Some of the Greatest Challenges in Organizations (Conversations)

“Any problem in an organization or relationship is directly related to a conversation not being had or one being held poorly.” – Julio Olalla

Julio’s words rang true the first time I heard them.  In 2006 I had the privilege of sitting in a conference room where he was conducting a coaching course.   He had worked for the government of Chile, spent four years in exile in Argentina before emigrating to the U.S. in 1978 with his family.  He began working with his teacher, Fernando Flores, who became an early “coach” for businesses and organizations.  Olalla is the founder of  ontological coaching and the Newfield Network.  Julio shared this statement in McLean, VA at the “Foundations of Ontological Learning” course and it would shape the trajectory of my thinking, my career, and my life.

His words enabled me to “shift the observer” I was (the way that I was seeing the world) and see new possibilities.  I began to see every problem with its own set of conversational challenges.  When I eventually founded my own coaching practice, I called my company, “Conversations,” and I’ve been learning about and helping people and teams have conversations ever since.  In fact, if you ever come to my office, you’ll see a large, framed print of Julio’s quote that was a gift from one of my clients.

One of the greatest challenges in organizations today is that people aren’t having the conversations they need to have or are having them poorly.  We live in conversations.  For example, how many conversations are happening in this picture?


We are constantly living in conversations – with ourselves and others and we have them so often.  However very few people actually pay attention to planning and navigating them.  How precise is our speech and how intentional is our purpose in having those conversations?  And what’s the cost of not having them or having them poorly?

The word, “conversation” comes from a Latin word, “conversare,” that can be translated, “changing together.”  The word morphed and became “conversatio” and eventually, “converse” in Middle English, which meant “living among, familiarity, intimacy.”  This has a distinct difference in meaning from “discussion,” which has the same suffix as “percussion” and “concussion” and literally means “to shake apart.”  Conversations are exchanges where each party is open to learning from the other person; it’s an intimate and close exchange of our thoughts that can lead to deep learning.  I’d rather have a conversation than a discussion any day.

Author and ontological master coach Alan Sieler claims “Perhaps in an increasingly uncertain and turbulent world one crucial piece of learning is the art of conversation, enabling us to provide powerful learning contexts for each other… It is through conversations that we interact with each other, coordinate actions and get things done.” (“Coaching to the Human Soul”, pp 65, 249)

Let me be clear.  A conversation takes place between two or more human beings and is a human interaction.  Emails, texts, tweets, posts, and every other form of electronic messaging are not conversations.  A conversation has context, nonverbal cues, and unspoken connections that don’t happen when you’re using your device to send a message.  And this is one of the greatest sources of misinterpretation and breakdowns in our daily living.  We think we’ve said one thing but the receiver interprets it differently, so the end result is the whole message has not been delivered.  (I can see some of you shaking your heads in agreement). It takes people in the same space to effectively communicate.

There are three basic kinds of conversations.  Conversations for Relationship, which are intended to build relationship and are focused on listening for what you share mutually with the other person.  Conversations for Possibilities are often called brainstorming and are done with the intention of exploring possibilities around a particular topic.  They’re effective if we’re able to listen for what can happen, what emerges, and what new connections can be made.  Conversations for Action are how we accomplish our agendas and plans.  The four stages of this type of conversation are preparation, negotiation, execution, and evaluation (also called the “Cycle of Promise”).  These can be seen in the requests we make, the promises we commit to fulfilling, and the offers we present when we see something missing.  We’ll talk more about each of these in a future post.

Leaders have to be aware of and use all three of these conversations that apply to how successfully we lead and coordinate action within our organizations.  If we only focus on Conversations for Action, we can lose our followers, who begin to think that they’re only a means to an end – part of the equipment.  If we focus on Conversations for Possibility, we can lose people who begin to wonder when we’re going to get around to making decisions and doing something.  If we only focus on Conversations for Relationship, we might have people who like each other and their leaders, but what are we accomplishing?  We need to engage in all three to create the kind of organization where people co-create great things in a setting where they can commit to the work they do.

