?
  3. What assumptions did you have about how the other person would be in the conversation?
  4. Did you consciously think of the context (e.g. Barry Oshry’s contexts of Top, Middle, Bottom & Customer) that you and other person (s) were in and how this would affect the conversation? Did you mentally and emotionally step into their world, prior to and during the flow of the conversation?
  5. Who framed the purpose of this conversation? Was it defined by one party or agreed by both parties? What impact did that have?
  6. How present were you in the conversation: sensing and responding in the moment to what you and the other person(s) were perceiving, feeling and wanting?
  7. Were there moments in the conversation when difficult or tricky ‘stuff’ emerged? How did you respond? Was that a response you commonly make? What impact did it have?
  8. How much did you speak in a way that illuminated your world, including sharing relevant information, feelings and needs?
  9. How open were you to listening to their situation, perspective, interpretation, feelings and needs of the other person(s) as well as your own?
  10. What was the balance and quality of your speaking (advocacy) and listening (inquiry)?

In my work, which spans global firms, public and voluntary sector organisations, people report that as much as half of their time and energy is caught up in unproductive conversations, what Barry Oshry calls ‘Side Show’ conversations: ones that generate misunderstanding, defensiveness, negative feelings and which fail to generate personal insight or organisational learning. This pattern of unproductive, difficult conversations undermines working relationships and the ability of our organisations to achieve their purpose.

Conversations aren’t technical or trivial matters. The fabric of our lives and organisations is created and recreated one conversation at a time. To borrow words from the poet, Mary Oliver, how do you want to be in your one wild and precious life? The answer shows up in how you are in each and every conversation.


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