Road to (K)nowhere: Conversation, Change, and the Leader’s Journey

How do we feel when we are in conversation with others about a seemingly important issue or challenge, and the talk seems to lead nowhere, and resolve nothing?

Perhaps you feel the way some popular leadership coach/consultants do, that “real” or “outstanding” leaders won’t tolerate these “butterfly” conversations – ones that seem to flit about without really landing on, or impacting the issue at hand.  You may be one of those folks who get frustrated if all the talk does not lead to clear consensus, decisions, or action.  Maybe you believe that every problem can be addressed and responded to by people if they just say what they mean, and get on with things.

Or maybe you have been fortunate to learn a few other things about conversation, dialogue, and the work of “thinking together.”

Yes, it is true that some conversation, some of the time, does not overtly lead to consensus, decisions, and action aligned with objectives.  Such is the nature of conversation itself.  As you point out, Dan, people say – and don’t say – things for many reasons.  Not all challenges are the same.  When everyone knows the right answer, our conversations can move quickly and easily to consensus and action.  When a great answer is knowable by asking experts, we can still examine the options together and make a choice.

So why doesn’t this happen often and easily? In my experience, it is the two-headed dragon of power and fear.  The things we say in conversation reflect our sense of ourselves in the org; our sense of our relationship to others; and our sense of what to do together.  But we are constantly pushed and pulled by the dynamics of power relating, which typically reflects some set of fear(s).

The work of conversation- even conversation that does not seem to produce a clear outcome and actions – is both hard, and fundamental to really leading change.  Here are three links to great thinkers/teachers/consultants whose work with how we can and do converse, shows us a way forward. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always important:

Patricia Shaw describes her very unique approach to “changing conversations in organizations.” This is the title of her book, and the essence of her approach to both consulting and change leadership.

Here, Chris Rodgers, author of Informal Coalitions, reviews Patricia Shaw’s ideas, and offers a great analysis of how conversation happens in organizations, and how we can think about, and work with it to influence change.

Here is a summary from the great Peter Block, about the “six conversations that matter.” Peter was among the first to recognize that “the conversation IS the work.” If you have ever been with Peter in a workshop, you know he doesn’t believe in report-outs from table group conversations, etc.  We change in the moment of being engaged in conversation.

Enjoy, learn, lead.


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