The Conversation of Lovers and Teams
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book Human, All Too Human, introduced the idea of marriage as a long conversation:
“When marrying, you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time that you’re together will be devoted to conversation.”
Take a moment to remember a time in your life when you felt a deep and profound passion for someone you had not yet had the time to get to know. If this is the state that you’re currently in, spare your memory and instead, access your consciousness, within the confines of a person in love. Now let me offer a proposal for briefly analyzing the conversations that loved ones have, and how that reflection can be useful in understanding the conversations that take place in a work team.
Typically, when people in love talk about themselves and their objects of passion, even elements that could be considered a flaw or a vulnerability are dressed up as the opposite. In the back and forth of conversation, lovers take delight in knowing the other person, expecting the same kind of joy from their counterpart. The best attributes, virtues, flaws, and mistakes are all labelled with the same color, intensity, and urgency. This first kind of conversation, in essence, aims to create and consolidate the relationship.
If the bond endures, even in the initial phase, another kind of conversation usually starts to appear. This second type of conversation is destined to explore possibilities: “What if we travel together to x?,” “How wonderful would be if we moved in together…,” “How will we be as a family?” etc. It’s only possible to explore the future if and when you have had enough conversations to strengthen the relationship, when some kind of trust, conviction, and faith about what the relationship might become has been reached.
When some of these possibilities have been explored to the point of consummation, life takes charge and brings on a third type of conversation: those intended to coordinate actions. When a relationship reaches this point, the potential for disagreement and misalignment is inevitably activated. For instance, when two people start to live in the same house together, like magic, various mundane activities appear: doing the dishes, taking care of the laundry, replenishing the refrigerator, coordinating vacation, and picking up the kids. By then, amongst other factors, if the history of their conversation is not broad, diverse, and effective enough, conflict and misunderstanding may arise. This may occur partly because the need to coordinate action has an impact on the time and the availability to have conversations of the other two kinds. On the other hand, the couple’s effectiveness in coordinating their actions will depend on the level of self and mutual knowledge they possess, and also on the opportunities to explore new possibilities that their conversations generated.
So it seems clear that there are interconnections and interdependencies between these three types of conversation that, in their turn, comprise the stage where everything happens: the relationship creates and consolidates itself by conversation, its future is projected during talk, and is made possible (action) through the same vehicle.
The same dynamics and hypothesis can be applied to teams. When I asked a team which of the three types of conversation they engaged in most frequently, the answer was, with little variation, “We spend 90 percent of the time talking about what has to be done.” Work teams exist so that they can attain results. And to get results, impeccable action coordination is a desired trait. However, to have that, taking ten percent of the time to build relationships and explore possibilities is not enough. How many teams do you know that talk about the way they talk? I’m not referring to one-to-one conversations on the hallway or next to the coffee machine. I mean the time spent in conversation as a team. I don’t know that many, but the ones I do know are outstanding teams.
What these teams do is pretty simple. I recently worked with a whole department that has three “natural teams.” We started by analyzing the kinds of conversation that were in place during work meetings. Not surprisingly, we all agreed that their conversations mainly revolved around action coordination. We helped them diversify their conversation types, even in work meetings, and introduced simple practices like the “check in” and “check out.” This practice allows each person to know how others are feeling, and understand the commonalities and differences regarding expectations. The only way that we know of to turn expectations into commitment is through conversation.
We also introduced another kind of methodology we call “The Kitchen.” The Kitchen is a dedicated time at the end of each meeting when conversation cannot be around action coordination — it has to be about the way the team conversed in that meeting. It is the time for meta-conversation.
In the kitchen, team members can speak about how they felt; what they thought and did not say; what they need from others and what they can offer to the team; and what they see as necessary for the team to evolve and become better. At first it can help to have an outsider as a facilitator. With practice, most teams can become autonomous in conducting kitchen conversations and appoint a “kitchen facilitator” in a rotating scheme. It usually only takes 15 to 20 minutes to have these kinds of conversation. By turning this into a ritual, teams can ensure they have a space to have conversations that enhance relationships and open new possibilities of understanding.
We use the kitchen metaphor for two reasons. The first comes from an everyday life observation. When you organize a dinner at your place or at a friend’s house, where do all the important conversations take place? The kitchen. The second reason has to do with cleanliness and hygiene. Imagine what would happen if you used your kitchen normally for a whole week without cleaning it and doing the dishes. Imagine how it would look and smell after a week’s worth of cooking and eating without cleaning anything. What would happen if you wanted to cook something, if you could get past the smell? Even if you had food left, you probably wouldn’t have the tools available. To keep a kitchen clean and operational, you have to “do the dishes.” It’s the same with teams. If you let “dirty dishes” rest for days, weeks, months or even years, your team’s environment will suffer.
After introducing these practices, the three teams and the whole department shifted their communication practices. They became more proficient in communicating beyond “what has to be done.” In their words, this is helping them adapt more quickly and easily to the critical digital transformation that’s happening as we speak. In an apparent paradox, becoming more human is helping them become more “digital.”
Returning to Nietzsche’s idea about marriage, the couples and teams that are most successful are the ones that can, continuously and constantly, have conversations about their relationship(s), their maintenance and evolution, continue to explore possibilities, and coordinate action effectively. The measures and proportions are not written anywhere and should, like a good recipe, be adjusted to changing environments and circumstances. In the end, the couples and teams that are most harmonious and effective are those that, despite the need to coordinate, sustain the importance and relevance of diversifying their conversations through conversation.
João Sevilhano is a partner in strategy and innovation at Way Beyond.