Dialogue@Work

MARCH 2014

The latest thinking on dialogue and its critical influence on organisational performance

Conversations need Emotion

Emotion is the spice of conversation. Too much spice and you ruin the dish. Too little spice and you end up with conversations that feel cold and bland. Whilst logic and rationality have centre-place in commerce, the complete absence of emotion in your business conversations can turn you into a Vulcan.

Star Trek’s favourite Vulcan, Dr. Spock, strived for purely objective discourse, in sharp contrast to the frequent emotional rants from his hot-blooded colleague Dr. McCoy. In between these bi-polar opposites on board the Starship Enterprise was the more balanced Captain Jim, who was able to tap into logic, feelings and instinct.

Many business people shy away from bringing their feelings into a conversation and avoid triggering emotions in others because they believe emotion is just too tricky, unpredictable and dangerous to deal with. And they are right. So why risk it?

The reason is intimacy

Intimacy allows us to connect fast, to trust fast and to work together fast. Whilst the slow and gentle process of “getting to know you” remains a pleasant form of human interaction, for those of us operating in today’s hyper-busy world, fast is our only option.

There is simply less time to hang out together. Constant staff churn translates into a constant stream of strangers arriving on the scene, many of whom are located in different buildings, in different cities, in different countries. The cyber tools invented to bring us closer together have become electronic distractions to sitting down and having a really good chat with each other.

Because we have less time, we need to become more aligned, more trusting, more aware of each other and our differences - more quickly. But this has its risks. We can make mistakes. In the struggle to be objective, fair and action-orientated, businesses opt for building complicated processes and systems. The grand delusion here is that a set of well-engineered processes can eliminate human subjectivity, self-interest and greed, the need to dominate, and a host of other difficult to manage human attributes.

What actually happens in the rational machine bureaucracy is that emotions, moods, desires (good and bad) continue to run underground. They do not go away. Hence, organisational risk is increased because our grasp of “what’s happening with people”, our top talent, our valued customers, goes undetected for longer. By the time the real picture is fully understood and talked about in the open, it is often too late. On occasion, strong personal desires such as an obsessive drive to take over another company or beat the competition can highjack the very apparatus designed to safeguard the enterprise from individual subjectivity. There is a mountain of examples, especially in the last few years, where failure to face up to the risks of surfacing people’s emotional states in order to gauge them, has turned out to be very risky indeed.

Future competitive advantage will increasingly come from human ingenuity and creativity. Innovation is the driver. The act of innovating together requires real conversations, some encouraging, others challenging. The good news is that we do know how to talk to each other with the appropriate degree of intimacy, but somewhere along the way we have forgotten how to do this with skill. This inherent conversational capacity can be switched on, re-learned and enhanced.

No matter how clever we are at building machines, mechanical, electronic or organisational, for better or worse, we remain human. So let’s talk.

By Dr. David Cannon
Coach on London Business School Executive Programmes and an associate and advisor to The Right Conversation

New Research Project – looking for participants

We are about to launch a major study into what does and doesn't work when it comes to ensuring senior leadership teams stay in touch with the ‘weak signals’ inside their organisations that can alert them to potentially reputation threatening developments.
click here →

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on “Dialogue and the art of thinking together” by William Isaacs, Currency Doubleday, 1999.
read more →

Talking Points

Why coming up with good ideas requires healthy disagreement along the way… →
This recent article by Peter Day, the BBC’s Global Business Correspondent, makes an eloquent case for the need for more dissent in the boardroom to improve the quality of decision-making.

What’s hardest about having a conversation? →
We recently taught a class of Executive MBA students in Eastern Europe the 5 Super-Skills of Great Conversations and asked them which skill they thought was the most important and which was the most challenging to master. The answer may surprise you.

Previous Newsletters

December 2013
September 2013

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

Dialogue and the art of thinking together by William Isaacs

I first came across Dialogue and the art of thinking together in 1999 and used it as the anchor for a programme I ran on Leading Strategy & Change. Reading it again, it still comes across as fresh and new as it did then – a compelling and practical call for a new way of talking and acting in organisational settings… a new way that has yet to be seriously embraced by a corporate world ever more addicted to individualism, speed and the fantasies of some ‘perfect’ future.

