Listen Up ... and Speak Out!
How You Can Use Conversations to Improve
Organizational Effectiveness

by Judy Worrell

When was the last time you had a really good conversation with someone? Hold on a minute…before you answer that, here are some conditions that would need to be met in order for that conversation to be "good:"

  • No phone calls, no background noise, uninterrupted time, no preoccupation
  • Open agenda
  • Descriptive versus evaluative discussion (i.e. non-judgmental disclosure of thoughts and feelings)
  • Acknowledgement of equal status of participants during the conversation
  • Problem orientated versus controlling
  • Spontaneous, rather than strategic
  • Empathic versus neutral
  • Active listening (avoidance of too much internal dialogue)

Now, answer that question. Are you surprised by your answer? It seems that in the rapid pace of our times and the nature of corporate life, we may have lost, or misplaced, the simple art of conversation.

If you were to ask leaders or members of a team where the barriers are within their work place, the response you would likely get would be related to the lack of processes within the organization to improve the quality and effectiveness of communication.

Bringing the art of conversation back into your corporate life might be the answer!

So, how do you do it?

According to one of the experts, Peter Senge, conversational forms range on a continuum from raw debate, polite discussion, skilful discussion to dialogue. See figure 1.

Let's put this into a real world context for a moment. Which form would have been demonstrated in the recent federal election? How about the peace talks in Ireland? Do these sound more like raw debate or polite discussion than skilful discussion and dialogue? They likely were, for the most part. What about the last discussion you had with a staff member? Where would you place that on the continuum?

As individuals move along the continuum, the conversation becomes more attuned to a shared meaning of reality. Senge describes the benefits of using skilful discussion and dialogue as a means of enhancing communication, particularly in the organizational context.

To engage people in skilful discussion, you need to move away from the traditional form of discussion in which you may orient yourself around advocating (your own point of view), towards a balance between advocating and inquiring (about the other person's perspective). You then have a greater understanding of the reasoning and assumptions behind both points of view.

Moving into dialogue goes one step further. You need to suspend your own assumptions and seek to understand a bigger picture of reality than your own. This enables the emergence of a collective thinking, a greater sense of unity and your team's ability to act in coordinated and synergistic ways.

Both forms of conversation are useful, depending on the circumstances and the intent of the discussion. In skilful discussion, you and the team intend to come to some closure, to make a decision, to reach agreement or to identify priorities. The discussion is more focused on tasks and the group's thinking coming together (convergent thinking).

Dialogue, on the other hand is useful when you and your team want to explore, to discover or to gain insight (divergent thinking). It is used to improve the quality of collective thinking and interacting. Alignment improves as your group sees how their work fits into a larger whole.

Your team may need to learn some basic skills before moving into skilful discussion and dialogue. Senge describes basic inquiry and reflection as starting points. These skills involve holding conversations where views are openly shared, and where people learn about each other's assumptions and reflect on their own mental models of how the world works.

There are a number of useful exercises and facilitation techniques that can be used to practice these skills.

Examples of individual exercises include:

Ladder of Inference - explains how we often jump to conclusions based on inaccurate and/or limited data and observations. Exploring the rungs of the ladder can be useful to reflect on your own reasoning, make your reasoning more visible and inquire into others' reasoning to avoid jumping up the ladder.

Left Hand Column - used to improve awareness of the tacit assumptions that govern our conversations, and to develop a way to talk about these more effectively and safely. The left hand column is a diary used to describe what you are thinking and how you are feeling during a conversation. The right hand column is used to record what was actually said.

Moments of Awareness - a habit of pausing and asking yourself a series of three critical questions during times of stressful communication when you are stuck or inclined to become defensive.

Ask yourself …

- what is happening right now,
- what do I want right now,
- what am I doing right now to prevent myself from getting what I want?

Opening Lines - involves the use of scripts in certain situations where you may have a tendency to advocate rather than inquire.

Examples of facilitation techniques or meeting formats include:

Scenario Planning - an exploration of the forces that drive strategic decision-making and the use of stories to practice organizational response to a variety of potential scenarios.

Strategic Conversation - the use of an organization-wide ongoing scenario process to develop a high degree of shared world view and commitment to change.

Open Space Technology - a meeting form in which space is created, both physical and psychological, to allow people to give of their best and take control of how they deal with specific issues.

Supportive Versus Defensive Climates - inventory and experiential learning exercise that allows teams to discover where they stand on the inquiry/advocacy continuum.

Judy Worrell, R.N., BSc.N. has over 20 years experience working in the continuing care (community care, public health and facility based) sector and is a principal in Affinity Consulting. She helps leaders and their teams build their capacity to engage in skillful discussion and dialogue. In her most recent role as the Director of Consulting Services for Extendicare (Canada) Inc., she was actively involved in direct facility consultation, development and delivery of educational programs and workshops, project coordination, and policy and procedure development. This work involved coordinating program implementation and evaluation within a multi-site environment. She can be contacted at .


Many more articles in Communications in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2001 by Judy Worrell. All rights reserved.

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