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.


Sometimes, we’re so busy “doing” that we put “being” on hold. We allocate time to holidays, at some point in the future, to reconnect with ourselves and those who matter to us. Things that get in the way are submerged or ignored.

Until something like this. When we don’t really have a choice.

In the midst of all the hassle, and the concerns, and the worry we are being given an opportunity to reconnect and reboot. And we have a choice – either to ignore it, or to embrace it. 

As I write this, spring is making its presence felt. Snowdrops are done, Daffodils are at full pelt, green shoots everywhere. 

Tomorrow, it’s the Spring equinox, traditionally a time of renewal. 

As you find yourself with more time to occupy than normal – even if it’s only the time you don’t have to commute, here are five things to reflect on in this liminal space between stopping and restarting:

  1. Oneness. A review of our relationship with ourselves, and those around us who we live with and work with. The more settled that is, the more of our originality, our uniqueness, becomes available to ourselves and others. It something we can all feel and sense when we take time and just sit. Mindfulness and meditation is not a luxury. Right now, it’s an essential.
  2. Awareness. Of our surroundings, our markets, the nature of our job. Purpose. Meaning. What keeps us aligned with what matters to us. Use the time we unexpectedly have  to detect the seismic signals that precede personal earthquakes, and address them. 
  3. Resilience.  Things will not go back to normal. How we choose to engage with different is often a matter of the baggage we carry. Old ideas, old grudges, unnecessary purchases, useless habits. What’s emerging will present unexpected opportunity. Be ready to move to meet them.
  4. Boundaries. Many of us blur the boundaries between role and work,  work and home, home and self, self and others. These are important. Render unto work what belongs to work, to borrow from Julius Caesar. A sense of autonomy is vital to oneness and resilience, and keeping a sense of boundary is important to that. Good fences make good neighbours.
  5. Focus. Our lives and work are a series of finite games (determined by rules, sides, winners and losers, time frames) played within an infinite game (our pursuit of meaning and cause that is endless). The key to progress is having clear short term goals that sit within your own bigger picture.

These five categories are not a made up list of feel good. They are at the heart of our individual and collective culture. It is a list compiled by, in my view, one the greatest, but least know strategists of the last century, who compiled them by looking at the records of every great strategist in history, from Sun Tzu to the present day. Worth taking note of.

In the midst of what we are going through, there is a huge opportunity for us to take stock and maybe reboot.

They don’t come round often, and it may be a while to the next one.