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Conversations That Change the World

With a well-designed dialogue “container,” you can create an atmosphere of shared awareness that can transform an organization — or a country.

The issue on the table was creating an energy market among a few neighboring countries. Energy exchanges allow utility companies to buy and sell electric power more freely, they spark commercial development, and they boost the economy of regions. Most parts of the world had relied on this type of exchange for years. It would seem like an easy, obvious move.

But the year was 2011, the place was South Asia, and the proposed electricity links would cross the highly contested Punjab region linking India and Pakistan — two countries whose very identities were opposed to each other. Every evening the border closed. A history of animosity, suspicion, and war had plagued both sides for 70 years.

About 10 senior officials and former officials from both governments (and several other South Asian governments) were in the room. They held titles such as foreign secretary, foreign affairs advisor to the prime minister, finance secretary, and electric power secretary. They were all seeking a commonsense outcome that would coexist with their contentious political rivalry.

The seed for the meetings had been planted a few months earlier, at a leadership program convened by my firm. That year’s program attendees had included a few staff members at the World Bank, some with roots in South Asia. When they asked how to bring a deeper quality of dialogue to the region, we decided to organize a meeting to do so — and, more specifically, to explore ways of catalyzing cooperation among the neighboring countries, despite decades of failed efforts. We invited leaders from the region who we thought would embrace this idea, and who could also advise and guide the World Bank’s efforts in that part of the world. Many of these invitees had known one another professionally. A few had personal connections with some of the organizers. But they had never been in a context that built on those connections effectively. Now we were all in a room together.

One attendee asked, “Why doesn’t India sell power to Pakistan?”

“Do we in this room really need to rehash the reasons for this?” asked another.

After some consideration, a third person simply asked: “Why not?”

That question hung in the air for a long moment. Everyone knew it meant several things: Why not see this outcome as possible? Why not do more projects like this together? And, ultimately, why not change the way we think about each other? By the time the next person broke the silence, the prevailing feeling in the room had begun to change. The participants realized that, going forward, they could engage with one another more productively, exploring options that were previously considered impossible.

From there, the conversation moved to the concept for the regional electric power exchange. The proposal was a feasible solution that could address many problems at once. There were, for example, regular power shortages in the Punjab part of Pakistan, and at times, excess power in the Punjab part of India. Even a small, symbolic step, like a 400 kV transmission line and 500 MW power exchange between India and Pakistan, would be materially helpful and a visible symbol of cooperation. In previous years, other policymakers had tried to take similar steps and failed, but now the group felt the political conditions in the countries were sufficiently amenable.

Less than three months after this conversation, officials in India and Pakistan began developing the project together. The feasibility studies were completed. Four government administrations, two each in India and Pakistan, agreed to the project. The 500 MW line was commissioned in October 2013. Although progress has not always been smooth — and recent tensions between the two countries have caused the project to stall — a precedent for cooperation has been set and conversations continue. The same participants have fostered other power projects — for example, between India and Bangladesh — and such projects have expanded in scope and scale significantly since then. The dialogue has also led to other breakthroughs on issues such as the Nepal–India relationship and the creation of new waterways between India and Bangladesh.

Facing the Impossible

The Punjab power session is one of many such conversations that have taken place under similarly difficult circumstances, initiating unexpected and significant change against great odds. For example, starting in 1985, the South African minister of justice, police, and prisons, Hendrik Jacobus Coetsee (nicknamed Kobie), began meeting privately with Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison. By 1988, Coetsee had expanded these meetings to include a group that orchestrated a series of highly secret conversations, some lasting seven hours, between Mandela and the South African government. A key player in this process was Lukas Daniel (“Niël”) Barnard, the head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of South Africa. Through the many conversations that ensued, and years before the rest of the world became aware of it, Mandela and Barnard discussed the future of South Africa, developing a mutual deep respect and creating the conditions for the peaceful ending of apartheid. The path they set together led to direct negotiations between Mandela and the white South African leadership — a necessary first step in the country’s historic transition from a racist authoritarian regime to an inclusive democracy. (This story is told in more detail in Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change, by Allister Sparks.)

