September 2019: Good conversations don't happen by accident

When a society or system wants to inflict punishment on an individual it throws them into confinement. When that society really wants to make them suffer, it throws them into solitary confinement. Social isolation is the harshest punishment we can inflict on anyone.

To be plain, we need people. And we need good enough conversations not just to keep psychologically well but also to gather people around us, to have families, a social life and to make our jobs, departments and organisations function.

So then, if we accept that a good conversation is one of life’s few, true essentials, then it probably follows that we would want to make them as good as possible, as often as possible. But most of us don’t and perhaps that’s because we have got used to struggling, got used to repeating ourselves, have got used to arguing. We have got used to ‘OK’.

But when the pressure is really on, when something big must be achieved by everyone pulling together over something difficult, something painful, OK conversations don’t cut it because there simply isn’t enough interpersonal capability in the room to keep the machine of the conversation working. Most of us and most teams are good at riding in the car but weak at repairing it when it hits a damaging bump.

So what’s the solution?

We have to get a lot better at having real conversations. What is a real conversation? It’s one in which some or all of the participants have learned to look after the mechanics of the conversation (the car) whilst also participating in the content (riding in it).

In reality, to have these real conversations, we need to dial up on three fundamental abilities:

1.Know it (how the car works).

The intellectual grasp of behaviours and feelings that make the conversation work better, and the ones that make it worse.

2. See it (being good at spotting the wisps of steam coming from under the bonnet).

Our ability to spot these behaviours and feelings as they occur, both in ourselves and in others.

3. Say it (being skilled with the spanners).

Having the words, capability and social permission to listen or speak out when it counts in order to call out what is happening between the people in the room so that it can be increased, repaired or stopped.

When individuals and groups develop those three fundamental abilities then they can look forward to being able to participate in even tough conversations to resolve a business issue because they know how to repair the feelings, and therefore the capability and willingness of the participants, when they need to.

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