The Two Conversations

Joachim Stempfle

In today’s business world, there are very few conversations where nothing is at stake. Without acknowledging what occurs at a deeper, emotional level, it is unlikely that we will create alignment on the business goals being discussed on the surface.

I recently worked with the leadership community of a local organization. The senior leadership team and the operational leaders were caught in a deadlock about their organization’s strategic direction. The senior leaders’ outer conversation was about making the organization competitive and future-proof. They had launched a transformation initiative that aimed to move to an agile organizational setup. The operational leaders’ outer conversation was about responding to customer needs and being successful on the market today. They expressed concerns that the transformation would jeopardize their teams’ ability to deliver.

While the outer conversation was focused on content, the inner conversations, below the surface, were highly emotional. The senior leaders feared that the operational leaders were undermining their credibility. They felt frustrated and worried that the operational leaders would rally up employees against the transformation efforts. They felt threatened by the operational leaders.

The operational leaders felt that the senior leaders were not respecting them, disregarding their hard work, past efforts and contribution. They felt sidelined, pushed away, and not included. They felt threatened by the senior leaders.

Over time, the inner conversations of both parties had hijacked the outer conversation. After a few clashes that could not be resolved, people were digging into their positions and stopped having open conversations. Both sides found themselves caught in a deadlock – everyone suffered, and the organization was paralyzed.

It does not matter what is being placed on the negotiating table: that is not all there is to it. While we define business goals, discuss productivity strategies, or select projects for fund allocation, each individual will have to navigate a complex array of emotions. Fear. Pride. Hope. Below the content level, it is often about keeping safe. And so, we play a double-sided game.

The two conversations

In every conversation, there are two levels: the outer, surface level conversation where we are discussing content, and the inner, below-the-surface conversation taking place inside each one of us, where our beliefs and threat perceptions collide, trigger emotions, and influence the outer conversation. The content level is the explicit conversation happening between people; it may be about business goals, projects, productivity, solutions…in contrast, the inner conversation is implicit; it is driven by our emotions and needs.

“I need this job. We need the funding, or my entire team will suffer. Our project must go through”, someone might think while making a strong claim about how their project is the single best possible solution to a given problem. “This person is threatening my position and status. I need to prove my value and put them in their place”, another person might think, while picking apart the proposed solution in great detail, but without offering any real alternatives. Meanwhile, the person with the actual best project idea stays silent. “I just joined the company. If I get into an argument now, will that harm my career later? Better stay put for now”.

In the example above, the inner conversation has started to run the outer conversation, at the expense of the solution, and thus, future performance. Moreover, the unaddressed emotions are hijacking the atmosphere of the meeting. Trust is evaporating quickly, as people have a keen sense and recognize that what is being said is not all there is to it. Most people will leave the room feeling drained and frustrated.

The name of the game

When such a game is taking place, we can often identify three roles. One is that of the attacker, who pushes their agenda hard and attacks others. Then, there is the defender, who pushes back, withdraws, or seeks coalitions with others. Lastly, there may also be a mediator, someone who tries to get people to listen and agree and get the conversation back on track (often unsuccessfully).

What’s interesting is that these roles do not appear in any job description. Nobody is paid to play their part. Regardless, everyone is playing the game, on top of their other formal responsibilities.

We pay a steep price for playing this game. Our attention and energy are diverted from our real job, performance suffers, and we all feel drained and frustrated. As Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey have pointed out, the “second job” that people take on in organizations – preserving status, saving face, hiding our limitations, protecting our ego – can take up so much energy that not much is left for doing our real job. In the above example, the senior leadership team and the operational leadership team found themselves at this stalemate.

Breaking free

Breaking free from hidden emotional dynamics is not easy or comfortable. Our brain remembers past threats we have experienced and shifts rapidly into defense mode. Humans are wired to protect themselves, and so, when a trigger appears, the inner conversation might take over and we move into self-protection mode. This happens unconsciously.

So, how can we solve this? The solution is simple, but not easy. We need to stop solving emotional issues at the content level. We need to look at what lies below the iceberg from the get-go, and not the other way around. For this to happen, we need to create an environment where we don’t just talk about the content, but also about how we feel. We need to bring the inner conversation to the surface and speak out what is going on inside of us.

Before getting into the content, it is worthwhile for each individual to take some time to reflect. “What is at stake for me? What are my fears? What do I hope to gain? What’s my story?” Once we understand ourselves, we can share our inner conversations with each other transparently. For this to happen, we need to create an environment where it is okay to be real, where vulnerability and authenticity are prized and radically encouraged. When space for sharing and listening exists, we can begin to deal with both levels of the conversation, inner and outer, consciously and courageously. Empathy, mutual understanding and appreciation will emerge naturally. We can then have more mindful conversations, where new solutions are found.

With the leaders in the initial example, we used a simple iceberg chart and explained the logic of two conversations. Then everyone was encouraged to reflect and write post its for about 10 minutes about both the outer and their inner conversation. As people one by one started to share how they felt, speaking about their emotions, doubts, fears and hopes, the atmosphere shifted rapidly. When we gave the leaders genuine space to reflect and share what is going on inside of them, the senior leaders as well as operational leaders realized that everyone was suffering equally and exhausted from playing attacker, defender, or mediator. They saw that the fundamental disagreement was not about the content, but about their needs and emotions. By taking a risk and sharing their inner conversations with each other, it became clear that both teams felt disrespected by the other team. Asking people to bring their inner conversation into the open created a high level of trust. People were able to re-connect as humans. Finding this common ground allowed them to have a real conversation about the tension of current business needs against future business needs, and how both teams could meet those needs, with mutual respect. As a result, they co-created a solution they all own and value.

Maintaining momentum

Surfacing the inner conversation is not easy, but it is a skill which, when practiced, becomes easier over time. As leaders, we can make it a habit to reflect on our own hopes and fears, our beliefs and perceptions, and our triggers that drive our inner conversations and trap us into habitual behavior patterns. Once we are in tune with ourselves, we can initiate sharing about our inner conversations in meetings where everyone seems stuck. By making this practice a habit, we create mindful dialogues which include both the inner conversation and the outer conversation. Surfacing the inner conversation is the fastest way to fruitful meetings, collaborative solutions, and shared decisions that everyone owns and commits to. Whenever we manage to bring both the outer and the inner conversation into the open, people will leave meetings feeling energized, as trust has been increased and real progress has been made.

(Written with the support of Inés Escobar Borruel and Carrie Schlauch)


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Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2016). An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. Harvard Business Review Press.