Having High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations
Let’s set the stage for this very important chapter. This chapter is the ultimate. It’s what we have been working toward since the prologue, and it assumes a number of things:
■That you’ve made the decision to stay relevant in the digital age by becoming a Hyper-Learner and adopting a New Way of Being (your Best Self)
■That you understand that to become your Best Self in order to Hyper-Learn you must develop Inner Peace, adopt a Hyper-Learning Mindset, and embrace Hyper-Learning Behaviors, and that you’ve completed the relevant workshops (i.e., you’ve created your Daily Intentions, identified the principles of your Hyper-Learning Mindset, and determined the Hyper-Learning Behaviors you need to add or improve)
■That you understand the importance of Caring, Trusting Teams and the New Way of Working necessary for Hyper-Learning; you have begun the process of behaving in ways that embody a New Way of Being and a New Way of Working; and you have created your personal Caring, Trusting Team Behaviors Checklist and your Team Rules for Collaborative Engagement.
This chapter is about having High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations—a special kind of conversation that, as you will learn in this chapter, facilitates Hyper-Learning by making possible “wow” thinking, emergent thinking, sense-making, and collective flow.
To enable such a conversation requires people to leave their egos and fears at the door, tolerate uncertainty, and not only trust others but trust themselves—more liberated, peaceful versions of themselves that are more receptive to and comfortable with exploring novelty, differences, and even the unknown.
It is a self that can overcome the ingrained human tendencies toward seeking confirmation of past learning, maintaining cohesiveness of one’s mental models, and reflexively defending one’s views.
What is a conversation? How do you define it?
Please write down your definition of a conversation in your Learning Journal.
THE COMMON PURPOSE OF CONVERSATIONS
I believe there is a fundamental, common purpose to having conversations. We human beings evolved and became the dominant species (so far as we know) because we became social animals. We learned to cooperate and work together to survive by hunting and gathering food safely.
It is through conversations that we continue to meet our innate needs for social connection and belonging to a group or team.
We all want to be heard and understood by others.
Being heard and understood by others is how our uniqueness—our humanity—is validated.
Being heard and understood by others is how we validate what we believe.
Being heard and understood by others is how we build trust with others.
Being heard and understood by others is how we learn.
Being heard and understood by others makes us feel good, liked, approved of, and part of something bigger than ourselves.
So how can you be heard and understood by others? You have conversations.
Now it gets more complex. I engage with you to be heard and understood. And you choose to either engage with me or not. If you do engage with me, in most cases you’ll want to be heard and understood, too. That special kind of nonsuperficial, mutual conversation is what I call a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation.
A High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation is a mutual conversation where each person is striving to be understood by the other and where each person is striving to understand the other.
A High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation is not two people having their own monologues. It is not a debate. It is not a contrived conversation designed to get a preordained result. It is not a going-through-the-motions conversation, nor is it a conversation where the answer or the result is always a compromise or the meeting of others halfway. It is not a conversation to determine a winner. It is not a competition. It is a conversation that ends in mutual understanding.
An example of a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation in the workplace might be a respectful, discovery-type conversation in the pursuit of critical thinking that unpacks underlying beliefs, assumptions, facts, lack of facts, and differences, all in the spirit of an idea meritocracy.
Another example might be an exploratory conversation in the pursuit of creativity, imagination, innovation, sense-making, or emergent thinking, or it might be a conversation involving a progress update, feedback, or mentoring. It might be a conversation involving a project or it might be a conversation for purposes of building a caring, trusting relationship.
What is common regardless of the type or purpose of the High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation is that the participants seek to be understood and to understand each other in a caring, trusting, noncompetitive manner that is respectful of everyone’s human dignity, and that they accept that according to the science of adult learning, they are suboptimal thinkers who need the help of others to think at their highest levels.
