Three Levels of Conversation

May 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Julie Auger’s post to Rethinking Complexity speaks directly to our central concerns here at the Interaction Institute for Social Change . What do you think? How might this inform your organizational strategy?

Can you help us with our strategic planning? Our organization needs assistance in constructing specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (or SMART) goals and clarifying objectives.

Like most consultants, I am often approached with such requests.  Typically, a leader wishes to tease out a tactical plan in half a day in order to quickly move into action.

Organizations commonly believe that the fastest way to changing a system is to hover over technical and transactional details, which seldom correlate with either work satisfaction or success.

Strategic planning constructively highlights the learning of past experiences. It also focuses on the most obvious and visible issues. It does not, however, dig deeper into the future possibilities or collective wisdom of the organization.

Curious and a tad frustrated, I asked my mentor, Michael Jones: “How do you invoke a greater sense of aliveness for an organization? What kinds of conversations need to take place in order to change behaviors and activate imagination?”

Nodding his head, slightly smiling in a knowing sort of way, Jones replied, “Ah, yes, the three levels of conversations. How do you raise the level of engagement beyond analytical? You need to move beyond level 1 and level 2 into level 3.”

I leaned in, ears perked, as Jones continued on metaphorically using the ecology of a tree.

“Most organizational cultures are not lost for innovative ideas,” Jones said. “What they do lack, however, is a supportive environment—or fertile soil—for these seeds to take root and grow.”

The leaves and branches of a tree—the outer life—represent tactics, action plans, performance goals, and desired results, Jones explained. This efficiency-based thinking is the basis for a level 1 conversation. Here we ask, “How do we do things differently?”

When we move to level 2—the trunk of the tree—we ask, “How do we do different things?” Here, the learning is strategy-based and conversations shift from efficiency to effectiveness. Still, they are qualitative exchanges that are team- or group-orientated. They connect the parts to the whole in a transactional manner—the organization decides how to act.

According to Jones, level 2 conversations “don’t engage the higher order questions that build deep relationships.” For this, we need another level of learning with deeper levels of engagement.

“Hence, level 3, or the roots and soil of the tree—the inner life,” I add.

“Yes,” Jones answered. “The regenerative nature of the roots and soil give the tree the resilience and strength to grow. From here the organization becomes infinitely alive—absorbing, sensing, changing course, inventing, inquiring, and imagining.”

The magic is in the soil—the root conversations. Level 3 learning signifies a shift from “preservation to generation, from lines to circles, from answers to questions, from knowing to not knowing,” Jones said. It is here that we are invited into conversations with the future, and connections for networked leadership are established. It is from this fertile foundation that, according to Jones, “we become allies with each other and our destiny in ways that intellect, tactics, and strategies alone cannot encompass.”

I get it! I thought.

I also took this to mean that engaging in level 3 conversations is our gift to each other. Gifting re-generative dialogue opens up space for others to show up in their own humanness. It allows us to be imaginative, playful, insightful, and authentic.

“These spaces,” Jones said, “open us to the kind of newness, curiosity, and deep, playful exploration upon which creating a transformative culture depends.”

Later that day, I ventured to the coffee house where I saw Frank. I met him at this coffee house—the only place I ever see him. Frank is retired. He and his wife spend half their time in Ireland.  Yet, every six months or so, by chance, we see each other and exchange stories.

I often wonder what’s so special and unique about our friendship?

We listen intently to each other and connect as if we share a lengthy past. We confide about our personal lives and open our hearts in laughter.

It was that day that Frank looked at me with that twinkle in his eye and that warm peaceful smile and said, “Lovely to see you today.  Your stories are wonderful and your sense of aliveness is truly energizing for me to be around. Do you always have conversations like this with people?”

I paused.

“Our world will change for the better if more people had conversations like this, if we actually took time to see each other,” Frank encouraged.

I smiled and nodded, “Yes, I believe it would.”

Just then, I decided to go home and re-design the all-day, strategic planning retreat I’m scheduled to facilitate next week. I realized I had left out the planting of a very important life-generating tree.

– Julie Auger

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  • Gibran says:

    This is a phenomenal post, I think it applies to the work we do out in the world and to our own approach to organizational life at IISC. Thank you for forwarding it Curtis.


  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, G. I am especially excited about level 3 aligning with this idea of “regeneration” which is my new favorite concept in the place of “sustainability” as I believe it is embracing of the work of social and economic justice, environmental conservation, and evolution.


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