Good conversation, bad conversation

I have worked as a consultant to many  organisations, and on starting a consultancy one of the things that I play close attention to is the way that people are talking about what they are doing. I ask myself what sort of conversation I am I being invited to participate in. I do this because I believe that what people say gives me a good indication about how they might be thinking about what they are doing. For me talking thinking and doing are three aspects of the same activity – thought shapes language and action, which in turn affects further talking and thinking. This doesn’t mean to say that the way people are talking and thinking about what they are doing is necessarily explicit to them. In fact, people are often completely and unreflectively absorbed in their conversations.

In the majority of organisations where I am invited to work, there is a predisposition towards action. Talk is deemed a ‘luxury’; people profess themselves happier with ‘delivery’, and if I am asked to plan a workshop or group activity I am often enjoined not to let it turn into a ‘talking shop’. In different settings I have noticed the anxiety grow in the group as soon as we start that the event will indeed produce some ‘concrete outcomes’, although it is often unclear exactly what outcomes people have in mind and how they will know if they are concrete. High levels of anxiety will indeed begin to cut across the talk and close it down, particularly if the way people begin to talk sounds as though it might be critical of the current order of things. To overdraw what I am saying, sometimes there can be a cult of positivity in a group where only positive talk is allowed. If things aren’t as we would like them then they soon will be, and rather than ‘carping’ we should tend towards an idealised future, the vision.

I am not meaning to suggest that high levels or anxiety are deliberately generated, or that there is a conscious attempt on the part of managers to close down dissent or criticism. What I would say, however, is that in some organisations there is what I would call a heroic narrative about what the organisation is doing. A heroic narrative arises when people in an organisation strongly cleave to the idea that the future is predictable and the particular future the organisation has chosen is achievable if only people are committed enough, and that ‘performance’ can improve relentlessly year on year. If it appears that some people are suggesting they have doubts then it can provoke a very strong counter-reaction, not just from managers. Those who raise criticisms themselves risk criticism.

One way of understanding the tendency to over-plan organisational events, and to try and constrain opportunities for ‘just talking’ is as at least a tacit admission of the potential for talk to disrupt the status quo. In a way then, people who are anxious in such situations are actually quite wise: talk can be fantastically identity-threatening and can pose a challenge to existing power relations by calling the current orthodoxies into question. Much safer then to focus on outcomes, targets and ‘deliverables’, the neutral and professional-sounding language of business. Quite often professional facilitators and consultants are asked to collude with this way of proceeding. A good facilitator is someone who moves the day along smartly with games and activities so that everyone is productively occupied. At the end of the day s/he will distribute what are known in the trade as ‘happy sheets’, questionnaires which purport to show how satisfied people are with the day. Low scores, perhaps denoting the people have been confused, made uncomfortable or perhaps challenged, are thought to reflect badly on the facilitator. People just haven’t been made happy enough.

A second minority and opposite tendency in organisations is to think that talking can only be a good thing. There have been a number of popular books written during the last decade suggesting that when people are encouraged to have ‘good conversations’, then good and transformational things will happen. This sometimes leads on to the idea that if we could discover the principles of what makes for a ‘good conversation’ then we could be more certain of having the kind of positive transformation that we are looking for and encourage openness and transparency. Again to overdraw the claims for ‘good conversation’, it is sometimes suggested that conversation is the best way of setting aside or accounting for power relationships.

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time encouraging staff in organisations to talk and reflect more, I am broadly sympathetic to the idea that conversation can be transformational. However, I am much more sceptical that it can necessarily be turned towards ‘good’ transformation, whatever we might mean by that (and it often only means transformation that I or my group think is good). One of the interesting things about conversation, about talk, is that it can develop spontaneously and unpredictably between people. Although it is impossible for conversation to develop just anyhow, since we will, to a greater or lesser degree observe politeness, turn-taking and often tacitly, power relations, it can take uncertain twists and turns and call out strong emotions as I alluded to above.

What I would question about the second tendency to treat conversations is that it falls into a similar trap to the first. Instead of instinctively acknowledging that we don’t know where talk might lead so it must be controlled, the second tendency suggests instead that we can ‘harness’ the radical unpredictability of talk for ends that we do want, perhaps ends that we might all aspire to such as greater justice and equality between people. Who could possibly be against that?

Earlier I mentioned that we are often not aware of the way we are talking and thinking even as we go about describing world we think we inhabit. All we think we are doing is describing the world as it really is. The way we talk about what we are doing makes it feel normal to us and we mostly feel comfortable in the world that we create. At the same time as we talk the world into existence with others we are created in the process – we become who we are in conversation with others. This is the way ideology works: it’s a way of talking about the world as if it were the only way of talking about it and making it seem very normal. It creates the groups to which we feel we belong. I am not trying to say that ideology is somehow a bad thing, rather I am saying that we are all ideological in the way we create the world with others.

Both ways of understanding talk described above are two different manifestations of ideology and both try to instrumentalise talk, that is to say, use it as a tool to achieve an end. In the first case, talk is implicitly understood as potentially dangerous and needs to be steered towards the positive. People should be made happy, safe and comfortable – one way of understanding this is that it also maintains existing power relations. In the second case talk is explicitly understood as potentially transformational, but we might be able to harness this potential towards ends, perhaps even moral ends, which we have identified in advance. Here talk is represented as emancipatory through allowing greater ‘openness and transparency’.

In my view talking, and, further, reflection on how we are talking, carries with it the potential to make more explicit to us how we are thinking and how this in turn affects action. By noticing how we are talking we create the potential for talking differently. By asking ourselves why things are the way they are we are calling into question power relationships. How are we creating the world in which we are participating, and how is it creating us and our partners? What do we mean by what we say? In talking the way we are talking, how are we including some, and excluding others? How is my self sustained and potentially changed in the encounter with other selves?

However it is important to acknowledge the radical uncertainty of this kind of reflective talk, its potential for both creation and destruction. There is nothing inherently ‘good’ about conversation – in talking, and talking about how we are talking, we are taking a risk and ethically we must live with the consequences. If we begin to question, we must continue to question further. There is no end point, no ‘deliverable’. Trying to probe who we are and what we are becoming may make us quite uncomfortable.







One thought on “Good conversation, bad conversation

  1. Joitske Hulsebosch

    Thanks Chris, good post. I find that as a consultant you have to move with the predominant ways of talking/thinking, you can’t oppose it completely. The difficulty is that you sometimes discover it only afterwards… There are a lot of differences even amongst development organisations.


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