Another dialogue took place in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, when the leaders of the two main Irish nationalist parties — John Hume, the head of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, historically associated with the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army — met in private to discuss the ending of violence in that region. These talks, along with other confidential meetings conducted around the same time, led to more open discussions between the British and Irish governments and eventually to the signing of a Joint Declaration of Peace issued by the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

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There are equally compelling examples from business. In the late 1980s, the then CEO of Harley-Davidson, Rich Teerlink, met with the union leadership of this Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer. The message was grim: The company was nearly bankrupt, and 40 percent of the workforce would have to be laid off to save it. The CEO promised to do it all at once, to avoid the pain of “death by a thousand cuts.” And if this radical reduction of the workforce and company succeeded, Teerlink promised to rehire every last person. The union agreed and collaborated with management. Two and a half years later, Harley hired back those who wanted their jobs back.

Another business situation that seemed impossible to resolve was a partnership between one of the major oil companies and a software development firm, which began to fail after the financial crisis of 2008. Each side blamed the other for missed deadlines — four years instead of two to complete one big project — and cost overruns that doubled the original estimate of US$50 million. But once a new environment for conversation was established, the situation shifted almost immediately. Within nine months the team had a viable product.

In each of these cases, and in others like them, the perceived likelihood of reaching agreement was very low at the start. In some cases, if the general public had known both sides were talking, it would have incited violence. Nevertheless, these conversations defied expectations and often succeeded. The starting point was always a moment when leaders were willing to bring a heartfelt insight to the surface, as the Punjab talks did with, “Why not?”

A “Why not?” moment doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is developed through careful preparation. With the right type of attention, participants can create a “container”: a field of shared meaning and intense personal and emotional energy, in which they can safely generate insightful conversations that are powerful enough to spark change, while remaining within the bounds of mutual respect. These are the kinds of conversations that bring unrealized potential into being.

The Concept of a Container

In most meetings about difficult issues, participants don’t think explicitly about designing a container. They focus instead on realizing their objectives, defending their positions, and reacting to others’ thrusts and parries. The resulting conflicts and insecurities become part of the organizational culture. They affect the stories people tell about work, the attitudes they exhibit, the level of openness they have, and their view of what is acceptable. These intangibles make up the field underlying any conversation.

The act of creating a container takes people to a more profound conversational field where they become aware of — and can influence — the subtler aspects of a conversation: patterns of thought, the quality of the exchange, and the comfort or discomfort people feel. It becomes possible to give voice to thoughts that would have been too uncomfortable to say before, and to think in new ways about what has been said.

Without a container, most conversations aimed at bringing about organizational change will not make a difference. Logical arguments and armfuls of facts don’t change entrenched attitudes. Nor does the urgency of a “burning platform.” Instead, the pressure associated with these types of efforts tends to strengthen the attitudes and expectations that people already hold. People react in predictable and habitual ways.

Logical arguments and armfuls of facts don’t change entrenched attitudes.

Within a container, there is a transformative shift of atmosphere that induces people to suspend the certainties of their beliefs. Suspending them, in this context, doesn’t mean renouncing them. It means talking openly, thinking dispassionately about one’s beliefs, and becoming more aware of one’s behavior and ideas, as if observing oneself and others from a distance. People gradually start to truly listen to what others are saying, rather than only reacting in relation to their own ideas. As they discover new meaning in these conversations, they become more nuanced in their views; they no longer cling to their old certainties so tightly.

People don’t typically conduct this kind of reflection privately; it happens on occasion with very close friends, people who know each other extremely well. But if you want it to happen in an organizational setting, where people aren’t very familiar with one another and may hold opposing or competing positions, then you need a strong conceptual container to hold the tension so that the conversation can take constructive form.

The concept of a conversational container goes back to the mid-1980s, when a group of colleagues and I developed a particular practice of dialogue. We saw firsthand the remarkable breakthroughs that ensued when a genuine container was created. One of the most impressive examples took place in a Kansas City, Mo., plant owned by the steel giant Armco (shortly thereafter spun off into a new company called GS Technologies, which has since been acquired by ArcelorMittal). Plagued by fierce battles with the company union, the senior executives of the plant asked us to facilitate dialogues.

