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Conversational fat content and social inoculations – How healthy is your dialogue?

It can be problematic to confuse simple with easy. To me simple means something that is direct, precise and minimalist whereas easy is the degree of difficulty, strain, brain-ache and trauma evoked in a person trying to do that thing. One subsequent problem of confusing the two is obvious, if we find something easy we may assume it is simple when we ask others to do it – yet others may experience it as difficult because they do not have the skills, knowledge or abilities we do. The other problem is slightly more obscure – we may assume that because something is simple it MUST be easy. I find the latter is often the case when considering change in the corporate world and trying to explain my perspective in often inelegant ways. Personally, I believe that organisations are simply a bunch of people engaged in an ongoing, complex process of relating that is as predictable as it is unpredictable. Human interaction and relationships are at the heart of everything so one of the most important things to pay attention to is conversation. By changing conversations we can therefore change interaction and change these things we call organisations. (Patricia Shaw wrote a great book entitled ‘Changing Conversations in Organisations‘ on this very subject.)

This may be a simple philosophy in its construct (i.e. a few precise statements) but it isn’t easy to get one’s head around in a ‘change management’ field dominated by logic, deductive reasoning and an unhealthy addiction to tools and models as the only way to solve deeply human relational problems. When I was first introduced to this perspective I decided I needed to find a simple way of making more sense of it so I started to take a greater interest in conversation. To be more precise, I became deeply curious about the ongoing process of conversing. Conversations hold a plethora of cues and clues as to what is going on between people and I have found that helping folk notice more about their dialogue and to then alter it slightly is a very effective way of stimulating change.

Last week I was invited to sit in on and observe a Leadership Team meeting. Most of the time such requests comes as a result of some problematic team dynamics or difficult content that the participants feel is quite volatile and may cause a relational meltdown. This meeting, however, was different. Everyone seemed to like eachother, everyone seemed passionate about the subject matter, everyone seemed to be in agreement and listening to each other’s perspective and the power relations were shared and negotiated in the moment as opposed to being dominated by one or two people. Despite this feeling of camaraderie the group felt they were stuck and, as I observed, I noticed that there was something odd about the nature of the conversation that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first.

Then it hit me – it seemed that every valuable contribution that each person made was sandwiched between a huge amount of pre-amble, long explanations, repetition of context, caveats and self-depreciation. A typical contribution might be something like this…

“Taking into account the broader context of this project and the things that we’ve already discussed, I understand that the needs of the end customer here have to be met as much as possible, whilst we try to keep costs and resources to a minimum, so I was wondering if, and we don’t have to take this on board, it’s just a blue-sky suggestion and you are free to play devil’s advocate here, we could invite the customers to be part of the design of the project plan. Just a suggestion, I’m not wedded to it either way here and I know you’ll have different perspectives on it, just putting it out there to stimulate our thinking.”

As I’ve been doing a lot of running and trying to get healthy again after my surgery last year a fitness metaphor came to mind that helped me explain to the participants what I felt was going on:

You are all making some great contributions here but each is surrounded by a large amount of uncessary pre-amble. If you could imagine putting your contributions on a set of those snazzy fitness scales that measure fat content – the percentage of fat in your dialogue would be large and quite unhealthy. This excess fat seems to reduce the visibility and value of your contribution. Lets try to experiment with being more precise and the fat content down from 50% to below 15%

In the above example I’ve indicated the ‘fat content’ in red and the great suggestion that the individual made in green. The group found this metaphor very helpful and it encouraged them to be more precise in their dialogue and they made great progress whilst maintaining the collaborative friendly atmosphere. A reduced fat content exchange now sounded something like this:

I’ve an idea guys, we could invite the customers to be part of the design team. What do you think?

It seems to me that high conversational fat content occurs as a result of individuals needing to apply some sort of ‘social inoculations’ to their conversational contribution. By anticipating where one might be challenged, mis-understood or perceived as being mad, bad or wrong one tries to prefix and suffix the main conversational point with all sorts of pre-amble, caveats and self depreciation that will hopefully neutralise any conflict before it arises. This normally happens when new relationships are forged or as a result of a lack of trust in longer standing ones. In this instance, the group knew each other well, had a shared vision and hope for the future but hadn’t quite yet matured to the point of trusting each other’s willingness to support and collaborate on new ideas. By taking a personal risk and reducing the ‘fat content’ of their contributions they were able to make their point better and be better understood by everyone else in the room. They found this easier and easier each time they did it and the trust between them grew further meaning that it was easier to spot agreement when it occurred and any differences of opinion were more positive and propelling because of their crispiness.

The idea of reducing conversational ‘fat content’ is not to diminish the importance of context setting or to restrict the power of relevant tangents and thinking aloud/testing stuff out with others. It is simply to reduce the amount of time, effort and breath used on ‘social innoculations’ purely because we’re worried about what others will think about us. On the flip side, ‘underweight’ conversations can also be problematic and end up being too robotic, and lack context or empathy so, as with most things, it is a question of balance as opposed to right or wrong.

The next time you are in a meeting, imagine a set of metaphorical scales that weight each contribution and work out how much of your own and other’s conversation is vital organs, food/water/energy and muscle that keep the dialogue vibrant, healthy and alive and how much is social inoculation related fat that makes it feel all lethargic and unfit. Then, if you are feeling adventurous…try suggesting some liposuction!

  1. Geoff Smith says:

    This blog is conversational fat…you represent an example of everything that gives change/OD consultants a bad name and make it harder for us to be taken seriously by this type of fluffy navel gazing bunkum. You are obviously a frustrated Timmy Mallet…go and do hospital radio or children’s entertaining and stop your self congratulatory nonsense.

    1. Thanks for the comment Geoff and for being precise in your views. I’m impressed that I’ve been able to embody EVERYTHING that is wrong with OD in one post and sorry I have made it harder to be taken seriously. I always thought that Timmy Mallet was secretly frustrated so an overtly frustrated one is a scary aspiration but one I will experiment with.

    1. Hi Terry, thanks for your comment. Yes, this post is a flow of spontaneous thought and is likely overweight – more or less so in the eyes of different people . I suspected it was a heavy when I posted it but thought I’d do it anyway and potentially contradict what I was saying, knowing I would soon be told if it was. All part of learning to experiment and ‘fail happy’.

    1. Hi Neil, thanks or your comment. Book is proving impossible to pin down and becoming an ongoing project. Every time I write a bit something else comes up that I want to explore and write about. Hope to get out Q4 this year but in the meantime I’ve written a few papers on stuff that people might be interested in.

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