(An Excerpt from my recent book, What Matters at Work)

“We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.” — Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry (2014)

We constantly communicate, but do we truly understand one another? Much conflict occurs because of misunderstanding, and as we engage in hurried, often remote communication strategies, we tend to hear only part of the situation. We then affiliate with those we perceive to be similar to us and “on our side” of the work issue, or become further entrenched in the social or political divide. This is not a recent phenomenon, as there is often a deep suspicion of Other that expresses itself across cultures and centuries (this is further discussed in Lesson 18 on Diversity and Inclusion).

Today’s workplace requires us to pay attention, communicate effectively, and work collaboratively to address complex issues. Yet because we are overwhelmed with information and have difficulty discerning where to focus our attention, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae and lose What Matters. We need to listen… deeply… and we need to be fully Present to the Core Story, Values, and Intentions that should be guiding our efforts and those of our colleagues.

Management guru Edgar Schein offers an important set of insights in this regard: Through his books, Humble Inquiry (2014)  and Humble Consulting (2016), Schein recognizes that those with the privilege of position and power often miss what needs to be learned from their colleagues, due either to perceptions of ‘normal behavior’ or arrogance. He argues that many errors in judgment and decision-making could be avoided with a fundamental shift in attitudes by such leaders, accompanied by a commitment to fully listen to one another. He calls it, “humble inquiry.” I see it as a combination of humility, curiosity, and openness to diverse (and divergent) perspectives in our pursuit of What Matters.

Listening fully must be accompanied by a commitment to really learn from one another through our conversations. All too often, consultants, technical experts, and those in leadership roles are expected to have the answers. Yet much of the knowledge required comes from others, across the organization, perhaps with unassuming titles. This takes a little more time in the near term, but in the long run it yields vast dividends of insight, understanding, and focused action in pursuit of the right solutions to correct problems.

We focus here on the simple act of listening, which encourages authentic communication around meaningful issues. Through such conversations, relationships are built and insights into our Core Stories are developed, all benefitting from a genuine sense of curiosity and openness.

Exercise: Listen with Humility and Curiosity

WHO: Solo/ Pair

WHY: To have a meaningful conversation, characterized by deep listening, humility, openness, and curiosity, in order to foster effective mutual understanding. From resulting insights, participants may best determine what actions, if any, are required.

HOW: You will need a Partner for this activity… perhaps someone already involved in your efforts at What Matters at Work… or it could be a colleague you don’t know as well.
Step 1: Be seated comfortably so you can easily see and hear your Partner. Take a deep breath, relax, and focus on your Partner in this conversation. Regard the other person with warmth and respect.
Step 2: Take a listening stance, with an open body, removing distractions. Invite your Partner to speak openly and honestly about a matter of personal importance to them, including how their experience has led to this perspective. Listen fully: As you do so, encourage, clarify, summarize, validate – demonstrate your humble curiosity without judgment. Allow sufficient time, at least five minutes.
Step 3: Take a minute to inquire, “How might I be able to assist you?” The response from your Partner may be to simply be present and listen, or to ask your advice and guidance… that need comes from your Partner. If invited to do so, offer your guidance clearly, empathically, and concisely… speak from what you know, rather than to speculate or be judgmental. The Intention is for you to convey your full commitment to understanding your Partner’s experience and truth, and to support your Partner’s efforts to clarify What Matters as it emerges.
Step 4: In turn, share your perspective on something that matters to you, perhaps from your Core Story. If your Partner can reciprocate your behaviors, you will both be able to benefit from such a conversation.
Step 5: After the conversation ends, take a moment to reflect:

  • What did you appreciate about this conversation? 
  • How might it have been improved? 
  • How might such conversations benefit us in our workplace? 
  • Are there opportunities to have them, or are there chances to create such opportunities? 

I have appreciated Edgar Schein’s contributions and feel he has a wonderful way of relating these concepts to traditional business settings. In my next Post, I want to focus on his most recent book, Humble Leadership (2018), where he directly applies these approaches to listening with humility to the ways leaders should approach their responsibilities. 


Structuring Transformative Conversations

(An excerpt from my new book, What Matters at Work)

Over many years, Peter Block has offered us numerous tools, stories, and pathways to discover What Matters at Work. Among his books is one especially useful at this juncture in our learning: Community: The Structure of Belonging (2009, revised 2018) offers personal insights from Block’s experiences in Cincinnati, as well as a conceptual model that helps us understand crucial distinctions in approaches to groups and community-building. Earlier, we quoted Block’s ideas regarding the role of physical space in building community (Lesson 11). For now, I offer the “Six Conversations” that Block identifies for groups to explore if they seek meaningful change in their organizations or communities: 

Invitation: This is the First Conversation. Invitation is required to capture potential participants’ attention in the midst of busy, distracted lives, the “subject line” that engages our interest. It is the foundation of hospitality from which other conversations are possible. 