The steelworkers were used to physical containers. They made steel by pouring molten metal into large cauldrons, then adding oxygen and chemicals in a fiery process. Sparks flew everywhere, but the process was contained. It had to be. An error could cause a deadly accident.

When we began our conversations, neither the executives nor the union leaders trusted the other side. They had too much history — years of jockeying for every little bit of bargaining power, often doing what they could to irritate or humiliate their counterparts. When I told them that we needed a better way to manage the chronic aggression and conflict in the system, they agreed. I mentioned the container we would build, and the union leaders said, “You mean like a cauldron of steel.” The issues discussed are hot; any honest conversation about them will challenge closely held attitudes and beliefs, including those professed by the leaders of the enterprise. That makes them dangerous to talk about. The container made it possible to handle these charged, high-intensity conflicts safely. After a few months of biweekly sessions, both the union leaders and the executives had come to appreciate one another and had begun working toward a common set of goals and, ultimately, toward a better working relationship.

Creating a Container

The practice of creating a container is, in effect, an intervention in the way people make meaning of their situation. These conversational fields have a number of design features in common:

• Upstream preparation. Before the conversations begin, all participants are taken aside individually, by someone they respect and with whom they have a connection, and told, in effect, “This conversation will take a different form.  It won’t be a ping-pong match where everyone seeks to score points.” Each in his or her own way, the participants are thus invited to entertain the possibility that they might change their mind and form relationships they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

• Protected conversation. Everyone commits to keeping the dialogue confidential. Participants know they won’t have to deal with disbelieving attacks from skeptics outside the room. Even more important, the atmosphere is protected on the inside; people can safely feel their way through to a new mutual understanding of dangerous or delicate topics, knowing they will be treated with respect throughout — and that they will need to treat others the same way.

• Unrushed pace. At the start, the conversations have no explicit goals; they are not negotiations, they are not aimed at reaching agreement or achieving results by a deadline. Instead, they begin slowly and almost aimlessly. They are “talks about the talk,” discussions of what it would take to create new conditions for a new kind of conversation. This rhythm allows the participants to become comfortable with one another. It makes space for people to voice their unspoken thoughts and raise ideas and solutions before they are fully formed, so that the group can collaborate in developing them.

• Facilitation for the flow of meaning. Skillful facilitators are usually needed in a container. They must be capable of handling large, emotional disturbances; they cannot take sides when a strong reaction flares up. Instead, they must continue to look for the new forms of order, the breakthroughs in creativity, and the emerging opportunities that are present even in seeming chaos. They bring these elements to the attention of the group.

• Conversational disciplines. Participants must learn a number of specific new ways of talking together. Once they have learned these techniques, they listen without resistance. When articulating a point of view, they don’t just advocate a position; they explain how they came to it, and expect others to inquire about their reasoning. They pause at critical moments to “check in”: to go around the room inviting everyone to say something, thus producing a fair and inclusive atmosphere. Gradually the group takes on the task of mutual facilitation, conscious that they are creating a new culture of shared inquiry.

• Embracing divisiveness. People wary of existing conflict and fragmentation have a natural temptation to ignore the differences, put off discussing the sore spots, and find some safe, agreeable subject that everyone can talk about. But this causes the same divisive patterns to repeat themselves. An alternative approach works better. Accept that people disagree, and slowly explore the disagreements. As moments of major conflict come up, raise the issues — first in private conversations between the facilitators and each individual participant, and then as a group. This ensures that people feel they were fully heard, and that they then have a chance to tell their story. The goal, both individually and in the session, is not to contest or correct participants’ perceptions, but to bring to light the deeper reasons they hold their views. If you step into divisiveness deliberately and consciously, it is easier to step out of it.

• Listening for the potential. Leaders must actively attune themselves to the possibility of greater wholeness, despite the fragmentation and difficulty at the surface. Every situation — even the most dire — can be turned around if people are listening for signals of how things could come together and what it would take to bring about that change. The container is forged from human energy and vision, and from the courage to articulate it.