I believe we can learn a lot about how to have High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations from early Native American leadership practices I’ve studied. Typically, early Native Americans would meet by sitting in a circle, usually around a fire. They took turns stating their beliefs or positions without interruption, and no questions were allowed until everyone in the circle had stated their positions with the chief speaking last. Only after a lot of conversation—talking and talking until they really talked—were they ready to make meaning together. After that, the chief announced the course of action or decision, after which some historians have said, he would look over his shoulder at his wife to see if she nodded approval of his declaration.
WORKSHOP: PRECONDITIONS FOR HIGH-QUALITY, MAKING-MEANING CONVERSATIONS
I’ve approached this chapter as trying to have a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation with you about what it is like to have a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation. The purpose is to help you excel at creating and participating in more of this type of conversation.
With that in mind, in your Learning Journal please create a list of preconditions you believe are necessary for two people to have a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation. In other words, what factors enable a High Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation?
This will take you some time to think about. You are creating a list of preconditions.
Consider how the content in earlier chapters might influence your answer.
Recall that chapters 1 through 3 described the building blocks of the New Way of Being necessary for Hyper-Learning (Inner Peace and a Hyper-Learning Mindset and Behaviors). How do those building blocks affect how you engage in conversations with others?
Please take a break here. You have a lot to think about.
Have a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation with yourself about how all of the content fits together keeping in mind that it ultimately comes down to how you behave.
Then please write out your answer.
Here are my thoughts regarding the above preconditions exercise. (Please read this only after you have done the previous workshop. That is the best way to learn.)
“I’ve imagined you’ve invited me to have a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation as part of a new small team. I know I need to bring my Best Self to the meeting. I need to come to the meeting with Inner Peace because that will enable me to behave in ways conducive to learning and exploration. So, my goal would be to walk in with a Quiet Ego, a Quiet Mind, a Quiet Body, and a Positive Emotional State.
“I hope that you as team leader would engage the new team in creating a common purpose and agreeing upon common values in order to begin to understand each other as people. I hope you would explain to the group that this is the beginning of building a Caring, Trusting Team, which is our desired result.
“I hope that you would also engage us in creating our rules of engagement for behaving with each other and that you would engage us in confirming that our team embraces an idea meritocracy and seeks to have a psychologically safe environment, including having permission to speak freely with respect for each team member’s human dignity. I hope that we would agree that one of our team’s values is ‘do no harm’ and that we would talk about how to mitigate the two big learning inhibitors, ego and fear.
“I would suggest that the team also agree to embrace the concept of impermanence—that everything is always changing and that what we think we know may no longer be true.”
What did I miss in my answer?
What did I have that you did not have?
Do any of the differences warrant additions to your answer?
Oh, my goodness, I did miss something. I missed discussing how we as team members connect emotionally and begin to demonstrate that we care about each other, which begins the trust-building process that we discussed in the previous chapter.
Yes, High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations require caring about and trusting each other.
WORKSHOP: HIGH-QUALITY, MAKING-MEANING CONVERSATIONS IN THE WORKPLACE
When would High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations be important in the workplace?
Please reflect and write down your answers in your Learning Journal.
What do you think?
Are they necessary to build authentic relationships and Caring, Trusting Teams?
Are they necessary for decision-making in an environment that supports an idea meritocracy?
Are they necessary when discovery, insight, creativity, innovation, and imagination are required?
Are they necessary for giving feedback to people?
Are they necessary when receiving feedback?
Are they necessary when you are being asked to do a task or undertake a project?
Maybe it would be easier to list when conversations involving making meaning are not necessary. What do you think?
I have learned over the years that people tend to believe that everyone else defines or interprets words and phrases the same as they do.
I have also learned, through High Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations, that the world I have constructed in my mind and my beliefs, definitions, and stories of how the world works are likely to be materially different in many ways than yours. The truth is that each of our mental models and even our definitions of certain words and concepts are highly influenced by both nature and nurture.
