Holding conversations

The more dialogue-related work I do, the greater my appreciation for the connection between the outcome of a conversation and the climate within which it’s held. What I mean by outcome is more than the immediate upshot – it includes how the conversation impacts relationships and the bigger system.

Climate is harder to articulate. It’s a mash-up of ingredients, such as energetic feel; quality of engagement; levels of safety; rhythm and tone of voices; perceptions of power; and freedoms to speak. Very few of these are concrete and yet their combined effect is palpable. We might liken climate to a bowl, in which the usable space is defi ned by solid material such as china or wood. To create a fruitful space in which to talk and listen, we can explore how to use tangible factors, such as setting and conduct, to make a container.

The nature of a physical container determines what it can hold – a flimsy plastic dish distorts when filled with hot contents, for example. In a similar way, the fabric of a container for conversation influences the levels of intensity, turbulence and discomfort that can be safely handled by those present. A routine conversation may be sustained by social customs, a formal agenda and a chairperson, whilst a ‘higher, deeper, wider’ conversation (as one client describes dialogue) calls for more deliberate and nuanced holding.

For example, to nurture a climate that welcomes differences – which are often passionately promoted or doggedly defended – those present must collectively be able to accept and acknowledge irritation, frustration, dislike and other highly charged feelings. Together, they must also fi nd the grace, compassion and humility to absorb self-doubt, embarrassment, disappointment and regret. Put simply, they must build capacity to contain whatever arises, however diffi cult, and continue to listen with respect and curiosity until there is a glimpse of shared insight into what really matters. This changes the quality of the conversation.

In my view, every conversation has a container, whether or not we pay attention to its nature. When ignored, a container still shapes what unfolds, in the way the layout of a room may go unremarked yet may subtly enable or limit collaboration. To be sure we can talk about important issues with appropriate frankness and depth, we must take note of our container and consider whether it is resilient enough to support our aspirations.

For example, if we expressly attend to how we will receive what is said, we establish a shared willingness to recognise and consider each voice. This, in turn, encourages greater openness. The very act of turning towards such matters and bringing them into awareness fundamentally changes what is possible. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs is unequivocal: ‘no consciously held container, no dialogue.’

Explicitly exploring and articulating the shared conditions for holding a conversation enhances our collective capacity to engage with each other. Yet how much time do we typically invest in cultivating and maintaining this aspect of our conversations? I know I’m not alone in finding the magnetism of tasks, decisions and problem-solving hard to resist. The short-term attraction of content and achievement easily seduces me into skipping over the non-urgent business of creating a container.

When things are going well, this doesn’t matter. If things get messy, it’s too late – emotions are already running high, ambiguity and uncertainty abound and self-interest predominates. In the midst of all this, it’s much harder to attend to holding the conversation. And so, in neglecting to ask what kind of space we intend to establish for our conversation, I create my own circumstances, time after time.


    • Recall a difficult or unpleasant conversation – when you reflect on the conditions in which the conversation took place, what do you notice? What shaped the conversation, before a word was spoken?
    • When you next approach an important conversation, how might you influence those present to engage in creating the climate for it?
Written in May 2015 and included in Weekly Leadership Contemplations