Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Why conversations matter


In recent years ideas such as ”work is communication” and “organisations change by changing the conversations” have become more and more popular. These ideas have been highlighted for instance by academic and pragmatic trends such as the Communication as Constitutive of Organisations (CCO) and Dialogic Organisation Development.

So why is focusing on conversations actually quite important?

When someone asks ”how was your day at work”, quite often we tell about the various conversations we had during the day. We had a good chat with our boss, we had a great meeting with our customer, or we finally had that courageous conversation with a colleague to clear out previous misunderstandings. 

Our experience (and dare I say engagement) at work is very much dependent on the quality of conversations we have during our day.

This is the key to understand organisational cultures as well. We can think that an organisational culture is a mix of conversations and interactions of people. Conversations are the places where we make sense of what the organisation is about, and by doing that we create further assumptions and beliefs about the organisation. When we participate in the various conversations, we create specific meanings and understandings of how I/we are being treated and how I/we fit in to the organisation. By telling stories of our lived experience we start to form patterns of behaviours that characterise the organisation.

Maybe more importantly, however, is the notion that our relationships and identities are formed and shaped in communication through the various conversations we engage with throughout our lives. Some communication scholars would say that relationship = conversation. We establish and steer the course of our relationships from the first ”hello” to the deeper exchanges of our values, worldviews, and what it means to be in relation to one another.

There have also been some interesting findings within the discipline called interpersonal neuroscience. In his book Mindsight, Dr. Daniel Siegel explores the interconnectedness of the brain, mind and relationship, and points out that we come to know our minds through the interactions with others. The neural connections in our brains are shaped by the human connections we have. This means we can also learn to re-wire our brains through the mindful changes we make in our relationships = our conversations.

Our relationships further shape us and give the colours to our personalities. To truly understand who Eerika Hedman is, you have to understand all the interactions, relationships and experiences I have had until this present time. The stories we tell and choose not to tell about those interactions will define our sense of who we are as human beings. 

We are the story we tell ourselves. 

However, the stories others tell about us and the way they perceive us will influence and sometimes radically change our own story. We are the authors, artists and directors of our lives but at the same time it is affected and co-created together with others. In that sense, our personality and behaviour are always also a reflection and an outcome of the social system we are involved with. A customer servant might not be impolite because he or she is an impolite person, but because he or she is performing the patterns and logics of the organisational culture.   

Conversations can shape the course of our lives, and some conversations therefore can echo in our ears years later. We remember the first ”I love you” that deepened the relationship with our significant other. We remember the nasty comment made by our colleague which shook our self-confidence. We remember the encouraging words of our parents that helped us pursue our dreams. Sometimes, a single word can be a huge turning point for someone.

All the time we leave marks in each other’s stories, and those marks can boost our potential and expand our stories of ourselves. Or in the worst case, they can create limitations for our actions and invite the undesired ways of behaving.

So the next time you think you are ”just” having a chat or a conversation with someone, think again.

If you want to change your experience, start with the stories you are telling and not telling about it:

  • Which people and relationships are filling your day at work (or your life)? 
  • When you think of all of the people and relationships, who or which make you feel happy? Which relationshipa make you feel anxious or uncomfortable?  
  • How do you create and maintain the feeling of happiness/anxiousness in those relationships? What happens in your conversations? 
  • If you were to change the experience of that relationship, what conversation needs to take place? How do you articulate the hopes for and the outcomes of that conversation?
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Further reading:
Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (2015). Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change.
Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness.



This post was first posted at www.humap.com and re-posted in LinkedIn.


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