Provision #450: Communicate What Works

Laser Provision

The system knows the solution. That’s a basic principle of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The top dogs may not know the solution, but someone does. That’s why AI enjoins people at every level to communicate with each other about the things that work. By piecing together the collective knowledge and wisdom of the whole system, solutions emerge that no one could have come up with on their own. Through whole-system dialogue, those solutions emerge with the energizing juice of human passion, expectation, and even love.

LifeTrek Provision

“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” So begins the 2005 movie Crash, which is billed as “a provocative, unflinching look at the complexities of racial tolerance in contemporary America.”

It is that, of course, at least as seen through the eyes of the movie’s white writer-director, Paul Haggis. Nominated for six Academy Awards, the movie presents one furious encounter after another across the dividing lines of race, class, ethnicity, and gender. It is not for the fainthearted. As one reviewer quips, “If there’s an ill-tempered remark that has ever been uttered in the city of Los Angeles that hasn’t found its way into this movie, I can’t imagine what it is.”

Underlying the various, interlocking story lines and characters • all of which take place and crash into each other in a 24-hour period • the movie can also been seen as a study in communication. Virtually every tragic encounter in the movie could have gone very differently if people had chosen to communicate differently (or to communicate at all). But they did not, could not, or would not so choose, leaving the rage to fuel itself and to expand exponentially.

Forty years earlier, Paul Newman’s character put it this way at the end of the classic prison movie,Cool Hand Luke. “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Mimicking something said to him earlier in the movie by the captain, Newman is shot dead a moment later. As in Crash, the failure to communicate can have tragic and even deadly consequences.

Unfortunately, the failure to communicate is more rule rather than exception in our world today. Consider the current outrage over the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Once again the pen has proved to be mightier than the sword, bringing entire populations into violent turmoil.

One does not have to look for such dramatic examples in order to appreciate the power of communication to build up and to tear down. From the most intimate, one-on-one relationships to work teams, companies, and organizations, all of us understand the importance of good communication. Communication, like trust, is both a social lubricant and a glue. When the communication is open, respectful, honest, reliable, and benevolent, things work better. When the communication is tainted, polluted, or nonexistent, things break down.

Break downs happen more often than we might like to admit. The divorce rate for first-time marriages continues to hover around 50%, and I have never met a divorcee who did not mention communication as part of the problem. So too when it comes to dysfunctional families and work environments. The failure to communicate creates intolerable conditions and blocks creative expression. No wonder so many companies lose or never achieve peak performance. People are not communicating with each other beyond the most basic of grunts and groans.

Understanding this dynamic, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) works to get people talking to each other in positive, creative, open, honest, clean, and benevolent ways. By focusing primarily on the things that work well in life and work, AI breaks through not only the defensiveness but also the silos that so many of us experience on a daily basis.

Defensiveness and silos were integral to the storyline in Crash. No one trusted anyone else outside of their own little world. “Birds of a feather flock together” was never less of a clich•. Everyone had an attitude. Encountering someone different • not only a different race, class, ethnicity, and gender but also a different position • prompted negative, ugly, closed, devious, dirty, and malevolent thoughts, remarks, and behaviors.

Although exaggerated and compressed in the movie for dramatic effect, the dynamics the movie portrays are both real and common. They are the stuff of satires and cartoons (e.g., Dilbert andThe Simpsons) that would be funny if they were not so often true.

Think of your own environments. How often does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing? How often is one person or department afraid or unwilling to speak openly with another person or department? How often does communication and collaboration break down over issues related to turf, resources, intellectual property, or respect?

Defensiveness and silos abound. We each tend to operate in our own little worlds, just like the people in the movie, without access to all the information and wisdom of the system. We too often find ourselves competing and jockeying for position rather than cooperating and searching for answers.

When that happens, we not only lose our performance edge, we also lose our way in the world. Who can maintain their zest for life when life is compartmentalized into adversarial and isolated positions? Who can make even good decisions, let alone bold, courageous, and creative decisions, when we can’t see the whole picture? The answer, in a word, is no one.

That’s why AI seeks to start a conversation about what works in an organization or system on the widest possible level. Recognizing that people who are closest to the action will often see things that are missed by middle and upper management, AI seeks to open lines of communication that are all too often closed, twisted, ignored, or dismissed.

In school systems, for example, who would think to ask the first graders what works in the system? AI would. In an office setting, who would think to ask the janitors what works? AI would. In a warehouse distribution center, who would think to ask the pickers what works? AI would.

AI practitioners speak of this as the wholeness principle: it is wholeness that brings out the best in people. But wholeness becomes possible only when we move beyond consensus and common ground to a place of synthesis and higher ground. Until we learn to respect each other’s differing views, perspectives, and interpretations of shared events, there will be no wholeness, not even when the opinions of those who are closest to the action are sought. The “us-them” dynamic will permeate and poison the entire discussion.

