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How to have conversations that create possibilities (instead of destroying them)

Imagine for a moment that the best way to understand the condition of humanity was measured by the nature of the conversations happening amongst its people. If you wanted to take a measurement, you might begin by cataloging conversations to understand the various qualities of those conversations, and account for what kind of conversations were […]

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Creating possibility through conversation
Photo by Mike Marques of Arbor Light Studios

Imagine for a moment that the best way to understand the condition of humanity was measured by the nature of the conversations happening amongst its people. If you wanted to take a measurement, you might begin by cataloging conversations to understand the various qualities of those conversations, and account for what kind of conversations were most prevalent. 

You might begin to notice that there are a lot of conversations that don’t seem to matter, and regardless of how often they happen, little changes as a result. Let’s consider these conversations neutral. You might see that there are some conversations that generate actions, outcomes, breakthroughs and relationships that seem to lift people higher – let’s call these big conversations. And finally, you recognize conversations that are destructive, that make people smaller, and hold back humanity. Let’s call these conversations small. As you tally up all of the conversations, is humanity biased toward small, neutral or big conversations? Are they evenly spread? What is your experience, and what does this tell you about the current state of humanity? 

What if we could increase the population of those that choose not to spend any more time in the small conversations that hold humanity back? 

We can, and it starts with you and me. Consider that you have the power to generate, endorse, participate, and put a stop to conversations. This inquiry is to gain a better sense of what conversations you are spending time on so you can make more thoughtful choices in the future. To be more rigorous about this, let’s unpack small and big conversations. The distinctions can sometimes be obvious and striking, but more often they are subtle and hidden in the default ways we interact with each other. 

The Small

Small conversations focus on small concerns about expectations, and how we compare to others. In small conversations we complain about the things we can’t control as a distraction from acting on the things we can. Small conversations are an easy way to stay busy while not really wanting to produce anything meaningful. Small conversations take up a lot of our time but make little difference to the state of the world. Small conversations detract, minimize, and take opportunities away, convince people not to try. Small conversations create nothing and reinforce the status quo – the systems and stations that only exist to serve their own existence. The small, keeps us thinking small, interested in ourselves, or own worries, or needs to be satisfied. 

The best friend to the small conversation is the phrase “it is what it is”. It is what it is, as a phrase used to make things that aren’t OK, OK – and to extinguish any responsibility to do anything about what’s not OK. Small conversations can feel like groundhog day, you have them over and over. They are the reflexive complaints about the weather, or politics, or how busy we are. As benign as these conversations may seem, if we are satisfied to keep them small, they can take precious time away from provoking bigger conversations. The smallest conversations are the ones that condemn people to a state or a story that holds them down. They are the conversations that make some feel smaller in order for others to feel bigger. They are the stories we use to fill in the gaps of our understanding of why some people are different than we are. They, at their worst, take life. 

“What’s wrong with them,” raged my client. “Why can’t they just do their F#cking Jobs?” This kind of complaint is not uncommon in my work as an executive coach. For me, the state of this conversation is small in quality, as it assumes that there is fault, or wrong inherent in the people being implicated. I challenged the client to be honest about how fully he understood the reality of the environment this team is being asked to operate in. And as it turned out, that reality was a mystery, and to fill in the gap, a story about incompetence was being created. What happened next however was incredibly big as that leader humbled himself to the team to better understand the environment they were working in. Doing so revealed they were doing the best they could based on that environment. The leader was able to abandon the idea that he needed to fix or eliminate the “wrong” in the team, and instead, collaborated with them to make adjustments to the environment that allowed all of them to thrive. 

The Big

Big conversations provoke progress and growth. Big conversations call us higher and push us up against our own perceived limits and awareness. Big conversations can be uncomfortable and challenge us to step beyond what we know or have experienced. Big conversations have big timelines, and big visions that are honest about the work to be done to elevate humanity. Big conversations leave little space or leave us with little appetite for our petty needs, or excuses. Big conversations encourage us to welcome new points of view, or ways of being and thinking. Big conversations focus on others that aren’t like us and the realities and wonders of their existence. Big conversations focus on future, and the possibilities that lie beyond the horizons of our lifetimes.

The friends of big conversations are our imaginations, visions, creativity and courage. Big conversations provoke us to get curious, to get better, to be bolder in our actions. Big conversations motivate us to change our lives so we can spend more time elevating the conditions for those around us. Big conversations create spaces for each of us to step into and give little weight to the idea that credentials and authority are a basis of ranking human value. Big conversations sincerely hope for the best for those around us and find paths for all to go higher. They forgive and restore, and at their best, big conversations generate love, and give life. 

