In the first article of this three-part series, we identified five types of conversations, while in the second article, we looked at examples of these five types of conversations, and what could be accomplished.
In this third and final article in this series of “Daring to Dialogue”, we continue by looking at dialogue more in-depth, trying to gain an understanding of how this conversation works.
Structure of Conversation Determines Performances or Outcome
The first step when we’re aiming for dialogue is to understand how conversations work.
Conversations have a structure, and it’s the structure that actually determines performance or outcome of a conversation, and whether we are more in monologue or dialogue.
Every sentence that we say can be coded into one of four actions, and that’s what makes conversations effective is when we’re able to voice all four of these actions fluently in a conversation. When we’re able to do that, the nature of the conversation changes, and we move from monologue to more skillful conversation and dialogue.
Next, we’re going to walk through these four actions and notice, as I tell you about them, where you might start to place some judgment on one or more of them.
The First Conversation Action Step is ‘Move’
The first action step is ‘move’.
Move initiates. It suggests a new direction or introduces a new idea or concept in the conversation.
For an example, “Let’s go to lunch.” This is a move.
After a move, there are different responses.
Next comes ‘follow’.
For example, “Sounds good,” this is a follow.
Oppose challenges, oppose pushes back on ideas, providing alternatives or corrective action. For example, “No, I can’t today.” This is an oppose.
Bystand bridges. It provides a neutral perspective or inquiry.
For example, “I notice we have two different points of view here,” this is a bystand.
Move and Oppose. Follow and Bystand
Move and oppose are the vocal actions of advocacy or similar to defending, like we have in debate, and follow and bystand are the vocal actions of inquiry.
Here’s the thing, we need both advocacy and inquiry in order to have a skillful conversation.
Skillful Conversation With All Four Actions
My husband and I had a trip planned to Bora Bora, which was a consequence of the pandemic. The other day he said, “Let’s go to Bora Bora.” That was his move. And I followed and I said, “I would love to.” And then I said, “I wonder what the current travel requirements are.” That was my bystand. And then I opposed, and I said, “But even if we could get there, I don’t really want to wear a mask on a plane for 15 hours right now.” It’s just not what I had envisioned. Next, I made a new move and said, “Let’s come back to this in six months and look at it.”
This is an example of a conversation where you can see all four actions happening and we need all four to be voiced and active in the conversation in order for it to be a skillful conversation.
Dialogic Approach vs Monologic Approach
What can a dialogic approach versus a monologic approach get you?
Engaging in dialogue comes from a belief that human beings create, refine, and share knowledge through conversation. And to illustrate the need for dialogue, I want to tell you a quick story.
It’s a tale of two companies. The first one I’ll call “Blue Ocean Tech” and the second I’ll call “First Stack”, both are in the tech sector. These two companies had several similarities, both are about the same age. They were founded about 11 years ago. International organizations with offices worldwide, and Blue Ocean was a bit larger with about a billion in annual revenue and First Stack was about 200 million in revenue.
Both companies were also experiencing what I call a front page crisis. This is where the executive team gets feedback from their organization via the media, on the front page of paper. And as you might imagine, this induces high stakes and it causes a great deal of disruption. So, executives in both of these companies were feeling called out, very blindsided. And as is often the case, one side of the story played out in great drama over the media and the other sides of the story remain untold. Just imagine; for the story to have made its way to the press, there is a great deal of frustration, a lack of feeling heard, and not valued by the employees. And in both cases, a belief that a moral crime had been committed by the executive team.
Here’s where the similarities of those stories end because each company had a choice to either suspend or defend.
First Stack chose to defend. They publicly defended their position and explained why the issue had happened. First Stack hired a consultant, a mediator, and the legal team to draft new policies and processes to fix the problem that they believed had created the mess in the first place. This might sound great, but it has kept the organization stuck in the same dysfunctional patterns that created their crisis in the first place. That was top down, in other words, the chances of them having another Groundhog Day moment are high. First Stack has returned to their old behaviors of monologue and protection. However, they’re filling in their mind, the roles expected of leaders, and yet both sides, employees and executives feel greatly misunderstood and deflated.
Blue Ocean Tech made the choice to suspend. And they publicly took responsibility for what was happening, declined any further comment, noting that they were turning internally to listen. The executives of Blue Ocean Tech began to hold listening sessions in small groups across the company. Executives cleared their calendars and wanted to hear firsthand from employees what was happening. Blue Ocean Tech took action from their first round of dialogue, and then actually continued using that dialogic approach, engaging the whole company from the get go. The conversations have actually shifted the culture in the organization and changed the leadership team for better. They are still working on the outcomes of the story, but the end is pretty promising and the change feels sticky and real, because they are too changing mindset and thinking, not processes and rules. And they are moving forward, but with a very different energy and outcomes than First Stack.
