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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

Creating Space

Last week’s blog, post about Boiling Frogs, explored why we often choose to manage problems, instead of taking action to solve them. Thank you to those who took the time to comment on Facebook about this post. A comment, which stood out for me, highlighted the fact that for many it is actually safer and easier to let things be as often people know what will happen if they questions things; and that we need cultures of support and trust if we are to feel safe when discussing and sharing opinions.

So what do cultures of support and trust look like, and how might we create spaces where it is safe to discuss and share opinions?

My go to construct, when thinking about cultures of support and trust, comes from the work of Joan Dalton and David Anderson. I have re-created a diagram I saw them draw many times when they talked about healthy, productive relationships.

The diagram reminds us that healthy relationships comprise elements of both support and challenge. It is our relationship, sitting in the middle, that guides us as to how much support we offer and how much challenge we give. Over-supporting someone creates dependency, which is not a great outcome, and is usually more about the supporter’s feelings of self-worth than the person being supported; over-challenging can lead to brutality and leave people feeling unsafe and incompetent. Like Goldilocks, we need to figure out how to give not too much support and not too much challenge, remembering it is relationships that will ensure we get it just right. Organisations with people who balance the levels of challenge and support in their relationships will have high-trust cultures. In organisations with high-trust cultures people feel safe discussing and sharing opinions.

As well as balancing support and challenge, high-trust cultures provide space for people to think about, talk about, have robust discussions about, and to reflect on emerging ideas. In my leadership experience I have found that a key element of providing this growing space for emerging ideas is to have an overarching agreement or covenant about how people will speak and listen.

“There is no better way to develop trust than through working and talking together for authentic purposes.” - Joan Dalton

In her book “Learning Talk: build the culture” Joan provides the following guidelines for authentic dialogue:

  1. Make it safe - discomfort and conflict are necessary for real learning and growth to take place

  2. Explain the purpose - name the intent or purpose of the conversation and make its relevance explicit

  3. Listen to understand - listen to think, to understand, to learn. Listen without interrupting

  4. Demonstrate respect and honesty - Saying nothing when you disagree is not respectful to yourself or others

  5. Actively inquire - explore agreements and disagreements, make connections and synthesize ideas

  6. Suspend judgment - blame looks backwards, contribution looks forward

  7. Show care - demonstrate genuine interest in others’ thoughts and goals

  8. Remain open - explain thinking and the reason behind it

  9. Model inclusion, equity and value diversity - ensure opportunity for all to contribute; encourage all voices to be heard

  10. Use evidence to inform - seek and make available valid, relevant, quality information to inform thinking, conversation, resolution and action.

Co-creating agreements for authentic dialogue is a powerful process. Once complete the next stage is to support (and at times challenge) people to take self-responsibility for upholding the agreement. It is important that people only use these agreements to monitor their own behaviour and not weaponize the agreements as a method of control against others. If you want to explore this more, especially if at some stage your organisation has formed an agreement that went wrong, here is a great post from The Conscious Leadership Group “Impeccable Agreements: Weapon or Tool? You Choice

But what if your position in an organisation is such that you are unable to initiate an agreement to underpin authentic dialogue? That is precisely where I found myself, many years ago, when I was a young teacher in a team that spent more time talking across each other in meetings than listening to contributions. I got so fed up that, one meeting, I started jotting down a tally mark on my pad each time a person interrupted (spoke across) someone else who was speaking. I didn’t announce what I was doing I just sat there adding to a growing number of tally marks. Eventually our team leader noticed my tally marks and asked me what I was doing. I said keeping count. I then asked if it was okay to wait until the end of the meeting before telling the group what I was counting. The leader agreed and at the end of the meeting she came back to me. This was my chance to say that I was frustrated by how often we cut across each other in the meeting. I then added up my tally marks and from memory it was close to 40 and I was able to add that I knew what I was counting and yet eight of the tally marks belonged to me! The simple act of collecting non-judgmental data gave the team the opportunity to talk about how to improve our meetings and after this our meetings did improve. All you need is the opening to have a conversation.

I remember when my children were young I would always try to buy clothes (especially shoes) with room to grow. This is a great analogy to apply to your leadership. How do you buy space for others in your organisation. What are the space-creating actions that you need to be taking in order for your people to grow? What space do you need to create in your life in order for you to grow (I’ve got an idea about this which I will be sharing in next week’s post)

One of the things I really enjoy about running leadership workshops is creating space for people to think deeply, talk openly and get fresh insights about the people they serve and the work they do. Sometimes we need to take time away from our usual environments to create the space to innovate, to see things with new eyes, and to really listen to each other.

If we want the people with whom we work to grow, we need to provide spaces in which it is healthy and safe to do so.

Please keep the comments and conversations coming. We are all in this together and none of us get out of life alive, so we might as well work together to be the best we can be!

Until next time


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