If you step into divisiveness deliberately and consciously, it is easier to step out of it.

My colleagues and I used all these techniques in launching the 2011 South Asia meetings. We knew that the quality of the invitation mattered; it would set the tone for what followed. Therefore, when people agreed to attend, we did not hand them extensive briefing papers. Instead, we spoke in depth and personally with each of them, asking about their insights, hopes for the session, and vision. We asked them to bring humility and an open mind along with their expertise. Would they be willing to talk about the assumptions that had dominated discourse in the past and held people back? Then we asked what they thought the situation needed. What hard truths needed to be told? What patterns of old behavior needed to be named and released? What issues would move people’s hearts if truly addressed?

We paid close attention to the setting. We did away with tables, microphones, podiums, PowerPoint slides, and other formalities. We filled the room with comfortable chairs, arranged so people could easily move them around. We set no detailed agenda, just a group of topics and questions. We designed the first round of “check-ins” so that everyone got the same amount of time to talk, and we told people in advance that we would do this. Every so often thereafter, we paused again to engage everyone in turn, inviting them to talk about the thinking behind their thinking, the deepest questions they held about the problems in the region, and their dream of what might be possible.

We opened the conversation by asking what it would take to heal the chronic fragmentation and mistrust that had led this region to be among the least integrated in the world, with the lowest levels of interregional trade and some of the worst poverty. We agreed explicitly this was not a negotiation, merely an exploration and visioning exercise. Instead of being hypnotized by their historical shadows, this group quietly reached a deeper level of inquiry into their common ideals and shared diagnoses. After a time, one leader commented, “We are an argumentative group of South Asians, and yet somehow we have come together in a remarkable way.”

Attitudes and Atmosphere

Creating the container is just the first step. You then need to maintain it, and continue to develop the field of dialogue. As conversations unfold, they will move through a series of predictable phases. In the earliest phase, even as you talk about difficult issues, the container is still relatively weak. People talk politely and superficially, and retreat to small talk when the topic gets too intense. They don’t confront one another. This is the phase of politeness.

When the participants grow tired of politeness, a second phase develops: Breakdown. People start “telling it like it is”: expressing their frustration about others and about the status quo. Although some people consider this phase to be evidence of real movement, it typically creates fracturing and divisiveness. People respond by retreating. The group cycles from politeness, to breakdown, to politeness. In some conversations, unfortunately, the group remains in this pattern indefinitely; people assume they are having conversations that matter, while experiencing no significant change. But if the container is strong enough, a group can move on.

The third phase is inquiry. It begins when people start to talk openly about their own assumptions and perceived truths, and those of others. This requires that people suspend their assumptions before the group, and ask highly reflective and personal questions. Why do I think and feel as strongly as I do about this? Why do we all undermine one another so often? Why aren’t we getting the results we want? What must we shift to enable something transformative to happen? One helpful question at this stage: What if we could let go of our defensiveness? In asking these questions, people shift their focus from the forces outside themselves to the way they make meaning in their own mind, and why they hold to it.

As the members of the group continue to engage in this way, they enter a fourth phase: a flow of collective thinking. It now becomes feasible to explore the new possibilities that transform a company, or a country. To be sure, new challenges will arise. For example, participants may need to expand the container by inviting others to join the conversation. They may also broaden and deepen the conversation, bringing more uncomfortable truths to the surface and talking about those openly. A powerful question to consider at this stage: What will it take to extend the quality of discourse and atmosphere we have begun to experience? People will have answers to that question; they will start putting those answers into practice, and they will never forget the experience.

When participants experience all four phases, transformational change becomes achievable, as it did in the Punjab region and elsewhere. Conversations like this aren’t easy, but they are possible. With the right attitudes, atmosphere, and skills, you can create them time after time. You might even raise your ability to change the world.

Author profile:

  • William Isaacs is a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and founder and president of Dialogos, a leadership consulting and strategy development firm based in Cambridge, Mass. He is the author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together (Doubleday, 1998).
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