In his book The Secret of Our Success, Joseph Henrich explains it this way: “Underlying these failures is the assumption that we, as humans, all perceive the world similarly, want the same things, pursue those things based on our beliefs (the ‘facts’ about the world), and process new information and experience in the same way. We already know all these assumptions are wrong.”109
That is a powerful statement. The same word can mean different things to different people. My view of how the world operates is only my view. It is not your view. I need to understand your view and you need to understand my view in order for us to have a High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation.
ENABLERS OF HIGH-QUALITY, MAKING-MEANING CONVERSATIONS
Human Dignity and Respect
High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations can be hard. They require all parties to respect each other and uphold each other’s dignity. What I have learned over the decades is that it’s hard for people to let go of their beliefs and adopt new beliefs that are better supported by data and experience. It is hard for people to admit when they are wrong or made a mistake. And I have learned that everyone is fearful of not being liked, not being respected, and in today’s world, losing their jobs. The only differences are the degrees to which people are fearful and how people manage their fears. Recognizing these universal truths goes a long way in making meaning with others.
Another aspect of respecting others is recognizing that people do vary quite a lot in what they find emotionally hurtful. Some people are very sensitive to the slightest perceived insult even if it is unintentional. It’s better to err on the side of respecting the dignity of each person. It doesn’t matter that you do not think your words or behavior are hurtful. Never critique the person; critique the idea and do so in a manner that increases the probability that the other person actually hears you. If you have a different view, ask questions first to make sure you understand the other person’s viewpoint. Then say something positive—start out with what you agree with. Then offer your differing views in a calm, nonpersonal manner setting forth your data.
Respect for others is mission critical. In his book Dialogue, William Isaacs defines respect this way: “Respect is, in this sense, looking for what is highest and best in a person and treating them as a mystery that you can never fully comprehend.”110
Let’s reflect upon Isaacs’s statement. What does it mean to you that I am a “mystery that you can never fully comprehend”?
If you believed that, how would that affect your behavior toward me?
How would you react when I say something about you that is not really you?
Would you be defensive? Angry at me? More understanding of my ignorance?
May I share? I will forever remember this conversation. My wife is a special person. She is very smart. She has an ABD in microbiology, a law degree, and a PhD in health policy, and she studied developmental psychology as a graduate student. This particular discussion turned into a debate, and although it’s rare, I was winning this one. (But who’s counting? Unfortunately, I was.) I emphasized how wrong she was and kept trying to get her to admit it. Finally, she looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “Give me a break. I am just a small-town girl from Iowa trying to do good.” I had overstepped. I had not respected her personal boundaries. That was and is wrong. I was floored and felt awful and hugged her and asked for forgiveness.
There is a mutuality of human dignity and respect that must be observed in seeking understanding. In a true High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversation we are asking each other to be vulnerable, to share our innermost thoughts, and if appropriate, to reach down into ourselves and allow our imagination and creativity to emerge.
Making meaning is not a competitive or judgmental process. It is a discovery and an exploratory learning process. Understanding each other’s views or positions and the foundation beneath them is a precondition to evaluating what each person thinks or believes (if that is even appropriate in context). You can’t truly evaluate or critique others’ views until you truly understand what they are saying and what they believe and feel.
I remember advice on leadership that I received from a mentor. He said, “Ed, always leave everyone in a good place emotionally. Do no harm. Be very sensitive to how people are receiving your message.”
At the end of every meeting I convene I have found it very helpful to ask the attendees, “Is everyone in a good place? Is there anyone not in a good place?” And if necessary, we discuss what we can do to get everyone in a good place.
The best High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations happen when people ask questions and when they reflectively listen.
Some of the best work on asking questions has been done by Emeritus Professor Edgar Schein of MIT. In his book Humble Inquiry, Schein says, “We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”111 Telling is not asking. Telling sends the message that I know more than you. Telling is a power play. Telling has no place in High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations.
You may be asking yourself, how do I explain my positions if I can’t “tell” people? Good question. There is a difference between telling and sharing. There are differences in tone, word usage, overall approach, and in many cases, emotions. Sharing is devoid of ego and certainty of knowing. Sharing is not competitive. Sharing is not an attempt to dominate. Sharing is not winning or losing.
