Bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations

Passing places

The single track roads of the north of Scotland offer a fine ‘simulator’ for paying attention to, and reflecting on, our patterns of thinking and behaviour when we come face-to-face with someone with a conflicting plan. If I’m driving from Broadford to Elgol and meet someone travelling in the opposite direction, how do we navigate a space that’s only wide enough for one of us?

When two vehicles converge on the same piece of road, there is, as far as I know, no convention for ‘right of way’ as there is on water, where a boat on starboard tack has privilege over one on port. A bonnet-to-bonnet encounter is a wee negotiation, without the benefit of words. For both to proceed, one driver must use a passing place to create room for the other.

More generally, there’s often a brief moment of intimacy when strangers with contrasting wishes meet head-on. Think of the side-stepping dance that sometimes occurs between pedestrians on narrow pavements, or colleagues in a corridor, as they seek to be on their way without bumping into each other. Such fleeting exchanges are a moment of connection, perhaps even evoking a smile, as each person acknowledges the other’s claim on the route. When such acknowledgement is missing, the encounter feels very different.

Think of an occasion when you wanted to access a particular place at the same time as someone else – perhaps a parking spot, doorway, or seat on a train. How did you react? Did you accelerate into the space, pretending not to notice the other person? Did you signal that they should proceed? Did you weigh up the situation and, if so, what were you taking into account?

By observing ourselves in such physical encounters, we can learn how we’re likely to behave when opinions collide. If our actions suggest our claim on a place takes precedence over that of others, we might look for a similar trait in our conversations. If we tend to give priority to others in occupying physical positions, we might also permit their voices to fill conversational spaces.

Our habitual tendencies are clearer in temporary physical impasses than in ideological stalemates. The ‘story we tell ourselves’ about who should move aside is more obvious, although we may rationalise it with explanations such as:

• the suddenness of the encounter – if we can’t anticipate events, there is less opportunity to respond gracefully;
• the available room for manoeuvre – the fewer the options, the more likely two people will find one another ‘in the way’; or
• the importance of our business – the value we place on respective claims on space influences our view of who takes precedence.

We might also tend to press for ‘right of way’ if we feel short of time, reassuring ourselves that any impatience is ‘circumstantial’ and justifiable!

It’s harder to reason away our reactive patterns in the simple scenario of two cars meeting on a single track road with passing places. There are, practically speaking, limited options:

• one person anticipates the situation and pulls over ahead of time – allowing the other to continue with minimum disruption;
• both parties expect the other to give way, and when neither does, both stand their ground (and fume); or
• there is a pause, while each driver checks for the nearest passing place – collective convenience determines who ‘reverses’ and creates space.

In this last option, contact is made. Though brief, there is a genuine ‘meeting’, with an equality of human recognition, and this engenders a sense of mutuality in the ‘decision’ about use of the road.

While dealing with conflicting interests in leadership conversations is rarely so uncomplicated, there is value in using such straightforward situations to isolate our more primitive responses to opposition. As we identify patterns in our reactions to a ‘rival’ claim on a resource, location or strategy, we can ask: how do these tendencies show up in conversations? If I have an aspiration for my team or project, what happens when I meet someone with an alternative claim on the same ground? What is my part in determining the quality of contact we make?

When archetypal patterns such as taking or giving ‘right of way’ play out in our conversations, some voices get omitted or overlooked. When we give preference to the views of others, such as a boss, key stakeholder, or difficult colleague, we discount our own voice. When we impose our opinion, we disregard what others have to say and, if we meet someone equally determined, may find our leadership energy consumed in a stalemate. This not only excludes other voices, it deprives colleagues and the system of our full attention.

Instead, how might we make good contact, and create a metaphorical ‘passing place’, allowing room for manoeuvre? If we’re able to pause for breath, centre in our own agenda, and fully meet others, we foster the conditions for respectful opposition.

Respecting others, even as we disagree, includes listening and suspending judgement. These three qualities constitute ‘passing places’ on the single track roads of our conversations, breathing spaces in which we can gain perspective and, potentially, find new ways forward.

When you next bump up against someone with a contrary view, how might you establish a conversational passing place?

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