Big conversations don’t require big venues, or big setups to happen. We can be big in the conversations we are having no matter how transactional our interactions are. Big conversations are a state of mind and a practice. Small conversations can happen, and often do, in big arenas, and can be used as a way to distract us from, or outright deny the truth and opportunities to change things for the better. Small conversations are more reflexive and happen more often by default. They are easy to slip into when we aren’t putting effort into generating a bigger one. We have infinite choice in the bigness or smallness of the conversations we are in, but the big ones are often less familiar or less practiced in our day-to-day. 

How often are you involved with the conversations that are about the humble and compassionate understanding of the realities of those we don’t know, and we don’t fully understand, but want to connect to? When was the last time you felt seen, understood, and encouraged to step into a higher version of yourself? How often are you extending that generous gift to others? 

“How can we pray for you Brent?” The first time I heard this question I was taken aback and caught off guard to the point I could utter no response other than a sheepish, “I’m good”. Thankfully the group I was with didn’t let me get away with that, and what unfolded was one of the most powerful and big conversations I had ever been part of. I know better now, and when asked, I dive into the request like an anxious puppy being invited to go for a ride. But what is even bigger is inviting others to have that same experience. 

Time to take action:

If we have free choice over the conversations we are creating, participating in, or making OK, then shouldn’t we also be accountable for the outcomes those conversations produce? If conversations only exist because we give them life, then shouldn’t we use that power to bring into existence the conversations we want, and take life from the conversations we don’t? If we consider this all to be true, and remain committed to take more responsibility for elevating humanity’s conversations into bigger realms, then shouldn’t we take more seriously our role in the conversations we allow, endorse, usher-in and create?  

I don’t want to collapse this into a simple duality where there are only two types of conversations, one bad and the other good. Rather consider that conversations lie on a spectrum where on one end are the smallest conversations that can have the most damaging effect, and on the other, big conversations that can have the most generative effect. And it’s along this spectrum that we can locate the conversations we are participating in, and choose where to initiate the conversations we want to be in. But most importantly, my intention is that this spectrum between the small and the big motivates us to try and move small conversations toward bigness. Even if a conversation starts in some neutral, or smaller place, more of us aren’t satisfied leaving it there.

Imagine what would be true about humanity if we increased the population committed to provoke and invite big conversations. If there were more conversations that elevated awareness of spaces to grow into, the faster humanity would develop. If there were more conversations that stretched our imaginations, humanity might begin to set its sights on ideas beyond the short-term concerns of immediate worries and expectations. If more conversations opened up opportunity for relationships with more people who are and see things differently than us, then perhaps we would cross over divides and into a new realm of possibility, creativity and compassion for all of us. What do you see is possible? 

If this writing is calling something in you, and if you want to join me and the others inspired to act, then I challenge us to: 

  1. Bow out of conversations that are filling time, but not changing anything
  2. Call out and condemn conversations that make others smaller, or take opportunities for advancement away from those who need it most.
  3. Instigate conversations that give life, lift you and others higher, and focus on taking responsibility vs placing blame.
  4. Taking conversations deeper into realms where all involved can discover and bring to the surface their gifts that might have been hiding, left unacknowledged, or clouded in fear.
  5. Provoke conversations that challenge the status quo, generate solutions, and instigate action. Conversations that invite family, friends, community and society into bigger versions of themselves. 

My wish for all of you who read this is that you gain more awareness of the influence you have to choose the conversations you are spending time in or on. But even more than that, I hope you take on the challenge to spend more time creating conversations big enough for all of us to elevate ourselves, those around us, and all of society. Remember, the power of “going big” lies within us, all of us, if we choose to use it. 

About Brent Robertson: 

I believe that we have the infinite capacity to contribute to what we believe in, which drives my commitment to creating a world that begs our full humanity to be in play and at work. As creator of Purpose Practiced, I am gifted with the opportunity to guide individuals, couples and families on the path to their ideal lives. As co-founder of Fathom, I lead businesses and communities to an existence where they perform beyond what their history, or their category says is possible. In either role, what I have discovered is that the more of our humanity we reveal, share and take action on behalf of, the more abundance, impact and joy is available to us. All of us.

[email protected]

https://www.linkedin.com/in/brentrobertson/

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