Management Articles


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

By: Judy Worrell

Judy Worrell is a principal in Affinity Consulting. She works with teams to achieve high level teamwork where everyone is a winner.

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?

In our work with clients, we use the following diagram to facilitate the move along a continuum towards closure:

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.

To engage people in exploratory dialogue, 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.

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.

In agreement/closure, 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).
Both forms of conversation are useful, depending on the circumstances and the intent of the discussion.

Your team may need to learn some basic skills before moving into skilful discussion and dialogue.

Examples of facilitation techniques or meeting formats we use that support these types of conversation 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.

© Copyright 2003 Affinity Consulting. All rights reserved.

Other Articles by Judy Worrell

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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