Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

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 shouldn’t follow 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 imagery helped me ‘land’ my understanding that some ways of dealing with resistance simply escalate it, and result in casualties. Learning to engage with dissent more intentionally led me to the field of dialogue practice.

Over time, mindfully embodying good practice in leadership conversations has become the backbone of my work. If I understand the shape and quality of my contribution to a conversation, I’m better equipped to be 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. I invite people to explore their sense of the purpose and tone of these different types of conversation, igniting curiosity about words that are often used interchangeably.

To nurture this interest, I describe two kinds of contribution to conversations:

• Advocacy: stating my view or position, proposing, making a case or point; and
• Inquiry: drawing out what I don’t yet know or understand.

In a group, these terms allow us to generate greater shared understanding. 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 change to positively influence the tenor of an exchange.

The ‘fishpond’ example gives a flavour 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. This enabled her to outline her approach in a way that showed she understood their disquiet, and to include the issues raised. She was able to get agreement for an overall direction of travel by adjusting some details.

The language of a framework supports us to make such changes consciously, and add them to our repertoire.

However, 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 frustrated, resistant, competitive and/or dismissive of others. Tense and off-balance, we’re 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 be adept at these times, it’s vital to be:

• familiar with early sensory signals of this compromised state; and
• able to recover poise.

Beyond words, how we embody what we say determines our impact. I wish I’d known this during all those tough conversations about money!

To explore how to embody good practice in your leadership conversations when the chips are down, join me for Pause for Breath Practices in 2017. I’m hosting a free exploratory session on 13th September, in Edinburgh. For more information, contact me.

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