Speech Acts 5: Conversations for Action

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

If you’ve completed a satisfactory conversation for relationship (where you discovered shared concerns and commitments) and a conversation for possibility (where you identified possible paths to follow), you’re ready to begin a conversation for action, which is where action between you and others gets coordinated through making requests and promises.

Skilful requests and the promises that follow from them change the world for both speaker and listener, establishing new courses of action and freeing us to let others do what they’ve agreed to do.

But it’s easy to rush into this conversation too soon, before relationship is established, in which case you’ll probably find that the conversation has little traction. For requests and promises to mean something everyone has to have enough of a shared world for them to make sense, and if my cares and your cares don’t meet one another we hardly have anything to go on.

Perhaps you’ve already been part of a situation where this is the case. We murmur our agreement to another action plan or to-do list, but inside we know we don’t really care that much. Our spoken promises turn out to be vapour, and trust, enthusiasm, creativity and commitment drain away. Teams and projects can go on for a very long time in this enormously wasteful manner, because nobody has the language or the courage to call a stop the charade.

And if you rush in before completing a conversation for possibility, you may have established a shared sense of commitment, but to what exactly? It doesn’t take long to imagine all the breakdowns and difficulties that arise when in a single team of people have very different ideas of what’s being worked on because nobody has spoken about it or agreed clearly what to do. This malaise, and all the confusion and duplication of effort that result, can easily affect whole organisations.

The huge pitfall that people frequently fall into is trying to resolve the difficulties they’re having getting action underway by having more conversations for action: asking again, insisting more urgently, or running another away day or meeting that produces one more list that everyone apparently agrees to but results in nothing.

No, if you’re in trouble in your conversations for action your difficulty might well lie in a prior conversation that hasn’t been completed yet. So, slow down, and take the time to go back as far as you need – right back into a conversation for relationship if need be – so that you can lay some solid ground for your intentions to stand upon.

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


Photo Credit: Barry Yanowitz via Compfight cc

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