When you share, you should make explicit that you are sharing and not expressing certainty. When you disagree with someone, you should first explain the points on which you agree. Then you can share your questions, concerns, or disagreements. Sharing the positive first helps tamp down defensiveness.
When you share, it helps to explicitly state that you may be wrong, but here is what you believe. This takes us back to chapter 2 and the NewSmart principles: I am not my ideas, my mental models are not reality, and I will treat my thoughts and beliefs (not values) as hypotheses to be constantly tested and modified upon discovering they are not correct.
I have found it is helpful when I disagree or have concerns to say, “Here is my hypothesis,” not “Here is what I believe.”
So, questioning is required in High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations and how you ask the questions is important.
Asking Additional Questions
I have learned that asking “What do you mean?” is one of the most important learning and understanding tools that exists.
Other useful questions or statements depending on the purpose of the work conversation are:
■I do not understand “X.” Can you please say that a different way or help me understand what you mean with some examples?
■The three Ws: Why? What if? Why not?
■What are our differences?
■What are we missing?
■What assumptions are we making? Have we unpacked them to see what underlies them?
■Have we looked for disconfirming information?
■If we did this, for what reasons might it not work?
■What must be true for this idea or answer to be a good one?
■How can we reframe this discussion or problem?
■“Yes, and” as opposed to “Yes, but”
■What do you think? Why do you think that?
■What are you feeling?
■Is everybody okay?
■Anyone have a different way of looking at this?
■Are there variances, surprises, or outliers in the data? What could they mean?
■How could we build upon this idea?
■How could we connect these different views?
■Who might have had this challenge or problem already? Have we looked there for learnings?
■Have we visualized the outcome if we do this?
■How do we test this out without taking big risks?
■Do we have enough credible data?
■How can we minimize the big downsides to zero?
What questions would you add to that list?
High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations are often exploratory, discovery conversations. They can lead to redefining or reframing the issue, exposing the elephant in the room that people have tried to avoid, or coming up with a completely different approach. They are a crucial part of evaluating, decision-making, project planning, and designing experiments.
As the digital age advances, our assumptions and past learnings will become less and less viable, and we will have to overcome our confirmation and cohesiveness biases and accept that our external environment and other people are constantly changing and are often not what we initially perceived them to be. That means making-meaning will become an even more necessary skill and process.
Carl Rogers provided some important advice when he said, “I have found it of enormous value when I can permit myself to understand another person…. Our first reaction to most of the statements which we hear from other people is an immediate evaluation, or judgment, rather than an understanding of it.”112
Let’s pause to review human thinking and being tendencies:
■We all are wired to be speedy thinkers who seek confirmation, affirmation, cohesiveness, and homeostasis.
■Our egos often are tied up with what we think we know and that leads to defensiveness, denial, and deflection in the face of contradictory information.
■We listen to confirm, not to learn.
■We often approach collaboration as a competition, not as a way to learn.
■We are poor listeners because we tend to let our minds wander or begin making up our response while the other person is still talking. We tend to interrupt people before they have finished sharing their views.
■We are, in a sense, prisoners of our past experiences, and we can be cognitively blind.
All of those proclivities can inhibit High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations and are why a key behavior most of us need to practice and get better at in order to make meaning with others is reflective listening.
William Isaacs said:
“To listen is to develop an inner silence.”113
I love that sentence. That should be of no surprise. Correct?
What does “inner silence” mean to you?
Are you in a state of inner silence when you listen?
If you are in a state of inner silence, what are you not doing?
Please think about how you listen. What goes on in your mind?
In your Learning Journal, please make a list of all the things your mind likes to do.
If you are like most people, your mind likes to wander. It likes to judge and critique in real time what is being stated. It likes to create your rebuttal or response while the other person is still talking. It likes to multitask with your devices.
Now, be honest, how can you truly understand what other people are saying if you do those things while they are talking?
Would William Isaacs say you had inner silence?
