Preview Thursday: Conversations Worth Having

The following is an excerpt from Conversations Worth Having.

What Kind of Conversations Are You Having?

"The moment of questioning is also the moment of choice, which usually holds the greatest leverage for effective action and positive change."

~ Marilee Goldberg

What is it that creates the kinds of conversations worth having? Let’s find out by looking at the nature of conversations in general. Conversations have two dimensions: appreciative-depreciative and inquiry-statement. The first dimension describes the nature of our conversations as either appreciative--adding value--or depreciative--devaluing.

Appreciative Conversations

Appreciative conversations add value by strengthening connections, enhancing relationships, expanding awareness, broadening and building human potential, generating ideas, adding new knowledge and possibilities, or moving us toward desired outcomes. Think about times you’ve collaborated with others to develop creative solutions to a sticky problem or been publicly acknowledged for great work you’ve done. Remember how these conversations made you feel? If you are like most people, conversations like these feel good and are energizing. The value-added goes beyond the positive emotions we experience; these conversations literally create an upward spiral of confidence and optimism. They stimulate meaningful engagement and fuel positive action.

Depreciative Conversations

On the other hand, depreciative conversations devalue by weakening connections, straining relationships, reinforcing assumptions, eclipsing human potential, limiting possibility, or hindering movement toward desired outcomes. Think back on times you may have argued with someone you cared about or been on the receiving end of criticism. Did you say things you didn’t mean or came to regret later? How did those conversations make you feel? Depreciative conversations are often described as exhausting and can leave people with low energy, feeling alienated and drained. Research in the field of positive psychology has found that focusing on what is wrong or the negative in an effort to fix something actually narrows our thought repertoire, thereby restricting access to the skills and thinking capacity needed for creativity, critical thinking, and solution-finding. Depreciative conversations can smother creativity, resulting in decreased productivity and disengagement.

Inquiry-based Conversations

In the second dimension, conversations are either inquiry-based or statement-based; we are either asking questions or making comments. Inquiry-based conversations aim to generate information or surface understanding. Questions that arise out of curiosity and genuine interest build relationships and often produce new knowledge or possibilities. Such questions add value and are appreciative in nature. Recall a conversation where someone’s questions resulted in your feeling more connected to them or even more inspired to take positive action. What kinds of questions were asked? Questions can also arise from a place of judgment or criticism. These questions are often rhetorical or pejorative, devaluing people. They are depreciative in nature. Think back to a time when you or someone else asked questions that left you feeling disempowered or critiqued. What kinds of questions were asked in that case?

Statement-based Conversations

Then, there are statement-based conversations made up of declarative statements that can add value (affirmative statements) or devalue (destructive statements). When statements are appreciative, people are saying positive things, advocating in a way that contributes or points to important facts. Such conversations are valuable and have positive impact on people and situations. Statements that are depreciative in nature are often critical and negative. The seeds of division are sown, and there is little to no room for learning and growth to occur.

Combining these two dimensions--appreciative vs. depreciative and inquiry- vs. statement-based--gives us a way to understand the nature of our conversations and their impact, as presented in Table 2.1.

Four basic types of conversations or interactions:

  1. Conversations that add value through appreciative questions and dialogue. We call these Conversations Worth Having.
  2. Conversations that add value through appreciative comments and statements. We call these Affirmative Conversations. These are also worth having, to a point.
  3. Conversations that devalue through depreciative questions and defensive interactions. We call these Critical Conversations.
  4. Conversations that devalue through depreciative comments and statements. We call these Destructive Conversations, and they are not worth having.

At the heart of every conversation, there is tone and direction: how is the conversation making us feel and where is the conversation taking us? Think about conversations you’ve had with family members, friends, colleagues, or your boss. How did you feel after a conversation that you thought was worthwhile? A critical conversation? A destructive conversation? Or simply, an affirmative conversation? Which of those conversations had the greatest impact on your sense of well-being or helped you, your colleagues, or team move forward?



Jackie Stavros is Professor at College of Management, Lawrence Technological University, Appreciative Inquiry Strategic Advisor at Flourishing Leadership Institute, and Associate at Taos Institute. She works across all sectors and in a variety of industries in leadership development, strategic planning, organization development, and change using Appreciative Inquiry and SOAR (www.soar-strategy.com). She has presented her research and work in over 25 countries.

Cheri Torres is a Partner at Innovation Partners International, a Senior Consultant at NextMove.is, and an Associate at the Taos Institute. She works with organizations in every sector to support effective leadership and team excellence. She facilitates AI Summits for strategic planning and has trained thousands of trainers and teachers in the use and practice of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Facilitation.