Ideas and Insights

The case for powerful conversations



As you will understand from Tim Dalmau’s brief video introduction, relationships are essential to conversations and powerful conversations are essential to engender alignment, commitment, ownership, productivity and creativity. In our consulting practices, we view ourselves as being companions and guides to leaders in designing and convening  powerful conversations at the individual, team and organizational level.


In setting the broad context for the importance of conversation, I want to answer the most frequent refrain I hear in almost every organization or training program:


“How do you deal with a culture that doesn’t value the time needed for conversation”?


My answer is simple.  Disregard the importance of conversation at your own peril. Just look at the results of organizations that operate from the perspective that conversations are too time consuming or a luxury and compare them to the results of those organizations that operate with conversations as a central pillar of their culture and strategy.


We can look to many sources of research that make the case. I would start with the work reported on in Built to Last by Collins and Porras. This seminal book identified the core practices of companies that truly model sustainability – those that have been successful for over 50 years (now 70 years plus). These were compared to similar companies that were not identified as visionary companies.


Collins and Porras identified 10 core principles that distinguished the visionary companies from their comparison companies. One of these 10 principles speaks directly to the importance of powerful conversations – Cult-Like Cultures. In addition, when you study these visionary companies in depth – companies like GE, you realize that communication and conversation are central to their ways of being and operating.


Powerful conversation at all levels of an organization creates sustained results. It is that simple.


Over the next many months we intend to explore several areas in depth. Some of these topics include:

  • Leaders as conversationalists.
  • When does a leader need to convene a conversation versus just make the decision?
  • What types of conversations can occur and what are the unique benefits of each type?
  • What processes can be used to assure powerful conversations?
  • What are the essential skills needed to convene and facilitate powerful conversations?
  • What are the prerequisites for powerful conversations?
  • How can we have the difficult conversations about inequities and race?
  • Three ways to establish an authentic conversation.


Rummler and Brache put succinctly: “Dialogue, which strives to build understanding among group members, takes time. Everything else takes more time.”


Steve Zuieback



The importance of providing context and opportunity to interact


The importance of providing context and an opportunity to interact cannot be under-estimated if you are to build understanding and will to act amongst the people you lead.


So many leaders seem to think that if they have told or shown information then it should lead to aligned action. They then are dismayed when this does not happen.  “I told them, I sent them emails, I even put it in a power point presentation for them, but they dont seem to get it. They still do their own thing!”


At the heart of this sort of thinking is a failure to understand what it actually takes when you communicate with others to ensure they are prepared to go the next step and work together in an aligned manner to the goal set.


As the diagram illustrates

  1. Raw data is just that  – data – and alone it has little meaning, and no power to stimulate action.
  2. If this data is presented (coded) in a report, email, diagram or some other form it becomes information. But this, will not guarantee action, and this is the point at which many become bewildered.
  3. It is not until context is provided for the information that we get understanding. Information in context generates understanding.
  4. If people have the opportunity to interact with the information they have been given, through talk and conversation, testing and shaping their understanding, then this leads to appreciation of the issue. This appreciation has two components, a cognitive element and a kinesthetic element; put simply, head and gut. You see this so often when someone says “Now I get it” and you notice them sigh or move at the same time in some way.
  5. With an appreciation of the issue combined with a clear understanding of the gap between the current state and desired future state (where we are versus where we need to be) then aligned action results.


Only when you have got to Step 5 can you have confidence that the communication process has been effective. Perhaps a better word might be engagement.


Communicating with someone is not a matter only of providing information. It is really about taking the time to set the context, allow the others to test and interact with the information and one another, and set it against a clear picture of the difference between the current and desired future states.


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