Our Shared Situation from a Conversational Perspective

The industrial age is becoming the knowledge age. What separates the knowledge age from the industrial age is a fundamental shift in constraints. The top constraints in the industrial age were land, labor and capital. Whereas, the top constraints in the knowledge age are time, attention and priority. Furthermore, there is a fundamental shift occurring from “jobs and occupations” to “connecting collective capability in moments of need.”

The world has always been complex and interconnected, but the awareness and understanding of that complexity has recently increased. There is an enhanced understanding of interdependent tensions, as well as an increased ability to recognize polarities and manage them. Polarization and divisiveness appear to be seen, felt and experienced more keenly these days. For example, organizations continue to work on balancing centralization versus decentralization and must simultaneously manage the polarities of “growth and reduction,” “individual and collective,” and “structure and flexibility.”

Organizations are also working on the seemingly divided nature of politics, race, gender and beliefs. However, these polarities provide an opportunity to rethink the shared situation that we find ourselves in. Organizations can now look at the combination of their challenges as a collection of ongoing tensions between groups, priorities, tasks, projects and individuals.

Currently, we have an opportunity to “check-in” with how we’ve been thinking, acting and evolving as individuals and collective groups. Our opposable thumbs and ability to express our thoughts and feelings through language are what set humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and this is the essence of relationships and conversation. It is the tensions between our long-held beliefs, the illusion of knowledge, flawed reasoning, individual and collective biases, and irrational judgments that generate energy for noteworthy progress. The multitude of tensions presents an opportunity for conversations and healthy, equitable, collective changes.

Conversations are the most underutilized technology. Conversations provide an avenue for making ethical, comprehensive and equitable decisions. Conversations can cause harm, as well as bring positive change. Therefore, conversations are our primary hope for collective improvement in a world that is desperate for a renewed and sustained form of human connection and progress.

What Is Conversation?

Recognizing conversation is fairly easy. Conversation is typically defined as an oral exchange between two or more people. However, it is time to expand that definition. Conversation is an interaction of senses across time and space. Conversation is more than a verbal exchange; it is possible to have a conversation through text or sign language. Conversations can be held using our senses of touch, smell, taste, sound, vision and even intuition.

Without making the notion of conversation too complex, it is possible to have a conversation with yourself. It is possible to have a conversation through a piece of music; it is possible to have a conversation through a shared hug. It is also possible to have a conversation across extended periods of time, where interactions span days, weeks, months or even years. This expanded definition of conversation provides a tremendous opportunity for improving our interactions, words, beliefs, actions, decisions and relationships.

Is Leadership an Individual or Collective Practice?

Stephen Covey said, “Leadership in the industrial age was a position, but leadership in the knowledge age is a choice.” Leadership is a practice; it is beyond a role or title. It is not bestowed as an assumed privilege. Unfortunately, there is a traditional, implicitly shared definition of leadership that often brings to mind authoritarian, command-and-control, and divide-and-conquer mannerisms. While there are moments and situations where that approach can be effective, we are now more aware that a broader concept of leadership is needed in the majority of situations.

What Is Conversational Leadership?

Conversational leadership – as defined by one of its emerging founders, David Gurteen – is “appreciating the extraordinary but underutilized power of conversation, recognizing that we can all practice leadership and adopt a conversational approach to the way in which we live and work together.” It is not only about having better conversations, although there is a portion of conversational leadership that concerns itself with expanding the range and depth of conversations. It is also about gauging where we are with our conversational skills at this point in time, what brought us to the present moment individually and collectively, and what highly skilled interactions will look like in the future.

Conversational leadership intends to increase our awareness during conversations. For example, we often engage in “parallel monologues,” opposed to two-way conversations. Katherine Woods, leadership thought leader and author, often asks, “Are we in a meeting, or are we being met?” Conversations provide opportunities to gain deeper understanding, to converge and diverge, to uproot deep-seated biases, to make improved collective decisions. Conversations were here long before and will long outlast technology. Funny enough, it is the skill and depth of our conversations that will enable us to advance and progress more equitably and sustainably in the future.

There are many perspectives and scholars emerging in the conversational leadership space – with Dr. Juanita Brown and David Isaacs adopting a world café approach; Nancy Dixon representing the conversational architect perspective; and Donita Volkwijn championing the diversity, equity and inclusion perspective. There are many other perspectives of conversational leadership that are also arising, such as conversational analysis – an approach to quantifying and identifying mathematical “movements” and patterns in conversation. Conversational leadership is a growing and thriving discipline.

The outer circle of the conversational leadership framework (Figure 1) depicts four areas and inquiry-based approaches to conversational leadership. Each of the four areas intends to shine a light on the conversations being held in the moment, as well as offers questions to inspire deeper dialogue. Conversational leadership is not so much about leading conversations as it is about listening, guiding and contributing to conversations as they emerge. In conversational leadership, there are many levels of observation and interaction, requiring us to assess and understand our intent and impact in conversations.

Figure 1: Conversational Leadership Framework

In the center of the conversational leadership framework, notice “self” and “communityship.” The concept of self, also known as “self as an instrument,” stems most notably from Gestalt psychotherapy. Dr. Mee Yan Cheung Judge and Dr. David Jamieson – active researchers and practitioners in the “use of self” – define use of self as “the conscious use of one’s whole being in the intentional execution of one’s roles for effectiveness in whatever the current situation is presenting. The purpose is to be able to execute a role effectively, for others and the system they’re in, with full awareness of personal interference (e.g., bias, blindness, avoidance, and agendas) to have clear intentions and choice.” In conversational leadership, we often refer to intent and impact. A focus on the self in conversational leadership asks us to be curious about and aware of our intent and impact in our conversations.

Communityship is a relatively new word invented by Henry Mintzberg. Oversimplified, communityship is defined as “shared leadership,” but Mr. Mintzberg offers that it is more than shared leadership. Instead, it is, “Something you recognize when you see it and feel it.” Michael Jones – leadership educator and author – comments that communityship could be defined as seeing the gift in the other, creating a sense of place, embracing the spirit of festival, crafting a language of life and welcoming the stranger. Conversational leadership offers that communityship enables us to rethink our notions of leadership from an individual position to a collective responsibility.

These six areas of context, purpose, design, enablement, self and communityship combine to be greater than the sum of their parts. Conversations are complex, and complexity can’t be mapped very well. Kurt Lewin receives credit for saying, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The intent of this conversational leadership framework is to motivate and shift us to challenge our assumptions about conversation and what enables healthy, successful and equitable conversations.

Welcome to Conversational Leadership

Approaches to leadership are evolving and expanding. Numerous examples of leadership models and frameworks exist – such as servant leadership, authoritarian leadership, transactional leadership, strategic leadership, change leadership, agile leadership, authentic leadership and so many more. Similar to leadership, approaches to conversation are evolving and expanding as well. Numerous examples of conversational models and frameworks exist, such as crucial conversations, non-violent communications, healing conversations, difficult conversations, conversational intelligence, conversational analysis and so many more.

Conversational leadership is a growing community of practitioners looking to expand their conversational and leadership capabilities – leveraging all of these models and frameworks, creating and experimenting with new models and frameworks, and applying those practices to their teams’ and organizations’ needs. This shared practice has hopes of enabling a more equitable future for individuals and collective communities.