What kind of conversation are you having today?

In many workplaces conversation is regarded as an adjunct to the real work of getting stuff done. All too often a request for a conversation is experienced as an interruption, a distraction from real work. Seen as a necessary evil, the objective is to complete the conversation as quickly as possible so all involved can get back to work. While the topic of conversation may be regarded as important, the quality of conversation doesn’t even register. This is very unfortunate as the quality of any conversation will have an impact beyond the moment. 


The information and ideas that follow come from the excellent recent publication ‘Conversations worth having’ by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres,bar the table and graph which I generated from their writing. I have found this classification extremely helpful in thinking about the nature of conversation.


The quality of conversation affects people’s emotional state, their ability to learn or take advice, their creativity in problem-solving or generating initiative, their motivation, and their action potential e.g. the likelihood of them doing something appropriate and useful after the conversation. It will also affect their willingness to engage in future conversations. In this way every conversation is potentially an investment in the culture, creativity and productivity of the organization. 


This means every conversation has an impact on the quality of organisational life. Each conversation while a small thing in itself is part of huge construction: the organisational culture. How it feels to be a member of the organization, to work in the organization, to attempt to improve the organization is determined by our day to day interactions: our daily work conversations.


So we are wise to give some thought to the nature of conversation in organizations. Conversations in the workplace can be classified along two key dimensions or axis: inquiry to statement, appreciative to depreciative, as the table below shows. Each combination of dimensions generates a different quality of conversation.

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For example, conversations can be conducted from an appreciative or depreciative stance. In general terms, those conducted from an appreciativestance are likely to add value as people share ideas and build on the ideas of others. In addition, people’s contributions will be acknowledged, opportunities identified, new perspectives generated and possibilities for action created. Such conversations create upwards spirals of confidence and optimism. These conversations serve to strengthen connections, enhance relationships and expand awareness. People experience meaningful engagement.


By contrast conversations conducted from adepreciative perspective, where people advocate for their own ideas and ignore or actively criticize those of others, are likely to be experienced as belittling and critical. In such conversations people are focused on pointing out why things won’t work. They may be dominated by a few strong characters. Such conversations are likely to weaken connections and strain relationships, to reinforce existing assumptions and to eclipse people’s potential i.e. to limit possibility and movement forward.


Inquiry-basedconversations are based on questions. Conducted from an appreciative perspective, the aim of the questions is to generate information, to reveal hidden assumptions perspectives or knowledge or to expand awareness. They aim to make room for the emergence of possibility and opportunity or to deepen understanding and initiate change. Such conversations are likely to build relationships, awareness and connections. People are likely to feel valued in such conversations. We can see that this is where the practice of Appreciative Inquiry is located. From a depreciativeperspective they are likely to consist of rhetorical and negative questions that are pejorative. People are likely to feel that they and their efforts are devalued in such a conversation.


Statement-basedconversations consist mostly of comments. Offered from anappreciativeperspective these are likely to be experienced as affirming. The comments will be positive as well as add value in the way they respond to questions or point to important facts. They are likely to be experienced as validating and to have a positive impact on people and situations. Conversations conducted from a depreciativeperspective are likely to be focused on criticism and blame, they are likely to be a non-validating experience.


In general, the two appreciative focused conversations are likely to be more beneficial to individuals and the organization. The different characteristics of the two appreciative focused conversations are interesting, as reflected in the table below

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The important difference being that appreciative and generativeconversations are more likely to result in change. The difference lies in the power of questions to promote change in thinking and action.


The tell-tale signs of an appreciative conversation are recognised as the presence of energy, creativity and positive emotions. Importantly critical conversations can be effective when balanced with strong relationships formed as the result of predominantly appreciative conversations. Destructive conversations are likely only to be damaging to those present and the wider organization.


With thanks to Jackie and Cheri: Stavros, J and Torres, C. (2018) Conversations worth having. Berrett-Koehler