Essential Conversation

There is a very popular book that is widely utilized in organizations: “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High” by Kerry Patterson,  Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. This is a great book; we should all be reading it regularly.  In some organizations, this valuable text is required reading, and every staff person is provided a personal copy.

There are other, deeper aspects to conversation that I think also require a bit of attention. One aspect is that of  the proactive conversation, or what I call the Essential Conversations (EC). These are the conversations that establish our baselines and the shared understanding of how we are going to be in relationship. This model and term was established, in fact, in the clinical family counseling arena, and the version I use is adapted from Bob Dunham’s framework in his Generative Leadership programs (with permission).

Essential Conversations are very important for work groups, teams and organizations. In high performing teams, these conversations occur before things become difficult, before something becomes sensitive and before problems arise. These conversations are generally initiated by leaders and managers, but can also be driven–in a healthy organization–by anyone with the right training. While these proactive conversations may occur when we notice that we have failed to establish a mutual understanding (ie, something went wrong), the focus of the EC is always on the whole and the big picture, not the triggering issue. (Although a triggering issue can be addressed as a more specific and Crucial Conversation). Essential Conversations tend to be forward looking.

In organizational settings, the complete set of Essential Conversations, when well structured, practiced and executed, serve to establish the basis for relationships and shared work efforts. These are the conversations of Agreements and Promises, designed to produce shared ownership and action. Improved outcomes will be the result.

We can have an understanding of the content and importance of Essential Conversations (please call me if you need help in developing competencies around these tools), but awareness of the unique challenges in the Nonprofit sector can guide our practice around these techniques:

  • Nonprofit managers and leaders are stretched very thin,while their ambitions are high  (if not sometimes overreaching) which leads many of them to a “fast-paced” mentality of getting heroic things done with very limited resources. This means people are moving at such rapid speeds on a daily basis that these sorts of proactive laying-of-groundwork just don’t happen regularly.  The organization might carve out 90 minutes at the annual staff retreat to work through some of them, but without ongoing management and assessments, the efforts don’t bear much fruit.
  • In contrast: in the private sector,  outcomes and results are so much easier to measure. Resources of time and funding may be more easily allocated, especially when outcomes are verified by the data and the bottom line. Businesses will support managers, team members and their own organization’s development by adopting Essential Conversations and providing the needed training and support for good practice.  Finding a way to measure and value these strategies will be key to Nonprofit implementation.
  • In general, many nonprofit leaders become, by virtue of the nonprofit reality and structure, to be so focused on program delivery and resource development (ie, fund raising), that they often put “coordination of action” at the bottom of their priorities. In the long term, this is a threat to organizational sustainability, as it undermines the internal capabilities.

These and other barriers to effective nonprofit management could largely be eliminated by an overhaul of the nonprofit overhead fallacy, which is another post. Until that happens across the sector, what we can develop is the understanding of the long term damage of poor communication practices.  We can support leaders who are willing to find innovative ways to make space, regularly, for Essential Conversations in  their organizations.

Our work at Garden Hill Consulting includes training on the tools and how to best incorporate them, even where resources are limited.

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