Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Leadership Communication: “Weak Conversations Weaken, and Strong Conversations Strengthen” Guest post Bill Braun

Most acknowledge that communication is a key Leadership competency, but most also then dismiss it.  What would a truly exceptional strategic communicator sound like? How would this Leader inspire people? Move them, engage their ‘hearts and minds’ – their passion in the Enterprise?

Look no further than Bill Braun. In this guest post Bill explains that how leaders and managers invest their time in conversation can make or break commitment.

If nothing changes, nothing will change.

What is the likelihood that an organization that continues to have the same conversations will become a different organization?

Conversations as Individual and Organizational Self-Talk

The quest for a different future is often stymied not by a lack of imagination, but by the inability to break out of the dominant conversations that take place in organizations. So, a two hour brain storm produces some viable ideas. Everyone leaves the room and returns to the conversations they have always had, and the ideas fail to take root. These deeply rooted conversations have a powerful influence on personal self-talk, and self-talk has a powerful influence on our collective actions (and the organizational results they produce).

The conversations that leaders and managers have with the people tell a great deal about the cultural mindset of an organization. They also reveal the very deep assumptions about work and what is really important in the organization.

Discerning Dominant Conversations

You can test that statement with the following exercise. At the top of a piece of paper write, “This is how we think around here.” Give everyone in the organization a copy, with the instructions to write whatever comes to mind. No names. Do not answer questions seeking to get a better idea of what you want.

Collect the papers and start reading. You are reading the dominant conversations that take place in the organization. They are the thoughts that guide people in their work, decision making, and behavior. Will those conversations lead to the future the organization wants or has to have to survive?

Mapping Your Own Conversations

What conversations do you commonly have? Make a list of the conversations that you have had with people in the last month. Sort them into two categories: conversations that concerned themselves with authority, mandate, policies, and rules, and conversations that concerned themselves with purpose, customers, persons, and service.

Weak versus Strong Conversations

Which category has the most conversations? Conversations that derive their content based on authority, mandate, policies, and rules are weak conversations. Conversations that derive their content and spirit from purpose, customers, persons, and service are strong conversations.

Consider how a conversation with someone who arrives late to work unfolds:

The weak conversation, based on authority, mandate, policies, and rules, goes like this:

“You were late today. Here’s your demerit. I need you to be on time. One more and I’ll have to write you up. Any questions?”

This conversation is organized around rules and policies. It requires the authority of the manager’s chair to enforce them. The needs are those of the boss, and have little to do with the value the person produces for either the organization or the customer. Ownership and accountability have been abdicated by the manager (s/he is required by policy and rule to impose a sanction) and denied to the person who was late (who has nothing to think about beyond the sanction).

The strong conversation, based on an overarching concept of purpose, customers, persons, and service, goes like this: “This morning, for 45 minutes, you were not available to the patients who come to us sick, vulnerable, and afraid, and who trust us to care for them, nor to your colleagues, who had to take up your share of work. I’d like you to think about what redress would make the situation right for the patients you care for and for your colleagues. I want to hear your thoughts on colleagueship and service, the principle you believe is at the heart of the matter, and the words you will use when you speak to them and the feelings you will express. Let me know when you want to talk.”

In this conversation bilateral ownership of and accountability for the core reason the organization exists in the first place are at the heart of the dialogue. The person is invited to think and reflect, to consider the impact their actions had on people and service, and to consider what they ought to do to put the situation right.

Weak conversations lead to anger, annoyance, defensiveness, and resentment. Strong conversations lead to reflection, insight, autonomy, fairness, and relatedness; they encourage inner work, the heavy lifting of becoming better persons.

Anatomy and Physiology of Weak Conversations

A weak conversation based on authority and mandate (i.e., the mindset that I can tell you what to do, and you will do it because I say so) is the weakest position you can adopt, requires the least skill, consistently produces the poorest results, is unsustainable, and is a reflection of a closed heart.

Weak conversations can dominate organizational dialogue. They are an unwitting outcome of our belief in control, consistency, and predictability, and the conclusion that ownership and responsibility for solving organizational challenges are localized primarily at the top of the organization and driven through the organization by authority and mandate (adapted from Peter Block).

Such an approach steals accountability from the people who serve customers. All that is left is the belief that ownership and commitment has to be persuaded, sold, or demanded. Expecting “buy-in” becomes a form of consumerism, and carries all of its implications.

Anatomy and Physiology of Strong Conversations

Strong conversations are based on an exchange of purpose and defined through open dialogue. People have the right to say no as a matter of seeking their role and fit in purpose (if you can’t say “no”, what does “yes” mean?). Accountability becomes collaborative, where leaders resign their role as caretakers and parents and accountability is chosen, not mandated. People speak with absolute honesty by reducing social distance and increasing vulnerability. The dominant relationship in the organization moves from the parent-child relationship to adult-adult relationships (adapted from Peter Block).

