THE AGE OF CONVERSATION

Talking recently with two women executives, they were saying that they needed a whole different approach to performance management in one instance focusing on competing in a changing marketplace in another, customer service. What they had done in the past wasn’t working and there was resistance to changing. My suggestion in both cases was to get employees together and start conversations. In other words, to have the organization as a whole come to some consensus around new ways of behaving and to inclusively define what performance means for that organization.
I realize that it is easier to have new pathways come from top down and certainly it can be a more efficient roll out than getting input from all employees. However, we live in a time where inclusion is becoming more important. A time when those who feel marginalized are speaking up and disrupting the status quo. It behooves us to find ways to be more inclusive and talk with each other in meaningful ways.
One of the drawbacks to the conversational approach is that we as a society seem to have lost the skill of having useful conversations. We now need to train employees on how to have meaningful conversations and train facilitators to facilitate those conversations.
Some years ago, when Peter Senge wrote his famous book, The Fifth Discipline; The art and science of the learning organization, his group developed a process that they entitled, skillful conversations. As a university professor, I taught that process to many learning organization classes. The basis of it was to have participants in the conversation balance inquiry and advocacy. In other words, stop selling one’s own ideas and ask others about their ideas. Students found it to be an amazing experience, not just to experience the conversation but to discipline themselves to balance inquiry with advocacy. We do like to sell our ideas.
There is an old National Training Labs (NTL) technique that works well in building the ability of having skillful conversations. It is called Fishbowl. Number the group off in ones and twos and have ones’ partner with twos. Have ones sit in a circle and twos stand behind and observe their partner. The ones have a discussion about a significant subject, such as, performance while learning to maintain a balance between inquiry and advocacy and twos observe. After a set time, the observer two gives feedback on how well number one did in balancing. Then twos get into a circle, have the discussion and ones observe and give feedback. Repeat the exercise at least twice.
Not only do we need to communicate better in our businesses but as a society in general we need to learn how to talk to each other. We need a new age of conversation.

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