Possibility: This is an aspirational conversation, one that challenges us to engage our imaginations to contemplate the unreachable. For example, “If we were to build an organization that fully expresses our values, what would that look like, sound like, feel like?”

Ownership: This is a conversation about personal accountability and “skin in the game.” “What are you prepared to contribute in order to fulfill our Possibility?”

Dissent: Building community requires more than being nice with one another. It involves speaking truthfully and hearing honest areas of difference and dissent. This conversation embraces dissent as an essential stepping stone in that process. “What are areas of concern and disagreement? What might be alternative approaches that have not been fully considered?”

Commitment: This conversation asks us how we wish to translate our Ownership into action… “What are you prepared to do in order to demonstrate your commitment to the project? How are you prepared to respond to obstacles and challenges along the way that sap your energy and question your resolve?”

Gifts: This is a conversation in which we take stock of our assets, acknowledge what we bring individually and collectively to the enterprise, and consider any “strings” that may be attached to engaging any of those assets. It also helps us notice gaps or areas where other gifts may be required. “What gifts, strengths, talents, or assets do we each bring to this effort? Collectively, what does this say about our capacity to achieve our Possibility?” 

In practice, each of these conversations can be sequenced in order to facilitate an effective result. For example, if I have a troubled group that has lost energy and momentum, I may follow this approach: 

  • Offer a compelling Invitation that names the importance of the issue and invites everyone to discuss it openly and honestly. Then,
  • Facilitate an Ownership conversation that explores what levels of energy and commitment truly exist, without judgment, for continuing to engage in the work of the group. 
  • The group should take stock of its assets and Gifts, so we could appreciate the capacities of its members. From there, we could… 
  • Examine the Possibility and promise offered by this group, transcending the energy-draining nature of the current state of the group. 
  • I’d also want to be sure Dissenting opinions were explored and respected, before seeking a Commitment regarding future actions. 

This sequence makes sense to me in light of my own experience with such groups… you might find another pathway nourishes the conversation and helps the group determine its future.36

Several years ago, I convened a ten-week study group that sprang from this excellent text – that could be a great bonus activity for this lesson!  undefined

Exercise: Six Conversations           

WHO: Group       

WHY: To explore the potential value of the various types of conversations described, and how each is a valuable approach in learning What Matters.


Step 1: Bring these questions to a meeting of a group in which you are exploring meaningful change to a project, considering a proposed innovation, or addressing a community matter. 

Step 2: Offer these questions as a way to structure the group’s inquiry; engage in whichever of the “Six Conversations” appear to be relevant to the group at this time.

Step 3: After the meeting: 

  • What did you notice about these questions? 
  • How did each make a unique contribution to the discussion? 
  • As a result, how would you now describe the group in terms of its efforts to get to What Matters in their context?

What Matters at Work — Book is Out!

After two years of work, I’m so pleased the book, What Matters at Work is now available! It has been a wonderful process of writing, feedback, improvement, and (ultimately) publication that I hope will resonate with many people across a vast swath of organization life. There is already one 3-session course based upon this work, and it pleases me to now have this text to support it. Workshops and consultations will be developed over the coming weeks and months that allow for “deep dives” into the material — in many ways, simply putting these ideas out there will be most informative regarding where there is need and priority.

If you can, pick up a copy! Read it, work on the exercises, and provide feedback regarding what more is needed. Here’s the Amazon link – I hope you like it…