First and foremost Isaacs sees conversations and ‘how we talk together’ (p3) as key determinants of our effectiveness in work and life. It is ‘our conversations that organise the processes and structures which shape our collective future’. He brings to our attention that knowledge and learning are not “things”, owned by individuals, that need to be efficiently imparted from Person A to Person B. For Isaacs ’the most important parts of any conversation are those that neither party could have imagined before starting’ (p9).

As well as inviting us to let go of the comforting certainty of merely repeating what we already know, Isaacs also asks us to let go of the belief in there being a single, true interpretation of the world which absolves us of the need to reflect, ‘the inability to reflect – to see that a single way of understanding can limits us – restricts both individuals and organisations’ (p65).

A vital dimension of the practice of dialogue stems from how one sees other people; rather than seeing the other as someone to be conquered, disproved or ignored, effective dialogue requires us to have respect for the other, ‘to see others as legitimate’ (p111). And this requires us to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about how many of us engage with others. Most of us who think we are good at respecting the views of others look to demonstrate this by asking questions. Yet some poor verbal habits often undermine us, ‘an estimated forty percent of all questions… are statements in disguise. Another forty percent are really judgements in disguise… Real questions are often notable for the silence that follows’ (p149).

Isaacs concludes by arguing that thinking together is not the same as the all too common habit of individual experts exchanging their knowledge; collaborative thinking happens when a group becomes interested in what it can really achieve together – and paying attention to how people engage in conversations really matters because ‘by changing the way we talk, we change the way we think’ (p310), and by changing the way we think we can change the way we act together.

A sentiment that is perhaps even more pertinent today than when first written by Isaacs.

Dialogue and the art of thinking together by William Isaacs (Currency Doubleday, 1999)

by John Higgins, Research Director of The Right Conversation

Conversations need Emotion

Emotion is the spice of conversation. Too much spice and you ruin the dish. Too little spice and you end up with conversations that feel cold and bland. Whilst logic and rationality have centre-place in commerce, the complete absence of emotion in your business conversations can turn you into a Vulcan.
read more →

New Research Project – looking for participants

We are about to launch a major study into what does and doesn't work when it comes to ensuring senior leadership teams stay in touch with the ‘weak signals’ inside their organisations that can alert them to potentially reputation threatening developments.
click here →

Talking Points

Why coming up with good ideas requires healthy disagreement along the way… →
This recent article by Peter Day, the BBC’s Global Business Correspondent, makes an eloquent case for the need for more dissent in the boardroom to improve the quality of decision-making.

What’s hardest about having a conversation? →
We recently taught a class of Executive MBA students in Eastern Europe the 5 Super-Skills of Great Conversations and asked them which skill they thought was the most important and which was the most challenging to master. The answer may surprise you.

Previous Newsletters

December 2013
September 2013

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

Research Project – ‘The Hunt for Weak Signals’ – what does it take to keep the executive finger on the organisational pulse?

As part of our continuing research into what actually makes a difference to important issues in organisations, we are about to launch a study into what does and doesn't work when it comes to ensuring senior leadership teams stay in touch with the ‘weak signals’ inside their organisations that can alert them to potentially reputation threatening developments.

Most organisations are loaded down with formal risk management processes, yet many keep getting blindsided by unexpected events (that usually someone, somewhere, knew about).

What we want to find out is:

  • how do leaders stay in touch with front-line experiences that fall outside the eye of formal risk management and whistleblowing procedures?
  • how do organisations develop and sustain cultures where people really speak ‘truth to power’ (rather than say what leaders want to hear)?
  • how do they foster and encourage informal conversations at all levels so that news of difference can be discussed (rather than squeezed out by formally managed agendas)?
  • how do organisations create habits of sharing insights that create common understanding of emerging threats and opportunities (without simply swamping everyone with information)?

We are looking to interview senior managers in Communication, HR and the Board Room in a range of organisations, as well as those who advise leaders and leadership teams.