Oh, I get it. You figure out quickly what the other person means and is saying and then your mind becomes a chatterbox. How do you figure it out so quickly?
Oh, my goodness. Are you making the same assumption that Joseph Henrich described above? I paste it here for your review:
“Underlying these failures is the assumption that we, as humans, all perceive the world similarly, want the same things, pursue those things based on our beliefs (the ‘facts’ about the world), and process new information and experience in the same way. We already know all these assumptions are wrong.”
Reflective listening resonates with me strongly. Why?
Because I used to be an awful, pathetic listener. I did everything wrong. I would make up my answers while another person was talking, and when I felt I had enough information to assert my position, I would interrupt him or her to “tell” my thoughts. That was my usual way of listening at work and at home. It is embarrassing to admit it, but it is true. I was a speedy (and lucky) guesser of other people’s meaning most of the time. But I was a crappy listener, and I showed no respect for people. I was not a reflective listener. I was an assertive arrogant interrupter.
To be a reflective listener, you need a Quiet Ego, a Quiet Mind, a Quiet Body, and a Positive Emotional State. Reflective listening requires emotionally connecting with the speaker in ways we discussed in the last chapter on Caring, Trusting Teams.
Below is a list of other key enablers and corresponding inhibitors of High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations.
In connection with this list, I invite you to review your work product from chapter 3—the list of behaviors and observable sub-behaviors that you determined would evidence the desired main behavior and the observable sub-behaviors that you determined would evidence the lack of the desired main behavior.
■Self-focus or arrogance
■Being fully present
■Mind-wandering or multitasking
■Respect and exploration of differences
■Avoidance of differences
■Pausing to reflect
■Lack of trust
■Not rushing to judgment
■Rushing to judgment
■Being good at not knowing
■Being bad at not knowing
THE ULTIMATE GOAL (THE “MAGIC”)
The pinnacle of High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations—our ultimate goal—is attaining the highest levels of Hyper-Learning (which are cognitive, social, and emotional). You’ve learned that in the new digital age workplace, Hyper-Learning is a team activity, because for humans to think in ways that technology can’t, they need to work together. That is why we spent two chapters focused on teams. So, let’s assume we are all members of a small team. How will we know if we’re excelling at Hyper-Learning?
Have you ever been so engrossed in a project or activity, so consumed by the enjoyable challenge of it, that you lost sense of the passage of time? Did you feel like you and the activity had become one—that you were the activity? Some people call this being in the zone or being in the groove. Psychologists call it a state of flow and have found that it’s associated with positive emotions and peak performance.
Visualize a time when you were in a state of flow. Were you at work or engaged in sports or doing a hobby?
What did it feel like? How would you describe it?
Were you all-in and oblivious to anything else? Did you lose a sense of time?
Was it joyous? Was it exhilarating?
How would you rate your performance?
Would you like to have many more of those experiences?
Now think about recent teams you’ve been a member of. Did any of those team experiences reflect a state of flow? By that I mean was there a time when every team member experienced being in the zone during a team activity?
When team members experience a joint, interdependent state of flow together, that is what I mean by collective flow. I argue that when teams experience collective flow, they are performing at their best and are primed for Hyper-Learning.
Now let’s try to figure out the factors that may make collective flow more likely.
What do you think are the foundational prerequisites? Or under what circumstances does a team have the possibility of achieving a state of collective flow?
What must happen for you, me, Tom, Jane, and Susan (our hypothetical five-member team) to reach a state of collective flow? Please make up your list of collective flow factors or prerequisites and write them down in your Learning Journal before moving on.
Now some questions for your consideration:
Do each of us need to come to the meeting in a state of Inner Peace as defined in chapter 1?
Do we need to be a Caring, Trusting Team as defined in chapter 7?
Do we each need to have improved key Hyper-Learning Behaviors, especially reflective listening?
Do we need to have agreed upon and committed to team rules of engagement?
Do we need to have agreed upon common values and a common purpose for the meeting?
