Conversations that create real value

Are you sitting comfortably? Let me tell you a tale about the Zen monk and the Samurai warrior.

A mountainous Samurai warrior approaches a diminutive Zen monk and demands, “Tell me the difference between heaven and hell.” The monk, forced to look up to this huge physical specimen towering above him, responds, “I won’t tell you anything.” Furthermore, he adds, “You smell, your clothes are dirty, you’re unshaven, your sword is dirty, and you’re a disgrace to Samurai.”

The Samurai, in a blind fury, screams, “No one talks to a Samurai in that way,” and draws his sword to smite the monk down. As he raises his blade above the monk’s head, the monk looks to him and says, “That is hell.”

Let’s interrupt the story here. While this may not be a typical conversation within a boardroom – at least they rarely involve Japanese Samurai swords – it’s a graphic illustration of what happens when our thinking becomes narrow minded, over focused, obsessive, compartmentalised, and based on survival.

Thinking like this, on the part of the Samurai, is too ego driven to add value to the conversation.

I’m reminded of a time recently when I realised a critical illness insurance policy I’d bought some years before to protect me and my wife financially in the event I suffered a life changing illness, had only two years left but was costing a significant monthly sum. Rationally, I felt it was no longer needed given my changed financial circumstances and family commitments since taking out the policy, but once I cancelled, I suddenly felt vulnerable. I became fixated on the worst possible outcome of not having that cover. I was catastrophising. My thinking had moved to ‘hell’.

Four levels of conversation
A model by Otto Scharmer reveals four levels of conversation. The first two levels are dominated by high ego. Level one is around ‘typical downloading’ or ‘talking nice’ which might include empty phrases, conforming and not saying what you think. Level two is characterised by ‘typical debate’ and is often about talking tough, winning at all costs and confrontation.

Conversations that create real value however, are the ones that move into level three – where there is reflective enquiry and individuals speak from seeing themselves as part of the whole – and level four, which is about ‘collective creativity’ with individuals fully present, being their authentic selves and helping to co-create.

As coaches we aim to work with executive teams to move them away from levels one or two, and shift to three and four. The highest form of conversation is where they’re connected and thinking about what is it that this moment is asking of them together as a group.

Leadership is a conversation
One question we ask of leaders is, “when a leader is leading, what is a leader doing?” Leaders often answer by saying they provide vision, ask questions of others, and inspire people. All good answers but what an effective leader is doing is having a conversation. And, as a leader you really have to think about what are the conversations we as a team must be having together if we’re going to progress. What are the conversations we’re avoiding? What conversations do we need to stop having?

The conversation can’t just be about content either, but how we go about having those conversations. What’s happening in the brain as we start to move into levels three and four is a shift away from anxiety in to relaxed focus concentration, which is ultimately what brings about increased performance, through our ability to listen deeply, empathise and connect.

That’s the mindset we’re looking for: “Where more individual circuits start communicating in an orderly fashion and process a more coherent mind. Your awareness shifts from narrow minded, over focused, obsessive, compartmentalised, survival thinking, to thoughts that are more open, relaxed, holistic, present, orderly, creative and simple. This is the natural state of being we are supposed to live by.”

This is heaven
Which brings us back, dear reader, to the tale of our Zen monk and apoplectic Samurai. When we left off, the Samurai was about to strike the monk but realising that the monk almost gave his life to teach him a lesson about the true nature of “hell”, the Samurai lowers his sword. He takes a deep bow in honour towards the monk who looks up and tells the Samurai, “…and that is heaven.” Real connection and partnership developed through deep listening is the bridge to connect each of us and the way we can facilitate moving our conversations from ‘hell’ to ‘heaven’.

And what of my critical illness dilemma? Only once I’d talked the issue through with my wife, and moved from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset could I reassure myself I’d done the right thing. Was it right to question my original judgement just because my thinking had become fearful? And two years on, the decision proved to be the right one. As the French essayist Michel de Montaigne once wrote, “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”