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Insight 5:  It’s about the quality of conversation: It is good to force out arguments, ambiguity and conflict

This insight is part is a series of six insights into strategy, people and performance, derived from working with my clients in 2013.

When working on strategy with clients, for years now, I have focused their attention on the quality of their conversation.  Several times this year I explicitly told Board members or an executive team that I was helping them to have an argument and expose conflicts.

Every time I work with clients they tell me that it is helping them sort out the conversations that, really, they should already be having.   Why aren’t they.  Because conflict and arguement get supressed,  and because some people don’t know how to get that conflict onto the table safely, so it can be explored.

Some examples of improving the quality of conversation

For one client this year, there was ambiguity over the word innovation.  So I placed all the definitions they had come up with in a single place and asked them to have an argument about them.  I wanted them to debate and get clear amongst themselves what they meant by the word.

Another client was struggling with the role of its values and underlying purpose.  In part this was about how it was being described, how it was being communicated and how it was being interpreted.  In this case, after a long debate, old material was brought out that very simply placed their underlying beliefs alongside their organisational values in a way that all could relate to.   Now it was a case of explaining those values and helping people relate to them in their own way.

A third was having clashes over contracts with their customer.  In this case the contract was so badly conceived that both executive teams agreed it was undeliverable.  However other parties in the customer did not believe so.   Only through a tough, honest and persistent discussions between my client and their customers, are they able to sort out the situation.  As I said at the time, “you have to call it, as it is, otherwise it will never get solved!”

Don’t supress conflict amongst the management team

One thing that surprises me is how much conflict is suppressed, the effect of which is to build up problems.  Mature teams are open and willing to confront and discuss differences openly.  If someone disagrees with an issue, they have an open conversation about it, putting their different perspectives on the table, listening to one another and exploring what each believes that leads them to that conclusion.

In contrast, teams that suppress arguments or step around issues, leave them to fester and get worse.  They break up the team by building resentment, distrust and stopping further conversation.

It is about the quality of conversation amongst the management team

There is no substitute for good appreciative listening and some gentle enquiry and exploration to open up understanding: The worse that can happen is that people can choose to disagree, but at least they are doing it openly and explicitly, with an understanding of why.

For me there is no substitute for quality of conversation, discussion and thinking in a team.