Can Conversational Leadership Shift an Entire System?

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Can Conversational Leadership Shift an Entire System?
By: Donita Volkwijn, Senior Director, Member Engagement, Philanthropy New York

Have you ever had a conversation with someone you don’t respect?  Or maybe one with someone who doesn’t respect you?

Like most of you, I have experienced both scenarios and have walked away from them feeling anything from frustration to anger, sometimes with myself, but more often with the other person.  In a world reeling from the duel crises of global health and racial inequity, the stakes around creating connection and community have led me to think that instead of walking away, I should explore and change the experience.  With many organizations rethinking the way they do business, I wonder if we might not have a golden opportunity to examine and improve on these interactions on a larger scale.

An Introduction to Conversational Leadership

In my last post, I mentioned Conversational Leadership as a means by which a trusting environment could be created. I’ll add that when I was introduced to the concept of Conversational Leadership I recognized that this relatively new discipline has the potential to reframe the ways that we think about difficult conversations.

Conversational Leadership, as I know it, is the brainchild of David Gurteen and John Hovell, two well-known names in the knowledge management world. Similar to knowledge management, there isn’t one specific definition that encapsulates what Conversational Leadership is, so I’ll use one from David: Conversational Leadership is appreciating the transformative power of conversation, practicing leadership, and adopting a conversational approach to the way we work together in a complex world.

But how does that work in the real world? If you’ve been in conversation with people whom you don’t respect and/or who don’t respect you, take a moment to consider how those conversations differ from those in which mutual respect is given. How willing were you to listen to the other person’s point of view? How easy was it for you to share your point of view? Most importantly, how do you leave the conversation? Were you happy, or frustrated and annoyed? Were you more or less likely to follow up on tasks that were discussed during the conversation? How willing are you to have another conversation with that person?

All of these questions and emotions are difficult on their own, but when you add another component to the equation, race, for example, the situation becomes that much more fraught. Particularly in the United States, conversations around race have become so polarizing that many choose not to speak about it at all, instead going with a common refrain: “Oh, not this again!”  “Why can’t I just do my work?” “America is not a racist country!” “Why does it matter?”

It matters because if you accept that our workplaces are built on fundamentally racist structures (the research is there, the books have been written, and the documentaries have been made), it brings into stark relief, the many obstacles that lie ahead, which can only be navigated if we work together. But without the necessary conversations that build the cornerstones of trust and respect, true collaboration remains nothing but an unfulfilled dream.

Following the initial push to “get back to normal”, for example, the idea started to percolate that the “normal” we were so eager to reestablish wasn’t all that great. Some who had the space and privilege to do so found that working remotely was easier to navigate on many different levels, and for people of color, it wasn’t that it was just more comfortable, it was simply safer. The micro-and macroaggressions faced by the BIPOC community before, during, and after work, were a lot easier to negotiate when we could decide when and for what purpose we had to leave our homes.  Not only that, but if we were experiencing inequity in the workplace, it was easier to recover when we were in a community that could support us through difficult situations.

But when leaders were considering the next steps in bringing employees back to the office, the voices of those most affected by those decisions were often not included in the conversation. Or, if they were, their feedback was dismissed because the trust and respect necessary to hear what was being said simply didn’t exist.  Instead of hearing, “when I don’t have to take time to process a racist interaction on the way to work, I am able to use my time more productively” what was heard was, “I want to take advantage of the company by finding ways to game the system.”

The amount of time and money that was spent on finding ways to monitor how employees spent their time when not directly under the watchful eye of a supervisor is staggering. What could have happened instead, if that same amount of time and money was spent on facilitating conversations around creating equitable solutions that fostered trust and respect?

The Shift

Can conversational leadership, then, change an entire system? Expecting the system to change itself is folly. Those who benefit from it are rarely able to recognize inequity because, for them, the system works to place them in positions of power. And power relinquishes power rarely and grudgingly.

Conversational Leadership (CL) is about creating conversations that benefit the self and community. It’s about creating respect for yourself so that you can offer it to others. It’s about recognizing the need for the conversation that’s not taking place and leveraging yourself and the CL tools to make sure it does. Conversational Leadership is knowing when to stay quiet and when to intervene. CL is about knowing yourself well enough that you can work past your discomfort if it means finding a better path forward.

Since practicing Conversational Leadership, I have noticed a shift in how I converse and lead. I do both now with more honesty, more vulnerability, and the goal of building trust. It’s not easy. Leading with honesty and vulnerability comes with the price tag of being honest and vulnerable with yourself first. Confronting your own shortcomings is never pleasant, but they have to be faced, especially when it comes to talking about race.  When people feel backed into a corner, which, let’s be honest, happens a lot with racial issues, one of the first lines of defense is to use the other person’s weakness against them. If you’ve already faced the challenging parts of yourself, that perceived weakness becomes, instead, a source of strength and a bridge to the other person.

Three years ago, I started co-facilitating Conversational Leadership workshops with John and David as well as the wonderful Saule Menane and in the CL work we do together, we’ve all been thrown out of our comfort zones. We’ve had some thorny conversations about power and inequity.  We’re still grappling with race and how it shows up in the workplace and even in our little community.  But because of the respect we hold for each other, we listen, we learn, and we are delighted to be in conversation with each other. Conversations outside of our group have also changed because once you’ve experienced the kind of connection that CL can bring about, you strive to replicate it at every opportunity. Imagine if we could say that about every meeting, gathering, or conference in which we find ourselves. That’s how CL can transform an entire system. By building relationships that are filled with so much trust, connection, and respect we can’t help but be in conversation with each other.

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