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It’s no good being conscious in your business if some topics are un-discussable…

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Being conscious in business, or life in general, involves taking risks, and it is surprising how common it is for us to shy away from those conversations that, whilst hairy, may be exactly what is needed.

I spent last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona (niiiiice), where I met up with 25 other practitioners who take a complexity-based approach to organisational change and development. All of us are certified Human Systems Dynamics Practitioners, which a) lets us use extra letters after our names, and b) gives us more long words to bamboozle and confuse clients with if we don’t watch it. The purpose of the conference was to help the group develop more tightly coupled relationships in order to grow our practice, and foster collaborative working. Overall it was a success, and I walked away having both learned stuff (good), met some top people (excellent), and added a number of things to my ‘to do’ list (not so good).


One moment stands out for me as being the point at which the conversation shifted from being useful to generative. Or to put it another way, when we shifted from being polite to each other and got down to what mattered…

Playing with similarity & difference

At the heart of all relationships is a dance between sameness and difference: the more similar we are, the better the ‘fit’ and the greater likelihood we want to  work or play together; the greater the number of differences, chances are we move apart and/or end up in conflict. So far so obvious. What is less obvious, yet typical of what happens in many relationships, particularly in organisations, is what is left unsaid, unspoken, unnamed and ultimately becomes un-discussable. I have touched on this theme before (Intent(ion): the missing link?…, Is Gordon Brown’s ‘bullying’ behaviour a symptom, not the problem?, Collaboration: 10 tips for success, with a relational bias), and the un-discussable is not something that is easy to bring up. To suggest to anyone, particularly in a group context, that there may be something that they are avoiding talking about can evoke fear, anger, shame or simply plain discomfort. It requires, as a minimum, courage and curiosity on the part of the person raising the question, and a level of trust that can hold the impact of that intervention and any resulting. The rewards are huge if you can go there, and here’s why.

About an hour into the conference, we were invited to go into small groups to explore how we were same and different, and what this might mean for the relationships in the room and the weekend as a whole. My group of three contained some meaty differences, which we explored, and it led to one person noticing that she wasn’t sure how safe it was to share aspects of her self and her values that marked her out, in her view, as different to the majority. Whether this was true or not is not the point.  The discovery and potential rich learning lay in the (shared) realization that the group felt somehow un-safe and that some topics felt taboo.

Pick a door, any door…

This moment was a beautiful decision point for us. Many groups/organisations face these without realizing it, and, I believe, more often than not opt for safety. I can understand why, but we didn’t. Back in the big group, our feedback was framed around a central question:

“What is un-discussable in this group?”


Heart in mouth, I illustrated this by sharing how I felt (feared) my (Brighton, UK, liberal) values might mark me out as different from my US hosts, and how our relationship would change the more I revealed those differences.

Nothing is un-discussable, the only thing that changes is consequences…

From that initial risk-taking, something amazing happened. Person after person revealed questions/thoughts that they hold been holding back. In our case – and it will not be the same for every group or context – the territory we ended up exploring was primarily the questions and issues people felt unsure about raising in the context of the work we were there to do. There was some talk about how we were different individually, but as a group our focus was on the work. The trust in the room, and relational awareness of the people involved, was such that we held our differences lightly, and respected them. This particular exchange set the tone for the weekend, and got us quicker to where we wanted to go than would have been possible otherwise, in my opinion and it is important to say that.

Do I believe there were places we didn’t go, questions that were not raised? Yes, I suspect there were, if for no other reason than I get curious when a group of people spend so much time together without getting into any decent arguments! And that may say more about me than the group.

So the question for you is …

What are you not discussing in your organisation, team, group, board? How are your similarities and differences driving the conversation, and what is stopping you from saying what is really on your mind and gets in the way of work? For me, a relational approach leavened with models and methods from complexity works wonders. What works for you?

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5 thoughts on “It’s no good being conscious in your business if some topics are un-discussable…

  1. Great post Steve, I love the imagery: esp. the “prickliness” that we fear before we allow our voice to emerge.

  2. Enjoyed your post, Steve. I recognise the shift from ‘polite talk’ to ‘combat’ to ‘inquiry and understanding’ to ‘generative dialogue’ (Otto Scharmer wrote about this quite extensively in the 4 field of conversation, I think?) and I’ve had a couple of experiences of ending up in generative dialogue where the feeling was, as you say, that we could hold our differences lightly. Accompanied by feelings that it was okay to speak difference, that if you missed your turn it was okay, you could come back at any time and others would accept what you say, there was no discord and stifling rules, but only acceptance, and a kind of energy ‘flow’ whizzing around the circle of people in dialogue which I can only say ‘felt different’. I think the difference was: no combat; safety.

    How did we get there? We had to move past polite talk, just as you wrote about, and really listen and grant each other a place in the conversation to be who we were, but without it being forced in any way. It was entirely organic.

    I’ve tried to emulate this effect in my work in organisations, with teams and the like, but it can’t be manufactured, I’ve found (perhaps others have had better results); the only thing we can do is put some ground rules in place and facilitate dialogue.

    Thinking about that, and your comments about ‘the unsaid’, one of the models/metaphors/exercises I use frequently is of an iceberg model of listening, and listening at different levels of your head, your heart and your intuition. Without exception when you listen with your intuition to the unsaid (beneath the surface) and reflect this back – within a safe space and without ‘exposure’ to the other person, of course – the conversation shifts a radical gear and suddenly you’re into a whole other realm of meaning making and understanding. Suddenly you start to talk about what matters to people rather than the views you all brought with you to the conversation.

    What I’ve found is that the feeling of risk increases as you dive beneath the surface into the unsaid, but the trust equally increases. It’s all got to do with how you listen and, very importantly, how you put what you’ve heard on the table. If you do it in a clumsy, judgmental way, you’ve had it. The conversation closes down quicker than a Venus flytrap or sea anemone.

    • Nicely put Gina.

      For anyone interested in this Bill (William) Isaacs book “Dialogue” is a non-academic book which gives a good description of these topics.

      By non-academic I mean he doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of relevant theory.

    • Hi Gina

      Glad you liked it and thanks for taking the time to respond. It sounds like we hold similar views! A couple of things occur to me, in response to your comments.

      In terms of what needs to be in place for this type of conversation to emerge, I find it helpful to think about ‘conditions’, which may or may not be things that are explicit or contracted for they could be emergent, as opposed to ‘ground rules’, which normally come with a contracting phase and can be clunky/parental. And some groups need that hierarchical intervention, yet I notice I shy away from that when possible.

      The other reflection I had was around the iceberg model (which i like, although have not used myself) and intuition. I am all for intuition, if, like alcohol, used responsibly! Or more seriously, if held lightly. I tend to the view that the real skill is in sensing into intuition, and holding it in such a way that you can use the ‘rational’ (critical thinking) part of the brain to inquire into (the whole of) what is being experienced. It is not an either or, more for me a question of reflecting how we actually make meaning and unpacking that the best we can. I like Daniel Kahneman’s work in this area for example.

      Best wishes,

      Steve

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