An Introduction to the Organisational Learning Conversation

23 August 2010 Gervase R. Bushe, Ph.D

Gervase R Bushe discusses how to cut through office politics to sustain and improve your working relationships.

In this article, Gervase R Bushe, author of Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work gives a brief introduction to the process required to help you escape from interpersonal mush and create interpersonal clarity.

What is interpersonal clarity?

Interpersonal clarity describes an interaction in which people know what their own experience is, what another person's experience is, and the difference between the two. I call the process required to achieve interpersonal clarity a "learning conversation." When this happens between people who work in the same organisation, organisational learning takes place. Taking the time every so often to have a learning conversation and clear out the mush is essential to sustaining effective partnership. My hope is to give you a clear idea of interpersonal clarity and why it is so critical to partnership-based teams and organisations.

"Taking the time every so often to have a learning conversation and clear out the mush is essential to sustaining effective partnership."

The model of organisational learning revolves around two or more people inquiring into their experience and generating new knowledge that leads to a change in their patterns of organising.

Patterns of organising are the typical interactions we have at work, the way we and others go about identifying and solving problems, dealing with conflicts, making decisions, assessing performance, serving customers, managing stakeholders, communicating up and down the hierarchy, budgeting, and so on. When these patterns are unproductive and/or unsatisfying, we tend to view them as manifestations of conflict. We have a "problem" with so-and-so. If we were to talk about it with that person, we think it would just create more conflict, so we most often don't. And the possibility of partnership dwindles away.

A learning conversation in action

The purpose of a learning conversation is to talk about the things that are getting in the way of our being fully in partnership. Things about you that stop me from bringing all my energy and commitment to the success of whatever process or project we are engaged in and, we hope, to get past them. When we are successful, we get rid of whatever is causing our interactions to be unproductive or de-motivating. I've found that close to 80% of the problems or conflicts that destroy partnership among people and groups are actually created by the mush. And once this mush is cleared out, the conflict disappears.

As I described in the introduction, command-and-control organizations can function adequately in this state of affairs. But partnership based organizations can't. They rely on people working together to get things done. They can stumble along, surviving in the interpersonal mush as long as conflicts don't escalate to the point of breakdown and/or their competitors are not creating cultures of clarity. But they never achieve anything close to their potential unless people have learning conversations, when needed, to clear out the mush and rebuild partnership.

Learning conversations versus normal conversations

There are a number of reasons why normal conversations at work rarely result in interpersonal clarity and a change in problem patterns. A learning conversation helps overcome at least three obstacles.

  • Part of the problem is a lack of awareness of our own experience. If we don't know what our own experience is, we and others can't learn from it. So, in a learning conversation, part of what happens is that we become more aware of what our own experience actually is.
  • Part of the problem is sense making. We think the stories we are making up about the other person are accurate, or close enough, and that talking about it won't help and will probably make things worse. During a learning conversation, we get much more accurate information about the other person's experience. Since the stories we make up tend to be worse than the reality, finding out what was actually going on in the other person's head almost always results in each person feeling relieved and more positive about the other.
  • Another part of the problem is that we don't see our own part in the pattern. In any problem pattern, it is always clear to us how the other person is the problem. If only that person would change, act differently, be motivated differently and so on the problem would go away. Think of people in your work life who are part of a problem pattern with you, and you can probably quickly identify something they could change that would fix the problem.

But here's the thing: if I talked to them, they could probably also identify a problem pattern and point out something you could change that would make the problem go away. We can't be engaged in a pattern of interaction without being a part of the pattern. So part of what happens in a learning conversation is that we uncover our part in creating the problem.

"The purpose of a learning conversation is to talk about the things that are getting in the way of our being fully in partnership."

Much of the tendency to avoid discussion of problem patterns comes from the belief that talking about the conflicts we have with others won't accomplish anything productive. When people at work talk about problems with organizing and what is needed to fix them, two things tend to happen that do make these discussions unproductive. First, the discussions often take place without the key people who are part of the problem pattern. These people are usually considered the problem people, and the discussion focuses on how to change them. Partnership with the problem people can't be rebuilt if they are not part of the conversation. Second, if a problem person is present, the anxiety (feelings of embarrassment or guilt) created by the discussion causes people to look for quick resolutions in order to resolve tension.

This leads them to talk about only the surface manifestations of the problems, the most visible behaviors and the most visible effects on performance. Lasting changes for these patterns are rarely found without a deeper exploration of the underlying experiences.

A more productive conversation

Something different has to happen before people can have a productive discussion about problem patterns at work. You need a discussion that will lead to clarity and the possibility of change and improvement in the pattern. A different kind of conversation needs to take place, and the people who are part of the problem pattern must be part of it. Participants should enter into these conversations with an attitude of inquiry and with the assumption that everyone is having a different experience. And the realisation that other people can't know about it without asking and listening.

Conversations that allow us to learn from our collective experience begin with people describing their experience and listening to everyone else's experience of the other people and of the problem pattern. They must do this without trying to define the problem intellectually or fix it. People describe their experience until all members of the group know what their own experience is, what the other person's experience is, and the difference between the two. Most of the time, when people reach interpersonal clarity, the conflict goes away.