Conversations can be openings for our life to unfold in interesting and surprising ways, but first we must create the conditions for them to occur.
Frankly, ten years ago I wouldn’t have fully appreciated what it means to have these bigger conversations.
What does that really mean?
How do we know it when it happens?
In my case, I caught my first glimpse of something intriguing when I started interviewing experts and asking them “What is your best improvement strategy?”
The answers were surprising, deep, and unexpected. Not only for me but oftentimes for the person I was speaking with and others as well. In an Amazon review of my book 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success, one reader wrote:
I feel every one of the interviews provides valuable insight with many takeaways for the future. I wouldn’t doubt folks who read this literary piece will frequently be returning to review what they had read here in the past.-Mario Hyland, VP AEGIS.net
I recently had the opportunity to have a big conversation with Sarah Rozenthuler about the Forward-Thinking Workplace. Sarah is an expert on having big conversations and wrote a book about it. She is the author of Life Changing Conversations and is a psychologist, leadership coach, and the founder of Bridgework Consulting Ltd. In her book, she talks about the seven strategies that are needed to help people talk about what matters most and shares some of those ideas here.
There were three big ideas that stood out for me in this compelling interview that can lead us to having bigger conversations:
- People will only find their voice and share their thinking if they feel safe.
- Making a workplace more innovative and more fulfilling for human beings is to help people drop their mask and show up more authentically.
- Part of the journey is learning to manage difficult emotions in oneself and in other people.
So why is it important to have these bigger conversations?
Sarah says, “By enhancing our ability to talk together we can create the lives that we desire, for ourselves and for those whose lives we touch. If one of us finds the courage to talk, then another does, then another, this domino effect could even change the world.”
Sarah shares many more fascinating insights in the full interview below.
Welcome to this forum Sarah and thank you for contributing your valuable insights to the Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplace conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Sarah Rozenthuler: It’s a big question with many dimensions to it. But if I just address the essence of it, one of the key things is to make the workplace psychologically safe and stimulating. People will only find their voice and share their thinking if they feel safe. Early on our ideas might be half-baked rather than anything really polished because often we refine our thinking in conversation with other people. In order for people to share those early thoughts, they need to feel safe. The combination of psychological safety and making it stimulating is a really interesting combination, so everybody can thrive.
I think people are increasingly recognizing that we can all wear a corporate mask and that there are parts of ourselves that we think are more socially acceptable or presentable. What is called for here in terms of making a workplace more innovative and more fulfilling for human beings is to help people drop some of that mask and show up more authentically. While it’s easy to say, I think that shift is actually quite challenging. Because in showing up more authentically, that also might be sharing parts of ourselves that feel more vulnerable and risky to share.
I like what the people at the Harvard Negotiation Project say about their work on conversations. One of the things they say is that difficult conversations are about difficult emotions. And actually, I think to break through to that more innovative and creative thinking and talking space, there’s often a difficult conversation to be had because there’s a diversity of perspective. Or there might be a degree of conflict. So actually, part of the journey is learning to manage difficult emotions in oneself and in other people. Inside of that, how much do I express? What’s appropriate? Dropping the corporate mask sounds simple, but it’s not easy.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Sarah: It’s really important that people feel listened to. That to me is just fundamental. If people are feeling sidelined, or if they’re just feeling that they’re an expendable resource or easily replaceable, they are not feeling valued as a human being. I know if that’s going on inside me, I wouldn’t be engaged. I wouldn’t be giving my best thinking to a project. Feeling listened to is absolutely critical.
Feeling stretched and stimulated and involved is important too so that there’s genuine curiosity from co-workers and other team members. For example, do people want to know what are your ideas or what has been your experience? Are you being asked to share your wisdom? What is the unique human being you are, what are you seeing? Are people properly engaged in a conversation.? It’s back to this combination of both feeling supported and safe, but also feeling stretched and challenged as well.
Bill: What do people lack and really long for at work?
Sarah: I think people really long for self-expression – to be in alignment with their heart’s desire or passion. What is uniquely theirs to do. What I notice in people that I work with, is even if that person can’t express and articulate clearly what their purpose or their passion is, what they absolutely do know is when there’s a lack of that. When people are not following their north star, they will notice that their energy is low. They feel directionless or burned out or chronically under-stimulated in some way.
I can relate from own experience. I’ve had times in my own career where I felt absolutely off my path, and it was such a painful experience for me. That’s partly why I do the work that I do because the difference in terms of felt sense between feeling on our path and off our path is huge. So, I think change often begins with people when they notice what’s not working even if they’re not able to articulate actually what it is they want.
It’s great if you can just say to yourself, “You know, I’m stuck.” Then think through it in conversation and reflection to work out where that “stuckness” is coming from. What I think is often missing is that sense of true alignment with one’s path in life and in work. At a deep level, I think that is what we’re all seeking whether we’re conscious of that or not. Even if we can’t articulate it.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders or managers should be asking employees?
Sarah: I think it would be something along the lines of how could we come together in service of something greater than ourselves? To put it in its most simple terms, I think that’s what teams and organizations are ultimately all about. It’s about creating something that’s greater than the sum of parts — a reflection of individuals working alone could never achieve.
