Home » Blog » Constructive conversations

Category: Constructive conversations

Making governance conversations more professional: Seven principles


This is a follow up to my previous post From Q&As to constructive conversations.

If we want governance conversations to be more constructive then they need to be more professional. It’s helpful in this context to look at what the professional conversation experts, in other words the facilitators, coaches, mediators, therapists, supervisors and counsellors, are doing. Of course, the exchanges you’re having in your board and committee meetings are already professional in many respects and it’s helpful to pay attention to this.

While professional conversations are similar in many ways to the day to day conversations that we might have with friends or family, they differ in a number of important respects. Some things are obvious perhaps. In our professional life, or when talking to those who are providing services, we expect people to behave in certain ways. It’s the same with a governance conversation. It’s hard to work constructively with someone who is being dismissive or rude. 

Drawing on the work of the professional conversation experts, and particularly the solution focussed work of Iveson, George and Ratner [1], I’d like to suggest seven principles that underpin professional conversations and might be applied to governance conversations to make them more constructive.

Seven principles of constructive public governance conversations

Positive

Rather than being simply cheerful or even motivational, positive here means paying attention to solutions rather than problems, to what’s wanted rather than what isn’t. After all, constructive means building in a positive direction. Of course public governance requires that concerns are identified and dealt with and being positive doesn’t negate that. On the contrary, knowing that the aim is to find solutions rather than investigate what’s gone wrong (this requires a different type of conversation) can help create the conditions for bringing things into the open.

Respectful

Spoken words and body language have an important role in professional conversations and can show that we trust and appreciate each other. While dismissiveness or a lack of civility will stop a conversation in its tracks, over familiarity makes it difficult to establish the creative tension that is needed for a constructive conversation. Furthermore, to the public looking from the outside, over familiar conversations might appear too cosy or even suggest collusion. 

Purposeful 

Professional conversations are conversations with a purpose. In our day to day conversations we might be happy to meander and not worry where things are going. In a professional conversation, however, it’s important to have a shared understanding of where we want the conversation to go and what the benefits of talking together might be. It’s important for citizens and service users to know that governance time is being used as productively as possible.

Turn taking

For Iveson, George and Ratner, turn taking is one of the two rules that apply to all conversations. Turn taking ensures participation and we notice when the rule is broken as we feel we have ben unfairly excluded. In governance conversations this means taking into account the different roles of executive and independent members and respecting the turns of each other.

Circular 

The second rule highlighted by Iveson, George end Ratner is that of circularity. When coaches, therapists and mediators, for example, ask questions, they will do so in a way that builds on what the client has just said and encourages a response that will give them more to build on. In the same way, if governance conversations are to be constructive, then contributions need to reflect what has gone before and encourage a back and forth that creates something new. Without circularity, governance conversations can stutter and jump between unrelated points.

Evidenced 

A professional conversation requires evidence, whether it comes directly from what the client says or is taken from the world outside the conversation. In a governance conversation there is an emphasis on ‘outside’ evidence as the board or committee seeks to learn about how the organisation is performing and the context it is operating in. This means that the contributions to a constructive governance conversation should be evidenced wherever possible in order to frame, justify, and increase the credibility of questions, proposals and compliments, for example.

Managed  

Finally, in every professional conversation someone takes responsibility for managing the conversation. We would normally expect a coach, therapist or mediator, for example, to take on this responsibility to keep the talking purposeful, ensure turns are taken as they should and encourage circularity. In a governance conversation this responsibility is less clear. Perhaps the chairperson has a role, perhaps the whole group has a part to play but certainly each participant, through their contributions, can act as a facilitator. 

 

So, these are different aspects of professional conversations that might usefully be considered when working out how to make governance conversations more constructive. But what might this look like in practice?

To unpick what members of public boards and committees could actually be doing to support more constructive conversations we need to look at two levels; the structure of a constructive governance conversation and, first, the nano structure, or grammar, of constructive contributions. 

I’ll cover that in future posts.

 

 

  1. Two books by Iveson, George, and Ratner in particular:  Brief coaching: A solution focussed approach (2012) and Solution focussed brief therapy: 100 key points and techniques (2012). 

Photo credit

From Q&As to Constructive Conversations


The question and answer session, or Q&A, can be productive and helpful for ‘finding things out’ and for getting things ‘on the record’. However, if boards and committees want to move to the next level, then what’s needed is constructive conversations.

The normal mode of engagement between independent (non-executive) members and the executive in the majority of meetings is the Q&A. Put simply, the independent member asks a question and the executive member answers it. Often this will be a single question. Sometimes the independent member will ask a string of questions, one after another, on a single theme. Sometimes they will ask a string of questions on different themes. All too common is the asking of two or more questions at the same time – a practice that rarely helps.

There are, of course, good reasons for having Q&As in public committee and board meetings. First, they are good for ‘finding things out’. Good questions help expand the knowledge of independent members about the organisation and the approach of the executives. Second, Q&As are good for transparency. They help support accountability by getting statements from the executive ‘on the record’ and making them public. Particularly when there are concerns to be raised, or proposals to be made, it’s important that these are refuted or acknowledged by those in power. Questions asked for these reasons are likely to be helpful and will contribute to good governance and the broader discourse of the committee or board. Sometimes, of course, these types of Q&A neither add nor detract. For example, the independent member is simply curious for personal reasons or has not read the papers in advance and needs to understand the background. Sometimes questions are not really questions at all but a way for independent members to make a statement or share an opinion.

There is a third reason behind many questions in Q&As. Often, and particularly in committees involving elected members from different political parties, questions are asked in order to put people on the spot, to expose them, to make them uncomfortable or to make them look bad. In the political context this might be seen as effective opposition and a test that all leaders should expect and welcome. However, while these Q&As are usually civil, they cannot really be considered as constructive. In fact, it is fair to say that these kinds of questions are often intended to be destructive.

However, there is also a fourth reason for the exchanges in committees or boards for which Q&As are not well suited. That reason is solution building, in other words, engaging in dialogue in order to create new ways of doing things that make a difference for citizens and those using services. The stop/start nature of Q&As means they are not suited for this purpose particularly when ‘fact finding’ or ‘opposition’ are the primary reasons for the questions.

Instead what’s needed to build solutions are constructive conversations.

It’s through structured conversations that solutions can be built, and ways forward found in even the most challenging of situations. These conversations will not happen naturally, however, they require a structured approach and the right tools and techniques. Fortunately help is at hand. Conversation experts such as facilitators, coaches, therapists, mediators, counsellors and supervisors know how to make conversations constructive and many of these lessons can be applied to committee and board meetings. By borrowing the approach of these conversation experts, and by starting to use the tools and techniques that they use, independent members should start to get better, more satisfying results from their exchanges  at public committee and board meetings.

 

Photo wikipedia commons