If you would like to participate or to find out more, please contact Dik Veenman on dik@therightconversation.co.uk, putting ‘Research’ in the subject box.

Conversations need Emotion

Emotion is the spice of conversation. Too much spice and you ruin the dish. Too little spice and you end up with conversations that feel cold and bland. Whilst logic and rationality have centre-place in commerce, the complete absence of emotion in your business conversations can turn you into a Vulcan.
read more →

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on “Dialogue and the art of thinking together” by William Isaacs, Currency Doubleday, 1999.
read more →

Talking Points

Why coming up with good ideas requires healthy disagreement along the way… →
This recent article by Peter Day, the BBC’s Global Business Correspondent, makes an eloquent case for the need for more dissent in the boardroom to improve the quality of decision-making.

What’s hardest about having a conversation? →
We recently taught a class of Executive MBA students in Eastern Europe the 5 Super-Skills of Great Conversations and asked them which skill they thought was the most important and which was the most challenging to master. The answer may surprise you.

Previous Newsletters

December 2013
September 2013

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think

What’s hardest about having a conversation?

Conversational competence is based on a distinct set of skills that can be learned and improved. We call these the Super-Skills and there are five of them

  • Presence – the ability to be fully present and to care about the conversation
  • Hyper-awareness – the ability to understand what drives our behavior and triggers us to respond in certain ways
  • De-coding – the ability to understand what someone else is really saying
  • Voicing – the ability and courage to say what needs to be said, in a way that is constructive and helpful
  • Flow Control – managing the beginning, middle and end of a conversation

We recently taught a class of Executive MBA students these skills and at the end asked which they thought was the most important and which the most challenging to master. Surprisingly over half the group selected Presence as the answer to both parts of the question.

All five skills matter of course, but like most of us these students recognized that no meaningful conversation can take place unless you ‘show up’. They also recognized that in an increasingly frantic world this can be very hard to do.

A Global Attention Deficit

The burgeoning interest in the whole discipline of ‘mindfulness’ is testament to the fact that we increasingly struggle to be present in the moment. It highlights how we are constantly distracted either by the past or the future, and how we find it hard to focus on the here-and-now.

Daniel Goleman, founding father of Emotional Intelligence, makes the same point in his most recent book, The Focused Leader. He argues that the ability to be present and to focus on what is happening is one of the most important attributes of an effective leader. Self-awareness is of course the basic building block of emotional intelligence and this only serves to reinforce the point.

But of course this is not a new phenomenon. It has long been recognized that our authentic presence is a gift to other people. The value of this gift was eloquently summed up in a classic HBR article published in 1999, called The Human Moment.

To make the human moment work, you have to set aside what you’re doing, put down the memo you were reading, disengage from your laptop, abandon your daydream, and focus on the person you’re with. Usually when you do that, the other person will feel the energy and respond in kind.”

Source: The Human Moment at Work by Edward M. Hallowell (HBR 1999)

To which we say, amen!

Conversations need Emotion

Emotion is the spice of conversation. Too much spice and you ruin the dish. Too little spice and you end up with conversations that feel cold and bland. Whilst logic and rationality have centre-place in commerce, the complete absence of emotion in your business conversations can turn you into a Vulcan.
read more →

Classic Texts

Our regular review of seminal works in the field of conversation, dialogue and communications in general this month focusses on “Dialogue and the art of thinking together” by William Isaacs, Currency Doubleday, 1999.
read more →

New Research Project – looking for participants

We are about to launch a major study into what does and doesn't work when it comes to ensuring senior leadership teams stay in touch with the ‘weak signals’ inside their organisations that can alert them to potentially reputation threatening developments.
click here →

Talking Points

Why coming up with good ideas requires healthy disagreement along the way… →
This recent article by Peter Day, the BBC’s Global Business Correspondent, makes an eloquent case for the need for more dissent in the boardroom to improve the quality of decision-making.

Previous Newsletters

December 2013
September 2013

Comments and feedback

We welcome comments and feedback and would be delighted to hear your views and opinions.

Click here to let us know what you think