Under the Wire (Revisited)
"A friend of mine once described dialogue as a state out of which we are continually falling." (Bill Isaacs)
My 'corporate' conversations, whether in change consultancy or academia, can often feel like they have fallen a long way from meaningful dialogue.
This week, a bid for an executive education project, which would also work as a cultural change intervention, demanded a high quality meeting of minds but it felt like we would never get close.
We were in pitch mode... which means I am in a suit and tie. It's approaching 30 degrees in London and I'm already thinking that a cultural change into shorts and a T-shirt would be helpful. I'm fighting back the scratchiness, telling myself that 'I don't do pitches' and evoking the 'Under the Wire' selfie of the early days of my doctoral work in creativity.
My selfie was a response to the question, "What does it feel like when you are doing your best work?" Back then, the best I could manage was a picture of a mud daubed organisational fighter, trying to do good work 'under the wire.'
In the intervening years, I've become more confident, sure of my craft, and hold better boundaries around what is an appropriate relationship for often demanding transformational work. But space and time for good conversation can be severely constricted. In the pitch meeting, we were invited to respond to a 'need' detected by HR partners, translated by the L&D team, using documentation prepared by the commercial team and channeled through 'relationship managers'.
Yet the real conversation that I needed with the client was simple, much more direct.
It starts when we look each other in the eye and the client says:
"We seem to be struggling. We don't really know why. Can you help us?"
Those opening words demand significant authenticity and vulnerability.
My response requires similar authenticity and vulnerability.
It goes like this:
"We're not sure. We don't really know either. But we will try our best to help you learn your way through this... "
A real conversation doesn't need Powerpoint and it doesn't need a 'pitch'. It doesn't require confrontation, or guarded, oblique questions and tick sheets. Status gestures like expensive suits are unnecessary.
But it does require us to wash away our masks and fall back into dialogue.
I'm not sure that Bill Isaacs' 'Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together' has been beaten as an introduction to the structure of helpful conversations.
Similarly, I still see folk referring back to the 'contracting' section of Peter Block's 'Flawless Consulting.'
And don't worry about the selfie... that stuff washed away. Eventually...