Why It Matters

My intention in writing this material has been to offer ways we can work together that promote the best instincts within and among us: We are naturally curious and creative beings, inspired by beauty and connected through caring, compassion, and respect. We have constructed organizations that often tend to stymie such instincts, built out of a narrative of Fear that suggests we must control others in order to protect those things that are most important to us… whether that is status, power, economic opportunity that we “deserve,” or actually protecting our lives, this Fear is the dominant force behind the absurd levels of security built into our social, political, and economic cultures. We cannot eliminate Fear, nor should we ignore it: Indeed, protection is a core instinct for survival and it is important to our ultimate success. But to be controlled by it, rather than to channel it constructively in service of higher aspirations, is a way of thinking that must be left behind in many of our institutions. And in business and the world of work, it is now a critical juncture where the imperative can have significant ramifications for other segments of our lives. The workplace I seek is one where we use our best intentions to organize ourselves to work collaboratively, respecting independence and personal priorities while aligning our resources towards a renewed understanding of common good. This workplace facilitates meaningful communication across departments and projects, as well as up and down necessary hierarchies (though far fewer are necessary than are currently perceived). This workplace is nimble, creative, and ultimately productive with innovations emerging in ways that dwarf our current processes. There are errors, to be sure, but there is also a cultural attitude that welcomes such missteps as opportunities to learn, improve, grow, and ultimately succeed in service to our mission, consistent with our values. In short, everything is organized to notice What Matters, and our energies are devoted to making those things happen.

World Café Method: An Important Approach to Collaborative Problem Solving

Another aspect of collaboration is the ability of organizations to foster communication among diverse sets of stakeholders. This could be needed because of typical bureaucratic relationships that prevent cross-company communication, or it may be required because the “usual suspects” can benefit from engaging new sets of eyes upon a given problem. World Café Method is an excellent approach in such situations. World Café was first developed by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in 1995 (see Brown and Isaacs, 2005, 2016) and it has been applied to thousands of challenges throughout the world. The “seven core principles” are worth reviewing and are important foundations for any efforts in this area. World Café is especially beneficial if you seek to bring together diverse perspectives in a creative, collaborative, low-risk environment, and it is great if this is an otherwise highly charged issue. Basic steps (which can be varied and adapted) include:

Step 1: Randomly assign participants to tables of 5-8 members. Pose an initial question that is within the knowledge of all participants. Assign or have the group identify a Host to facilitate the discussion. Seek lots of ideas and generative energy (see other approaches to problem solving). Use flip charts, either standing or as the “table cloths,” to record ideas. For example: “Brainstorm possible topics our group might discuss in the coming year, issues that are important to address and which would engage many of our members.”

Step 2: The Host remains at the table. Other group members then seek new tables, reassigning themselves so no more than two members of the previous groups now arrive at their new tables. The Hosts all welcome new members, reviewing the results of the previous round of discussion. New members are then encouraged to briefly share any salient points from the prior round that helps inform and improve thinking at this table (this serves as a functional “report out” of the previous round). This group then moves on to address a second question related to deepening understanding of the problem. For example: “Review the list generated by the first group, then add any other ideas that the new members feel are worth bringing from their prior discussion. Then identify 2-3 of the “best ideas worth developing” that excite the group.

Step 3: Repeat Step 2, moving on to new groups… Hosts always remain at their original tables to welcome new participants and guide the discussion. Post final ideas from the group on the walls of the room so they can be easily viewed in the next step of the process. For example: “Take one of the ideas previously identified. Develop this idea more fully, so others would understand what it is, why it matters, and how it might be implemented within our organization.”

Step 4: This variation on World Café is one I have used many times with great success… it’s called a Gallery Walk: Invite all participants to silently walk around the room, viewing the results of the previous efforts. After a few minutes, invite all to share what they noticed from the results of the their deliberations (you can use ORID as a way to guide discussion), then determine next steps that align with the role of those assembled and the issue at hand. For example: Participants quietly walk around the room, noticing all of the “top issues” that have emerged. After 5-10m, invite them to stand in place (or return to final tables) and call out, “What did you notice? How did you feel about it? What are some qualities of the ideas that are emerging, and why do those matter to you and the group? What might we do next with the ideas that have been offered?

It often follows that the Hosts then follow-up with conveners to form ad hoc planning committees to further prioritize ideas that have emerged from a World Café Process. In that way, ownership is broadened beyond the “planning committee” that may have been in place before the event, and this energy translates into a powerful force for action and follow-up that many organizations tend to lack. I’ve utilized variants of World Café in many contexts.

One favorite experience involved about 350 finance experts, meeting to sort out areas of improvement in 35 topics related to accounting and other financial reporting. Through WC, they were able to collaboratively and creatively develop dozens of improvements, then use a Gallery Walk to observe and comment (with sticky notes) on relationships among ideas generated. All results were then transparently shared and a planning committee implemented many of the ideas over the next two years. It is still reflected upon, several years later, as a major breakthrough in how this organization addresses financial issues.

I love teaching World Café to others simply by doing it, then later providing the name of the process and the theory. As noted elsewhere, Kolb Learning Theory informs much of how I work with adult learners, as engagement leads to reflection, curiosity, and application to real challenges learners are facing in their workplaces.