Speech Acts 2: Three Conversations

The second post in a series exploring Speech Acts – the foundations of speaking and listening to make meaningful action possible.

Three different kinds of conversation are required for acting together effectively. They’re like concentric circles – each provides the ground for the next. But we often miss one or more of them out. As each relies for its effectiveness on the one before, this can lead to all kinds of trouble.

The foundational conversation is a conversation for relationship, in which we’re understanding one another and finding out together whether we have any basis for action. Miss this and it’s extraordinarily hard for us to agree why we’re working together. It’s difficult to dive in wholeheartedly. And equally difficult to understand what is being asked of us by others.

On the shoulders of the conversation for relationship stands a conversation for possibility. Given the shared concerns, commitments and understanding from the conversation for relationship, what possibilities can we see? Are there any we care enough about on which to take action? And what are we ready to commit to, together? This is where hopes, aspirations, and creative responses take wing.

Just watch how the energy for a project can dissipate if you don’t explore possibilities fully. And if you haven’t had a full and frank conversation for possibility, you run the risk of launching into action that nobody feels committed to taking. See The Abilene Paradox for a wonderful explanation of this, just one example of the endless wastefulness of meetings and projects we take up that nobody really wanted.

And finally, a conversation for action in which requests, offers and promises are made. This conversation changes the world for each of us, because it’s where we make commitments to act in support of our own and others’ intentions. Done well, we coordinate our efforts so that our intentions are realised. Done poorly, we suffer duplication of effort, the frustration and confusion of promises that mean little, and the resignation and erosion of trust that comes from repeatedly being let down.

Over the next few days I’ll take up each of these conversations in turn.

Meanwhile, you could start to look at your own pattern of conversations with others.

Is there one of these conversations that you favour? One that you miss out repeatedly? What are the consequences?

Are there times when you’re in one of the conversations and the people you’re speaking with are in another? For example, what happens if you think you’re in a conversation for action and others are still in a conversation for relationship?

And when there’s a breakdown or difficulty, how do you try to resolve it? By pushing on further in the conversation you’re already in (for example, dealing with confusion or listlessness by coming up with more to do – a conversation for action – rather than exploring how committed everyone is to the current course – a conversation for possibility)?

Your answers to these questions might open up new insights and actions for you immediately, and will help you in exploring the three conversations further with me over the coming days.

You can read more on ‘Speech Acts’ – conversations, requests and promises – here.


Photo Credit: scrambldmeggs via Compfight cc

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