The wholeness principle works only when people approach each other with mutuality, humility, and respect. AI does not ask first graders, janitors, and pickers what works in their systems as a way of gathering input so that others can make decisions. AI asks questions of the whole system because it acknowledges each and every member of the system as a player, a leader, and a cherished resource who can generate proposals and the energy for change.

That’s what Peter Senge means when he writes about “learning organizations.” Such organizations value and empower all members of the system, including external customers, to communicate and control the work flow as it relates to them. When they see what works, let alone when they see a way to improve what works, they are encouraged • indeed expected • to spread the word and to influence how things get done.

When organizations make this approach to life and work their modus operandi, they shift from the “win-lose” frame to the “win-learn” frame. There are no losers when life and work are seen and experienced through this frame. There are only learners, engaged in a mutual search to not only find what works but to communicate it to others as part of a system-wide push for excellence.

That’s how things get better, or even radically transformed, in “learning organizations.” One beggar tells another beggar where to find bread. The word spreads like a virus, replicating throughout the organization as people talk openly and excitedly about the the things they are discovering, learning, and doing. It becomes impossible to contain, not that anyone would want to, once the seed germinates and takes root. It grows fast, since it is laced with the energizing juice of human passion, expectation, and even love.

Perhaps some of you have seen the PBS special on IDEO, an innovation and design firm based in the San Francisco bay area of California. If ever there was a “learning organization,” this is one. Creativity and collaboration are their stock and trade. Although the organization has a hierarchy on paper, you would hardly know it in practice. Their communication reflects a partnership rather than a domination model of leadership. By sharing their ideas (especially their wild and crazy ideas) with each other, in an animated and free-flowing atmosphere of mutuality and respect, IDEO models internally what it brings to the world: great expectations.

If you have great expectations for your organization, then perhaps it’s time to shift your communications to the “win-learn” frame. Break the cycle of blame and shame by inoculating the system with the vaccine of communication, celebration, and empowerment. It may take time for people to trust the new reality, but once the door opens the immunity will grow and the shift will happen.

More than forty years ago, Reuel Howe spoke of this in terms of “the miracle of dialogue.” Dialogue can do amazing things. It can not only find solutions to heretofore intractable problems, it can also mend relationships and fill people with hope. Honest, open, and respectful dialogue about the things that work fuels the fire of transformational change. It not only generates good ideas and creative plans, it generates the trust, hope, and love necessary to turn those ideas and plans into reality.

Who doesn’t want that? We all do. And AI represents a process for making that happen. It’s not rocket science, but getting people to stop talking about what is wrong and to start talking about what is right has launched more than one system into the stratosphere of success and fulfillment of life and work.

Coaching Inquiries: Think of a system that you’re involved with. It may be your company, organization, school, congregation, or family. What’s the energy level there? How often do you communicate with each other about the things that work? How could you encourage more dialogue my more people? What would need to change for that to happen? Who could assist you and your organization to shift from the “win-lose” to the “win-learn” frame? When might you be able to get started?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

I have been getting these emails for sometime now and it is sad to say I usually skim over them or dismiss them entirely due to their large content. But today I took the time to read this Provision and what a blessing It was! My life and my mind has been forever changed by the great content it holds. I want to thank you for faithfully sending them out.

Much of life is like this. We never take the time to slow down enough to enjoy all the treasures that life has to offer such as I have done with your Provision. Thank you for all the wisdom that you put in these Provisions. I can see they have love, hope, help, and encouragement all bundled inside and very much worth the time for one to slow down and absorb!

You concluded your last Provision, Take Inspired Action Click, with the remark that a person’s charitable actions “may not be as immense as saving Africa from debt and AIDS, and may in fact be no more than saving one small child or reengineering one vital process, but they will matter just as much in the end. And doesn’t that make you glad?” 

No, it makes me sad! Some famous economist, Basat I think, taught us to look at the hidden in the Broken Window fallacy. So while, I wouldn’t critique Bono for what he has done, at least he DID something, I would point out the hidden cost of charity: it is ineffective since the root cancer remains.

The worst condemnation is that charity will not accomplish a solution. For charity to be effective it has to conform to some principles discovered long ago. Visit The Acton Institute. It has to be rooted in the concept that “give a fish, feed a day. Teach to fish, feed for a lifetime.” Anything short of that, and our actions are guaranteed to keep our fellow humans in poverty, virtual slavery, and misery for their short lives.

I just wanted to tell you that I am so enjoying reading •Flesh and Spirit• and the •Optimum Wellness Program• over and over again. I can truly feel my mind shifting and my lifestyle on the edge of significant, healthy change. How inspiring! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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