The Role of Powerful Questions

Strong conversations are more likely to emerge from powerful questions. Powerful questions have three attributes (taken from Peter Block): they are personal (but not personally invasive), they are ambiguous (the obvious answer cannot be quickly downloaded), and they are anxiety provoking (not that they put people in harm’s way, but create risk by requiring them to cover uncharted territory with their thinking).

Powerful questions can be common questions posed in a different way. For example, you might inquire into what someone was thinking before they took action. The response may be the common, “Well, I was thinking that it made the most sense and…” You can respond, “Well it didn’t”, rely on authority to explain why, and follow the path of a weak conversation.

Or you can respond by saying, “I meant I really want to hear your thoughts. So, you were facing the decision. What were your thoughts in favor of the action? What were your thoughts against taking the action? What were the other options that you considered? What consequences did you anticipate?” This takes you down the path of the strong conversation. The conversation can only move forward through reflection and thoughtful dialogue. It is focused on the why of the situation rather than jumping directly into the who, what, when, where, and how.

Powerful questions come in many sizes and flavors. They are designed to create a sudden shift in mindset, to interrupt habitual thought, to push the conversation from the past into the future.

In an interview ask, “What brought you to the now of your leadership?”

At a meeting someone says, “I am so sick and tired of this problem” sending everyone into a dissection of the problem and commiseration. A weak conversation is a brief lecture on team work and loyalty. For a strong conversation, try asking, “What does that look like already fixed, just as you personally would want it fixed?” Then, “What one step would begin to make that future present?

To inquire deeply into the nature of personal power versus authority and mandate ask, “If starting tomorrow morning no one in the organization had to do anything you say (you have no authority), how would you think about your leadership, and making forward progress?”

For a work group that cannot or will not come to grips with the changing wants and needs of customers ask, “If we continue to do what we do now, and nothing changes, and customers continue to change, what is the logical end of that? Is that what you want? How ought we think about the future possibilities that will meet customers’ needs and desires?”

A simple question can be made powerful by holding on to it instead of letting it go when it has been apparently answered. “So, assume that the answer that has emerged is already completely implemented and we want to continue to move forward; let’s ask the question again and continue to work with it.” Repeat this three to four times. This creates what Jeffery Schwartz and Henry Stapp call “attention density” which facilitates the internalization of the question and its responses.

Shifting to Strong Conversations

One reason weak conversations dominate in organizations is that managers and leaders are required to have them. This is the layering of authority and mandate, where leaders and managers are robbed of the option to have strong conversations by policies and rules that force them to have weak conversations about other policies and rules. This is the tyranny of policy over the possibilities of purpose.

HR professionals often justify such policies and rules citing the legitimate need to defend the organization against internal threats (HR speak for mal-intended people bent on harming the organization). But HR itself is the victim of policies and rules, ones that force/reinforce HR’s own role in hiring these people in the first place.

Rethinking Policies and Rules

Setting the stage for strong conversations does not require the organization to give up policies and rules, but it does require them to have policies and rules that emerge from purpose. So the policies on tardiness give way to policies on purpose and service, and people’s chosen ownership of service principles, and their chosen accountability to colleagues and customers.

It also requires them to give up policies that are intrinsically disengaging and which also force weak conversations. If the organization offers undifferentiated PTO days (a block of days for illness, vacation, etc.) as a benefit but then requires punishment for calling in sick without sufficient notice, replace that with a strong conversation on how the organization ought to understand staffing in terms of the normal frequency of illness in a population of people. Or, ask HR not to hire people who get sick on short notice.

Finally, replacing weak conversations with strong ones is a change that emerges from the inner work of leaders. Otto Scharmer writes in Theory U that there is a large body of literature on what leaders do and a large body of literature on how they do it, but very little that speaks to the question, “What sources are leaders actually operating from?” Bill O’Brien, the late CEO at Hanover Insurance, described this as the “interior condition” of leadership, the inner place from which our actions originate. Such is the deep origin of strong conversations.


Weak conversations driven by policies and rules and which dominate organizational communication are anchors that set themselves deeper the harder one pulls on the chain. Strong conversations based on powerful questions around purpose, people, and service help reset the organizational brain, making it open and receptive to making ownership and accountability a matter of choice while diminishing the belief that authority and mandate are required to move the organization forward.

Bill is a consultant, executive coach, author and professor. He knows how to leverage theory into practical application and how to coach leaders through change.  Bill’s LinkedIn profile is here, his blog is here and his website is here.

If you reach out to Bill be sure to ask him the most pressing question of your purpose – and if you don’t know what that is, Bill can help you figure it out.

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