My friend and colleague Amanda Ridings recently wrote a new book, Weekly Leadership Contemplations. I'm really enjoying it and wanted to share one of her pieces with you called "Beyond words".
As the book title suggests, Weekly Leadership Contemplations offers 52 short pieces, each one ending with questions for contemplation. The book is designed for leaders, and I find it can work its wonders on anyone. I appreciate that Amanda understands the tight schedule most leaders have, and so gives us short pieces with thoughtful questions to reflect on each week. Enjoy Amanda Ridings' "Beyond words"....
Back in the day, I was a director of finance in the NHS. Long before I encountered dialogue practices, my deputy and I were preparing for an important meeting that she'd called. We had to gain support from a local peer group for a crucial development. We were expecting opposition. My colleague was very clear and animated about how to push our agenda through.
Sensing potential for stalemate, I encouraged her to consider drawing out some of the objections early in the meeting, so she could respond to them along the way. She likened my suggestion to sprinkling food on the surface of a fishpond, so that fish rise and nibble. She added, wryly, "You mean I should avoid my usual strategy of throwing in a stick of dynamite and collecting dead fish from the banks?"
We laughed at the time and still chuckle about it. It was a potent conversation. Her evocative image clarified my sense that some ways of dealing with resistance simply escalate it and result in casualties. Learning to engage with dissent more intentionally was one of the things that led me to the field of dialogue.
Over time, consciously embodying good practice in leadership conversations has become the backbone of my work. If I have clear intentions about the shape and quality of my contribution to a conversation, I'll be more effective. It's also crucial to cultivate capacity to handle myself well in gritty situations.
When I introduce dialogue as a particular conversational form, I begin by distinguishing it from debate and discussion. In drawing attention to words that are often used interchangeably, I invite people to explore their sense of the purpose and tone of these different types of conversation.
To nurture this interest, I describe two kinds of contribution to conversations:
- Advocacy: stating my position or view, making a point; and
- Inquiry: drawing out what I don't yet know or understand.
We can use these terms to describe and better understand the shape of a conversation. For example, debate is an exchange of advocacy, arguing for and against a proposal, while dialogue balances advocacy and inquiry.
With this light framework, we can observe the architecture of conversations and begin to examine whether they're fit for purpose. We may also get an inkling of what to modify to positively influence the tenor of an exchange.
The "fishpond" example gives a flavor of this. Rather than increase the intensity of her advocacy in response to expected challenges, my colleague added some inquiry, drawing out the legitimate concerns of others. In changing the shape of her contribution, she changed the shape of the conversation. As a result, she was able to outline her agenda in a way that showed she understood the disquiet that her colleagues were feeling. She adjusted some details, and obtained agreement for her direction of travel.
Changing the shape of a contribution or conversation is not enough. We can say the same words with different impact, depending on factors such as tone, pace, posture and presence. When business-critical conversations become highly charged, we're likely to be tense and off-balance, operating from fight, flight or freeze. Physiology is in charge: we're focused on short-term survival, not creativity, collaboration or long-term effectiveness.
To optimise the impact of what we say, we also need to attend to the energetic quality of what we say. This means we need to be able to positively adjust our energy and physiology by using something like a centring process. Beyond words, this plays a significant part in determining our impact.
- Choose a conversation you regularly participate in: what do you notice about the shape and energy of it?
- How might you contribute differently, in the shape of what you say and/or the energy you bring to it?
You can find Amanda's book on Amazon and wherever books are sold.