Defend vs Suspend. Different Action, Different Outcome
Let’s get into what happened here. The executives in Blue Ocean Tech are no different from me or First Stack or you, but they had something in place that was different. They had a few key people around them that they trusted, who pushed back and opposed. Their very first instincts encouraged them to start listening without answers or solutions, just listening.
This was daring and brave, and it was completely outside their comfort zone, but they did do it, and the executives in Blue Ocean Tech listened. It seems like the simplest thing in the world to do, and yet it was the hardest for them. They struggled with all the assumptions and the stories that we talked about earlier. But the impact was immediate and people really appreciated being respected and heard.
Listening and asking questions are undervalued and underused because somewhere along the way, we have this story that heroic leadership looks like leading from the front, large, visible, making moves, setting direction, having all the answers.
We also have a story about what unhelpful leadership looks like. It’s passive, it’s not leaderful, it’s not knowing, it’s listening, and that’s the story that First Stack bought into. In First Stack the executives didn’t see at all how prioritizing voices of those lower on the totem pole would align with the internal vision that they held about what leadership should look like and do in this kind of situation. And they were incredibly afraid of opening Pandora’s box if they involve staff. Instead of listening or asking questions, they just moved forward with what they thought should happen.
Leaders Bring The Weather!
The moral of this story is that leaders bring the weather.
Early in my career, I worked at a small startup and we had a private chat channel. When the CEO arrived each morning, someone would give a weather report in the chat. It’s cloudy, it’s sunny, it’s stormy, literally what the mood of the CEO was. This weather report informed my plan and others for the day. On sunny days, I knew I could have important conversations that mattered. If the weather was stormy or cloudy, those were the days that I wanted to lay low and go home early if possible. As leaders, you don’t have to have a title to be a leader, but you bring the weather. So, your words, your energy, your tone, all matter. When you are frantically running down the road, too busy to pause and ask questions, you send the message that there’s no space for conversation here.
But when you show up willing to suspend your viewpoint, ask questions and listen to those around you, you are signaling to others that their point of view is important and that they are valued, and you are actively creating the space for dialogue to happen.
The weather you bring is not about what happens to you, it is how you choose to respond.
What if instead of focusing on the solution in monologue, we focused on creating the space for dialogue, with the belief that on the other end of the dialogue would be a more sustainable solution that no one person could have thought of on their own?
Your Leadership Challenge Moving Forward!
I have a challenge for you as you move forward.
Be intentional about choosing monologue or dialogue. Remember, there is a use for monologue, like when you want to get a bunch of information out, but where monologue does not serve us is in the complex, repetitive, no easy answer conversations.
When a conversation matters, remember these key takeaways, suspend rather than defend. Suspend your viewpoint rather than defending it, this way you can hear others. Stay in the conversation. Remember Blue Ocean Tech and their commitment to staying in the conversation, even when they were hearing things that were hard to hear. Voice all four actions, move, follow, oppose, and bystand. All four actions are needed to be voiced in a skillful conversation. Listen, rather than having an answer.
It Takes Courage to Lead!
Again, Blue Ocean Tech courageously took a seat and listened to the voices and experiences of employees. This is where real potential for change comes in. Create a space for dialogue, and you have to go first!
Think about Katherine, who made the choice to create space for dialogue, even though it had not been part of her previous leadership style. She recognized that big, bold vision she had for the company, depended on engaging all voices. And she had to make space for that to happen. Here’s the deal, we will not consciously choose to be a victim, and yet when we defend, this is the role we are taking unconsciously in lots of ways. For far too long, we have and continue to talk about agile as frameworks, practices, and tools. And then we wonder why changing culture and leadership style are still cited as the top challenges to achieving business agility.
Conversations Are Our Interactions
In order to courageously lead transformational change, the kind that supports organizations seeking agility in our fast paced world, we really need to take seriously from the agile manifesto that it’s about individuals and interactions. Conversations are our interactions and they require bravery.
They are the core practice of how we learn, how we solve complex challenges, how we make meaning of our current environment, and how we innovate moving forward.
I ask you: How can you be more intentional about choosing dialogue?
If you missed the previous articles in this series, you can find them here.
If you’d like to watch Marsha present this, click here for a video!