One of the pillars of our “leadership presence” is the language we use.  The more precise we are in understanding and using our language, the more effective we are in our leadership.  Fred Kofman , in his book, “Conscious Business,” identifies the interpersonal traits of a “conscious leader” as authentic communication, constructive negotiation and impeccable coordination.  He identifies these kinds of conversations we have as being essential to building relationships that contribute to successful leadership:

  • Authentic Communications – sharing difficult information with honesty and respect, in a way that honors your values, deepens your relationships, and improves your – and the organization’s – performance. We either engage in “authentic communication” (significant facts, opinions and feelings are spoke, while seeing the other person as a legitimate partner who deserves to be heard) or “manipulative communication” (relevant information is withheld and personal agendas rule; a wide gap between public speech and private thoughts).
  • Constructive Negotiation – an approach to conflict management based upon the attitude of “mutual learning.” It addresses three domains of conflict: the issues (decision-making), the relationship (mutual respect), and each individual’s self-worth or integrity (considering others’ needs and values).  People focus on winning with the other rather than defeating the other.
  • Impeccable Coordination – the ability to make and fulfill commitments in the face of uncertainty and change. This includes methods that enable organizational members to understand how they constructively request s commitment, negotiate a constructive response, state a constructive complaining and offer a constructive apology.

Whether it’s with my family, friends, work experience, community, or church settings, I consistently see people who are hesitant to directly confront others with something that needs to be said.  Julio referred to this as “the greatest source of human suffering.”  What emotion do they need to draw on and what kinds of conversational design might help them honestly and transparently begin to share what their needs are and address what isn’t working in a more effective way.

In coaching, we talk about two kinds of conversations to address what isn’t working.  The first is called a “complaint” – a conversation about something that didn’t work the way you’d have preferred with someone who can do something about it.  The second we call “whining” – a conversation about something that didn’t work out with someone who can do nothing about it.

Whining often leads to something called the “Interpersonal Triangle.”  In this trap, “A” and “B” are in a relationship and “B” doesn’t like something “A” did.  So he tells “C”, she tells “D” and the “rumor mill” generates lightning speed (exacerbated by social media).


At the end of the day, everyone in the organization knows about the issue – except “A”!  This is unfair to “A” and does nothing except sew discontent among fellow workers.  Everyone builds their assessment of “A” based on “B’s” story (and their own shading and interpretation).  Like the old game of “Whispering Down the Lane,” the end story bears little-to-no resemblance to the original story.

But a complaint is expressing dissatisfaction with the finished result of an agreement compared with our original understanding.  It’s a legitimate conversation to have.  After all, I’d want to have a conversation with someone who had a complaint with something I had promised to fulfill but hadn’t rather than it ending up with “The Whiners”  and me being clueless as to what’s happening.

Why do people have such difficulty having these conversations? What keeps them from being direct with each other?  Let’s see what author Peter Bregman says in his book, “Leading with Emotional Courage.”

Think of a hard conversation you know you should have with someone that you haven’t initiated.  Do you have one in mind?  Now consider why you haven’t had the conversation.

Is it because you don’t know what to say?  I’m betting you know exactly what to say.  Is it because you haven’t had the opportunity to say it?  I’m guessing you’ve already missed a few ripe opportunities to raise this uncomfortable issue.  Is it because you don’t know how to say it?  I’m sure you’re struggling with finding the perfect words.  But why do you need perfect words?  Adequate words should be enough

So why haven’t you had the conversation?  Because it’s scary.

As you think about it, your heart rate quickens, your adrenaline flows, your sweat rises to the surface.  What if they lash back or get defensive or blame you?  What if they simply stare at you and go all passive-aggressive?  What if they get meaner afterwards?  What if they gossip about you to others?  Or maybe you’re afraid of your own response.  What if you lose control and fly into a rage and do things you will regret later?

That would be uncomfortable (to say the least).  You would have to feel things that you don’t want to feel.

And that, it turns out, is what holds you back.  (p.xxv)

Author Brene’ Brown defines “courage” as “telling your whole truth with your whole heart.”  Master Coach, Newfield faculty and author Dan Newby says “Our word courage comes from coeur or “heart” in French.  Literally it means that we “have the heart to act even in the face of fear.” That makes fear a highly individualized emotion.  When we exercise courage we take action even though we’re scared.  It’s important to begin to courageously face those conversations you haven’t had or are having poorly.”

How many conversations have you witnessed that haven’t been held?  How many are being held poorly?  How many have you avoided or don’t engage in?  What’s that one conversation that, if you had it, might make a big difference to the other person you’re avoiding?  What difference would it make to you?  What’s keeping you from having it?  what are you afraid of? It’s worth a small experiment to begin trying.  As one of my clients recently said, “Having difficult conversations are really hard at first, but they get easier with each successive conversation.  They’re never easy, but they become easier.”

© Geoff Davis 12/14/18


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