I also think the service part of the above question, bringing something new and more valuable to the world, is an important part of that question of that mission. My observation on a personal level is that what truly motivates people at a deep level, is that sense of being part of something larger that goes beyond my little life and needs. I think to the extent that any of this can move us out of self-absorption and into an orientation that is about serving the greater whole, that’s the degree to which we feel fulfilled. We’re willing to go the extra mile.
From a leadership perspective, that’s the question I would be asking. It’s a question on one level that might sound quite simple but actually how you get a diverse range of human beings to pull together in the same direction is a challenge in and of itself. That’s the question that I think is critical.
Bill: What is the most important question employees should be asking management and leadership?
Sarah: It could be something around direction such as: where are we going? But not in a conventional sense around a planned future or what are the strategic goals for the next five years?
I would be encouraging employees to ask me, “What’s the future you’re sensing into? What are you feeling what wants to emerge here? What’s the marketplace really calling for in terms of this organization and how it needs to evolve and what that might mean for us as employees?”
What I would be hoping for from a leadership team is that sense of them scanning the horizon. At Oxford Saïd Business School, they use the term “ripple intelligence.” What are the ripples coming through that can inform us about the future and how we need to be evolving? I think a leadership team really has a responsibility to be doing that sensing and feeling into the ecosystem and sharing that with employees. Then also hearing what the employee’s sense of that is. That would be the dialogue I will be encouraging employees to stimulate with leaders.
Bill: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves?
Sarah: It would be along the lines of to what extent do I feel truly alive with life, with what life is calling me to do? It’s getting back to this sense of right path. To what extent am I following my north star or not? I think actually we all intuitively and instinctively have a sense of that.
What I see in the leadership work I do is that when people start asking questions of themselves on that level – while in some cases that might be quite uncomfortable to ask that question as it might reveal some difficult feelings – it is truly catalytic. It’s catalytic in terms of people’s career and development because the difference between somebody being in a place of alignment and being in a place of misalignment is absolutely huge.
It’s huge in terms of the energy they have to bring. It’s huge in terms of their creativity, how their self-expression flows, and in how open they are to be connecting with other people. For me right now, the really critical question to be asking ourselves is around alignment. How much am I resonating with where I am in this organization and where I am in life? Not an easy question but that’s where my own thoughts are. In the coaching work I’m doing, that seems to be a really strong emerging thread of conversation.
Bill: What has been your experience being in this interview with us?
Sarah: It’s interesting. What I’m noticing is that I feel I’m thinking here with you. I had no idea what I was going to say. What I’m noticing is a kind of we between us.
There’s something about connectivity between human beings – how that works and how that can be more effective. There’s a thread around purpose and passion. There’s a thread around alignment between people in service of something greater between the individual and their own sense of calling in life. That whole territory feels really rich to me here. Just conversation, alignment, and purpose.
Bill: One of the concepts from your book Life Changing Conversations that fascinated me was the idea of a conversation being an APERTURE through which life unfolds. Can you talk more about this idea?
Sarah: It’s interesting that you picked up on the metaphor of the aperture, for which I’d have to acknowledge the work of David Bohm, the quantum physicist, and his ideas around dialogue. The fundamental question he was asking was, “Why is it when there are big things to talk about that really matter – and whether that’s nation to nation or team to team or individual to individual – why is it that as human beings it so often ends in violence or silence?
He was bringing in insights from quantum physics to try and understand human interaction. That idea of an aperture. We think of an oak tree as coming from an acorn but actually, it’s more accurate to see the acorn as this aperture through which the oak tree unfolds. And it’s not just about the acorn. There have to be the right nutrients in the soil, the right amount of sunshine and moisture in the air.
But I just found that notion of aperture really evocative. This idea of a portal through which a whole entire massive oak tree could come into being. Then when working with different leadership teams and going into different organizations, I was seeing very clearly that when people could create the right conditions for a conversation — where they could talk about things that mattered without relationships rupturing — then it was amazing to watch what could unfold. Not instantly but over time. Whether that was a new strategy coming into being, or operationalizing what was quite a challenging strategy. That’s where I started making the connection in my own mind that a conversation can be like a doorway.
One of the ideas I tried to convey in the book was that on one level you could say, “Isn’t having a conversation quite a simple thing?” And actually, no it’s not sometimes. I’ve coached people who have waited decades before had a conversation with a family member. In one case, literally 23 years in one case with one client.
What I’m interested in is how do we help ourselves and how do we help each other get over the line? How do we cross that threshold to have that conversation? Because in that particular individual’s case who waited 23 years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that her whole life shifted by having that conversation that had been on hold for all those years. Things changed in her personal life and in her professional life. I’m still in touch with her, and she’s absolutely lit up in terms of where she is now.
As a psychologist and as a practitioner and even in terms of my own struggles, having big conversations is what I’m really interested in. In an organizational setting: How we can open up the conversation to help create openings where truly new thinking and ideas come in? In a more personal setting, it’s about the wider context that might be a whole new relationship with a family member that has a tremendous impact.
Sarah: My next book is about leadership. It’s about how leadership teams can come together in the service of something greater than themselves. It’s picking up on the movement of this whole purpose-driven business, which seems to be capturing more and more imaginations in the corporate world. And yet, it’s not an easy journey to make.
What I’m writing about is what that calls for from leaders and leadership teams because I think it calls for a much greater quality of dialogue and thinking. It’s taking some of the ideas of life-changing conversations and applying them very clearly in the leadership context by looking at that question of purpose.