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Polarized? Consider Conversations Worth Having

Ways to save relationships even if you can't change minds (including your own)

When conversation is focused on genuine inquiry, it's amazing what we can learn from others.

Regardless of where we may stand on someone’s spectrum of identify politics, many of us are both disturbed and sickened by today’s public discourse.

Social media, TV talking heads, and once-respected media outlets have devolved into steaming caldrons of vitriol. The incivility is on display even (especially?) in the once-hallowed halls of Congress.

Whatever happened to respect in our private and public interactions? Where and when did we lose the willingness to exercise compassion toward someone with a different viewpoint? Where and when did we forget how (or why) to recognize each other’s humanity?

Okay. We could wax philosophical all day. For now, let’s consider some ever-so-timely suggestions for talking together. Not at each other. With each other.

A good starting place is Conversations Worth Having: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Fuel Productive and Meaningful Engagement.

Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres offer proven principles and practices for navigating conversations in ways that produce good results and strengthen relationships. Stavros is a professor at Lawrence Technological University, an expert in Appreciative Inquiry, and an associate at the Taos Institute. She’s presented her research in more than 25 countries. Torres is a senior catalyst and consultant at Collaborative by Design, NextMove, and Innovation Partners. She works with leaders and teams to change culture from the inside out.

Rodger Dean Duncan: For those who are unfamiliar with Appreciative Inquiry, can you explain what it is?

Jackie Stavros: Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is an approach for discovering the best in people and teams to fuel productivity and meaningful engagement in organizations and local, national, and global communities. AI is one of the most widely used approaches for fostering positive change and creating innovation. It’s used in organizations ranging from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Google, the U.S. Navy, and Cleveland Clinic to cities like Denver and Chicago and in countries around the world. The Appreciative Inquiry Commons is a worldwide portal providing practical tools on AI and the growing discipline of positive change.

Duncan: What are the hallmarks of a conversation worth having?

Stavros: Conversations are how we interact with others and with ourselves. The hallmarks of a conversation worth having are an appreciative tone, a positive direction, and generative questions. These conversations are—

· Meaningful

· Inquisitive

· Solution-focused

· Productive

· Engaging

Conversations worth having generate shared understanding, new information, and possibilities for action to move forward. In our workplaces, these great conversations fuel productivity, performance, engagement, and satisfaction, all supporting excellence.

Duncan: What role do questions play in advancing a conversation to a productive conclusion?

Stavros: The type of questions you ask can open up or shut down another person. Appreciative inquiry-based questions are generative in that they demonstrate a genuine curiosity in a person, team, or situation. Generative questions create new images and change the way people think and act. These questions generate information, reveal hidden assumptions and diverse perspectives, and make room for the emergence of new ideas, possibilities, or opportunities. Questions that arise out of curiosity and genuine interest can deepen understanding and play a role in building relationships, strengths, connections, and productive solutions.

Recall a conversation in which someone’s questions resulted in your feeling more connected to them or inspired to take action. For example, you can ask questions that focus on what you want more of: What are your wishes? instead of what you don’t want. Our questions create our moments.

Duncan: Rather than focus on what’s going wrong in an organization, you counsel leaders to invite workers to share best practices. What effect does this shift in conversations have on personal accountability for results?

Cheri Torres: If there is something going wrong in an organization, you must address it. We counsel leaders to shift the way they address the problem. An appreciative approach engages relevant stakeholders in conversations about desired outcomes. We suggest the Flippingtechnique to help people do this—

· Name it. Name the problem

· Flip it. Name the positive opposite

· Frame it. Clarify what you want, the outcome if the positive opposite is true

We know of a hospital administrator who tried to “fix” low patient satisfaction metrics by continually asking her nurse managers to identify what was going wrong and do something about it. Frustration, blame, and shame created conversations that sounded like attack and defend. For months, nothing changed. The administrator attended an AI training where she learned to reframe the problem into the desired outcome and to ask generative questions:

· Name It. Low patient satisfaction metrics

· Flip It. High patient satisfaction metrics

· Frame It. Patients are delighted with their care and service

When she asked nurse managers about patients who were delighted with their care and service, the energy in their meetings was palpably different. People were engaged and energetic. By paying attention to satisfied patients, they discovered behaviors and actions they could replicate; and in that open mindset, they were more creative with solutions. Patient satisfaction scores improved significantly within the first quarter.

Duncan: You say “positive framing” draws people into a conversation and inspires engagement. Give us an example of how this works.

Torres: The previous story is helpful in understanding the science behind why this approach is so effective at engaging people. When we focus on what’s wrong, it often triggers our self-protection instincts. Our biochemistry changes to help us fight or flee. Research in neuroscience and positive psychology underscores that focusing on what’s possible and inviting people to collaborate literally gives us greater access to critical thinking and creativity. The biochemistry in our brains shifts from “me” to “we.”

Stavros: Here’s another example. A program manager had to integrate U.S.-based and German-based teams in three different divisions. These teams did not play well together and the challenge was to join them as one cohesive and productive center. The manager facilitated a series of conversations among all team members to create a unified vision, mission, and value set. Everyone was highly engaged because the conversations focused on strengths and opportunities and they were invited to co-create the center’s strategic plan. Their engagement and commitment to the plan produced increased sales to existing customers, new customized product solutions, and a culture that worked collaboratively and innovatively.

Duncan: What’s a good way to deal with someone who’s obviously not interested in engagement and wants only to promote a single viewpoint?

Torres: Establish group norms at the outset of any team conversation. Be sure to include staying open, listening, and making room for possibilities.

If someone is continuously advocating for a single viewpoint, get curious. Ask generative questions that clarify their view and open the door for others.

For example:

· How would your idea help us achieve the goal?

· What are the benefits of moving forward with your idea without exploring other options?

· What might be the benefits of exploring other possibilities before we make a decision? (This question could be asked of the whole group.)

Be sure to reinforce the benefits of having taken time to explore a variety of options. Point out how the final decision had elements of a number of people’s ideas or how staying open benefited the team.

Duncan: Many people reflect on previous conversations that went awry and wish they could replay them at a different speed or tone or volume. What advice can you offer for initiating “do-overs” for conversations that didn’t go well?

Torres: It takes courage to ask for a do-over, and it’s worthwhile.

Here are some suggestions—

Reflect on the conversation and why it went awry. It’s likely people were in a self-protective mindset.

What triggered that reaction for you and others?

How might the conversation have been different with a more open mindset?

Think through how you would have like the conversation to go. Create a positive frame for your do-over—what would you like to have talked about? What outcome would you prefer?

Given the outcome you’d like, what are you curious about? What does the other person know that you don’t? What questions can you ask that will invite the other person in?

Then make an appointment with the person. Begin with transparency and vulnerability: “I really didn’t like the way our conversation went. … I apologize for my role in it. I would like to start over. My intention is … (insert your positive frame, the outcome you are hoping for).

Stavros:When reflecting on your previous conversations, think about the nature of the interaction. Was it appreciative or depreciative? Was it inquiry or statement-based? Your conversations can make all the difference in your life or someone else’s life.

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