Over the past two weeks I’ve been involved in an exciting organisational listening project.
The set up: four groups of people from a single organisation, drawn from different teams and many levels of the organisational hierarchy, were given a full half day to just hear one another, in a very simple format inspired by Barry Oshry’s ‘Time Out of Time’ meetings.
Each person, regardless of status and regardless of role, had exactly the same amount of time to speak: eight minutes in our case. And they could say whatever they wanted, as long as it was true and as long as it was offered with sincerity. Politeness (saying what’s expected, what has us fit in and not trouble anything or anyone) was discouraged. And respect (doing others the honour of truthfully saying what you see so they can see it too) encouraged.
Everybody spoke, once. And everybody listened, many times.
As we did this, something very beautiful began to unfold. People told the story, some for the first time, of what it was really like for them to work where they do. Not the public story that’s been told a million times before. Not the official story. But the truer story of hopes and successes, friendships and support, genuine commitment to shared aims, and of many many difficulties. The frustration and overwhelm of emails and busyness. How little they often found themselves genuinely talking to one another. The hiding away and defensiveness. The fear of being judged or criticised. The assumptions and stories they had about each other’s failings, and about each other’s insincerity. The punishing shadow side of high aspirations that can rarely be fully realised.
And, as they talked, a new way of seeing began to emerge – a more systemic view, a more compassionate view, and a more accurate view in which the actions of one could be seen for their effect on the other.
It was a gift to be invited to participate in such a project, in an unusually courageous organisation that’s willing to invest time and resources in looking and talking in this way. In my experience of supporting many organisations over the past decade, such conversations are vanishingly rare. So often, our wish to hurry on, to get busy, and to not have to encounter one another too deeply turns us away from the simplicity and power of such a conversation for relationship, in which we come to understand each others’ worlds enough to give us a chance to work skilfully together.
And yet conversations like these hold enormous power and possibility, because it’s only when we start to really understand our colleagues as human beings, with worlds of understanding and commitments different to our own, that we have a chance to move beyond simplistic judgements and rigidity into a more fluid, honest kind of relationship in which everyone has the chance to step forward and contribute.
All of that requires a particular kind of listening.
And it turns out that conversations for relationship are not some soft luxury, but the necessary background upon which our requests and promises come to mean something around which we can take coherent action.