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Conversation (2) – Why it Matters

I’m an inside > out guy; it’s difficult for me to make a plan without having some basic idea about the deep, underlying models that my plan is supposed to interact with. In any situation, I’m more of a hedgehog (knows one great thing) than a fox (knows many things).

So when I explain things, I tend to start with central principles and work my way out.

I’ve been a user and fan of social media for a long time (a really long time…thing AOL, the Well). But it’s only in the last few that I ‘converted’ to the belief that they are central, not add-ons, to creating successful organizations in the 21st century. And so to explain that, I need to make some conceptual points.

And I’m taking your time to do it because I think it’s critically important that people become convinced that this isn’t just a fad – that making ‘encouraging conversation’ the first principle for leaders and managers is going to separate the winners from the losers.

People like to talk to each other; in fact it might be argued that the central feature of being human is the act of talking. Here’s Aristotle, putting it neatly:

…it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not
by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the

“Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one, “

whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts.

Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing
in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure
or pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation
of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise
the just and the unjust.

(Politics, Book 1)

It is deeply in our nature to congregate and to converse. And it is in the nature of our understanding to think about things by explaining them. It is one of our most powerful tools, and from Socrates forward the notion of discussion and debate – deliberation – is embedded in Western thought.

The most powerful modern philosopher discussing this is Jurgen Habermas, a post-Marxist German philosopher who split from the Frankfurt school and is known for his aggressive defense of civil society and the Enlightenment.

Habermas is a tough read, for sure. But his notion that ‘communicative action‘ and ‘communicative rationality‘ lies at the heart of modern society, and that encouraging the sphere of communication is the path to a better society is critically important.

It’s not an idea that he pulled from thin air – here’s Habermas (have patience with his style…):

Whether deliberation does indeed introduce an epistemic dimension into political willformation and decision-making is, of course, an empirical question. There is already an impressive body of small-group studies which construe political communication as a mechanism for the enhancement of cooperative learning and collective problemsolving. For instance, Michael A. Neblo has translated major assumptions of normative theory into hypotheses about how experimental groups learn through deliberation on political issues (such as affirmative action, gays in the military, or the distributive justice of flat tax schemes).8 Individuals were first asked for their opinions on these issues; five weeks later they were placed in groups and asked to debate the same questions and reach collective decisions; and five weeks after deliberation, they were each asked again to offer their individual opinions.

The findings more or less corroborate the expected impact of deliberation on the formation of considered political opinion. The process of group deliberation resulted in a unidirectional change and not in a polarization of opinions. Final decisions were quite different from the initial opinions expressed and opinions changed reflecting improved levels of information, broader perspectives on a clearer and more specific definition of issues. Impersonal arguments tended to take priority over the influence of interpersonal relations, and there was also an increasing trust expressed in the procedural legitimacy of fair argumentation.

Note that in this real-world experiment, deliberation and discussion led to alignment – not polarization – of views and to increased trust and acceptance of outcomes. Those are pretty much the things you want to do in organizations (note that there are risks with these – groupthink being the most significant). But if I told you that I could design a process whereby you and your customers aligned your interests, and where they looked at you with increased trust – wouldn’t you like that?

There are really significant costs to this. You can’t fake it. If your customers are talking to you, you need to listen. If they don’t like what you’re doing, you can try and convince them, but at some point you may have to change what you’re doing.

If you declare that you want to be trusted, you have to be trustworthy.

Strange new world, isn’t it?