Setting Conversations Free

One of the fundamental qualities of being human is the ability to have conversations. To harness the power of language via myth, story and metaphor and to act as a conduit to manifest imagination and creativity.

So why is it, I wonder, we keep them so captive?

I found myself considering this the other day when listening in to a conversation is a client’s organisation. The conversation had all the qualities of the M1 motorway. We knew where started, where it was going and where it would end up and even where the opportunities were for a quick coffee along the way. No chance of taking one of the exits to go and look at something interesting – we needed to get we were going as fast as possible.

Right now, that’s more than a shame, it’s a problem. We don’t think a lot on the motorway. It’s familiar, and we have all the equivalents of SatNav and anti collision technology to keep us on track. There could be elephants dancing the conga at the side of the motorway and we probably wouldn’t notice.

The best conversations have no destination – they are explorations of possibility in pursuit of something  not quite in sight, and we make the path by walking, not rushing down a motorway on cruise control.

Unfortunately, most conversations that take place in business seem to fall into one of two categories.

The  most depressing is the controlled conversation, where the efforts are about advocacy and a form of verbal brawling. We know where it’s heading, and it’s just too difficult – and often dangerous – to differ too much. There’s a mortgage to pay.

The slightly less depressing one is a skilful conversation around a pretty fixed topic. It is dialectic, or the sort practiced by lawyers arguing a point in a contract. We still know where it’s going, it’s just a matter of who’s driving when we get there, and who gets to pay for the coffees in the rest break.

There’s a huge gap between these two sorts of conversations and the conversations we should be having right now. The ones we need to be having are seeking a destination, and that gets determined by asking questions we don’t already know the answer too.

They are open, not defensive. There’s lots of different views, and often argument – but in service of exploration. The etymological  root of conversation includes “to turn with” and “the place where I dwell”.  It has links to Volvere, “to turn” and the root of “evolve”.

We have a choice with conversations – we can use them to close down and defend, or open up and explore.

To be part of a free conversation requires confidence and humility, a willingness to suspend judgement and listen, and the capability to lead without being in charge. It needs those who can hold the space for others, not dominate it. It’s very different to what we have been told is efficient.

Right now however, we need to free our conversations. We need to bring in people we wouldn’t normally and those who see things differently and then listen to them with respect.

Conversations are thre most powerful tool of change we have. We shouldn’t keep them caged.