Conversations are a critical part of conducting business, of leading teams, of interacting with others.
Despite their obvious importance, how often do we think about them as a crucial skill?
Imagine if everyone on your team became exceptional at having meaningful conversations. Do you think it would translate to more wins? I’m certain of it, and that’s why I thoroughly enjoyed reading a new book by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres. The authors packed so much wisdom and experience into Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement that you will find yourself referring back to it as an essential conversation reference guide.
Jackie Stavros is a professor at Lawrence Technological University; Appreciative Inquiry strategic advisor at Flourishing Leadership Institute; and an associate at Taos Institute. Cheri Torres is a Senior Consultant with NextMove and Partner at Innovation Partners International.
I recently spoke with Jackie and Cheri about their work.
The Power of a Good Conversation
Talk about the power of a good conversation.
Torres: Actually, conversation is powerful, period, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. A bad conversation can turn a good day sour, influencing interactions for hours to come. A good conversation can brighten your day and propel you into high performance and a sense of elation. When you think about it, everything arises from conversation. We’re either carrying on an internal dialogue or engaged with others, each conversation influencing what’s possible in the next moment. Conversations influence our health, wellness, happiness, relationships, performance, and what’s possible.
“Sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation.” -Amadeus Wolf
With their importance, why do conversations not seem to get enough attention in business?
Torres: Conversations are such an integral part of functioning in community that we take them for granted. Until recently, there was nothing drawing our attention to their importance. Research in the field of neurophysiology, however, is showing that conversations are integral to our capacity to access the executive center of our brain, the pre-fontal cortex, where higher order thinking, creativity, trust, good decision making, and the ability to connect are possible. Conversations that trigger fear or uncertainly stimulate the release of cortisol, epinephrine, and testosterone, shutting down access to the pre-frontal cortex and stimulating fight, flight, freeze, or appease. A good conversation has the power to shift the brain from threat to safety, simulating a whole different set of hormones—oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These hormones help us reconnect, open up to what others have to say, and rekindle trust. Further research in positive psychology corresponds, showing that positivity in the workplace builds resiliency, high performance, innovation, and collaboration. Organizations that have taken this research to heart and have shifted leadership and management practices are discovering the amazing power of a great conversation – a conversation worth having.
Contrast a destructive versus an affirmative conversation. What are the effects of a destructive conversation? How long do they last?
Torres: In our book, in Chapter 2: What Kind of Conversations Are You Having, we classify four different kinds of conversations. All interactions either add-value or they devalue people and situations, and all conversations are either inquiry-based or statement-based. If your questions devalue a person or situation, we refer to those kinds of conversations as “critical conversations.” If you are telling and devaluing others, we call those “destructive.” Critical and destructive conversations typically trigger a threat response in others, and we just spoke about how that impacts us. The impact of such conversations can last a long time, long after the cortisol has left the system. The reason why? Our memory stores our experience; this person is recognized as unsafe. This of course inhibits working well together.
On the other hand, if you are telling and adding value, we refer to those interactions as “affirmative conversations.” Acknowledging strengths, complementing a job well done, advocating for someone or something are examples of affirmative conversations. If you are asking questions that add value or generate value, we call those conversations worth having. Affirmative conversations will shift the brain from distrust to trust; conversations worth having will broaden and deepen that shift allowing people to bring their full value to relationships in the workplace, at home, and/or in communities.
“Your conversations help create your world. Speak of delight, not dissatisfaction. Speak of hope, not despair. Let your words bind up wounds, not cause them.” -Tao Te Ching
What is appreciative inquiry and how does it relate to communication?