Do we each need to have established positive emotional connections with each other like we talked about in chapter 7?
Do we need to have agreed that each person has permission to speak freely and that we are going to be an idea meritocracy with psychological safety?
My experience is that a state of collective flow can occur only after a team has worked together for a length of time and has the following characteristics:
■Caring, trusting relationships among members
■Team members who behave in ways evidencing their journeys to Inner Peace
■The ability to make meaning together in ways discussed in this chapter
■Team commitment to rules of engagement
■Team commitment to an idea meritocracy and psychological safety
■Team behaviors that cultivate courage, curiosity, transparency, authenticity, mutual respect, and High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations
Can a team consistently achieve a state of collective flow? My personal experience is yes.
Why have I introduced you to collective flow? Because it is an attainable aspiration, and when a team is in a state of collective flow and has in effect become one, it has the possibility of engaging in another goal of High-Quality, Making-Meaning Conversations: emergent thinking.
I believe that collective flow is the gateway to the highest levels of creative and innovative thinking, emotional engagement, and higher-order critical thinking.
Collective flow is how the “magic” of you is optimized and shared with the world.
I have been fascinated by emergent thinking for quite some time.
My first exposure to emergent thinking was reading a 1999 interview with W. Brian Arthur. Professor Arthur is a luminary—an economist who started the Economic Complexity Theory Group at the Santa Fe Institute.
Emergent thinking has roots in Eastern philosophy in that it requires a mindset of impermanence—a fundamental understanding that everything is changing all the time and that to perceive those changes we have to be fully invested in observing the world without preconceived notions or judgments. We need to just be—observing, sensing, or listening intensely to what is going on to absorb it and let it enter our minds and bodies with no conscious action on our parts. We need to soak in the world and appreciate what is emerging in a world that is constantly changing. That is what we are trying to sense and tap into by just observing.
Emergent thinking requires heightened awareness of and attention on the outside world as if we ourselves do not exist. And it requires empathetically observing of others. In my opinion, it is like being in a state of flow with what you are observing. Emergent thinking is looking for the unfolding of emerging patterns.
Step one of being able to perceive the world this way is a state of Inner Peace.
In Arthur’s words: “You’re acting out of an inner feel, making sense as you go. You’re not even thinking. You’re at one with the situation…. You act from your inner self.”114
Step two is pausing and not immediately starting to think about what you have just perceived. Let it alone. Let it be. If you let it incubate in your body, something will emerge without you having to do anything consciously. Thoughts will pop into your mind. Immersion by you sets up emergence from you.
Step three is to take some kind of proactive action to test your idea.
Last year, I was in a meeting with two of the guest storytellers in this book—Marvin and Susan—and another senior leader of EnPro. The three of us have a history of being able to achieve collective flow. And in this particular meeting, something emerged out of me, and I immediately said, “I have no idea where that came from.” It was not anything that I had thought of before. It emerged after a period of deeply listening to them with inner silence. And it led us to an entirely unplanned conversation that was helpful regarding something they were discussing. It was magical—it just emerged.
Emergent thinking is the focus of an institute at MIT called the Presencing Institute, which was co-founded by Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and influenced by Brian Arthur’s work.
WORKSHOP: HYPER-LEARNING TEAMS
Imagine that you have been asked to join an important new work team charged with recommending a process to empower every employee to be an innovator. The team is cross-functional, made up of people with diverse backgrounds who have not worked together before. There are five team members—three men and two women of varying tenure at the company. All are very experienced high performers. The company has been more of a traditional operational excellence company with a traditional leadership model driven by hierarchy.
You have been chosen to be the team leader. You are going to hold a one-day introductory meeting with your team off-site. Your goal is to spend the day making meaning together.
Based on what you have learned, please design your approach to the day.
Where would you start?
How will you progress?
How will you engage the people to optimize their learning?
What would you like to accomplish by the end of the day?
This workshop is an invitation to make meaning of this chapter and the previous chapter on Caring, Trusting Teams, incorporating your learnings from the book so far.