Breaking through with Learning Conversations

We all get stuck in patterns of how we do things and the results we produce. Some of these are helpful – but others consistently frustrate our ability to get what we want. This is just as true for teams as it is for individuals.

Some of our patterns are known to us. In the case of some of the less helpful ones they are only too familiar. Others are outside our awareness, and these are even more difficult to deal with. So what are they and where do they come from?

Do you know how your PC works?

To understand how these habits form, let’s think of ourselves for a moment like a computer. The PC, tablet or smartphone you are reading this on has three elements: the hardware, operating software and software applications. The hardware alone is an inert lump of metal, plastic and silicon. The applications are pieces of software that we choose to meet the task in hand. The really interesting part is the one that links the two – the Operating System (OS).

Operating systems are mysterious things. We all know they exist but few of us understand what it is or how it works. An OS is essentially a hugely complicated set of rules that communicate inputs from the outside world (keyboard strokes, data, input from applications) and tell the hardware how those inputs should be processed.

The reason we don’t understand operating systems is simple – they are designed to avoid it! We don’t need to care what the OS does, we only care about whether the application software helps us get the job in hand done easily and effectively. Messrs Gates and Jobs know this and have been working to make the OS ever more invisible to us – so that it’s now so intuitive that we don’t even need to think about it.

I, computer

Each of us also has our own ‘operating system’. It doesn’t have a name but it fires up every morning the moment we wake up and runs everything that happens from then on. It’s hidden to us and it produces some very interesting effects.

Our operating system is a product of our education, experience (and a bit of genetics too). It translates the raw data that we gather from our five senses into meaningful information that we then feed into our ‘software applications’ – which are the tools, techniques and skills that we choose to employ depending on the task in hand.

Without an operating system we couldn’t survive. There are billions of pieces of data passing ithrough our senses at any moment so our OS has first to discard data that it doesn’t think are relevant – and then pass the rest through in a form that we can use. The world is such a complex and fast changing environment that our conscious mind simply couldn’t cope with processing it all – so our OS does this for us, freeing us to deal with relevant and pre-processed information.

Our OS translates the data it receives into information by using a set of rules and assumptions to add meaning. All of this processing happens outside our awareness – before we consciously process any of the data. As well as being helpful, therefore, it also feeds us information that has already been infused with conclusions and laced with bias – none of which we can easily separate from the source data.

That difficult person

Let’s look at an example of how that works in our day to day lives. We all have difficulty with some individuals. An acquaintance of mine really gets under my skin. I find interacting with him difficult as he seems to have already completely made up his mind on a wide range of subjects. It irritates me that he not only seems to think he is right but that it doesn’t even occur to him that there might be value or truth in other points of view.

Why does that annoy me though? Lots of people say things I don’t agree with. Many have such strong views that they can’t or won’t entertain another perspective. They don’t all provoke the same reaction in me. Something in my operating system is adding a personal meaning to his words and behaviour, meanings that I associate with ‘bad’. Unless I can identify what the assumptions are that produce these associations, I will continue to react to him in the way that I do – and my relationship with him is likely to remain strained.

This also works in a team setting. A team I once worked with was striking in the number of times members of the team referred to the next tier of managers negatively. Almost every mention labelled them as somehow incompetent or destructive. Since we were talking about a group of 60 people, I couldn’t believe they could all be as bad as the conversation was suggesting. It was clear that this was having a big impact impact on the team’s ability to engage their next tier of managers and get things done. What, in their collective and individual operating systems, could be happening to create this very negative and destructive view?

Learning Conversations

The way to understand and then change these destructive assumptions in our OS is what we call ‘Learning Conversations’.

I’m often asked what I mean by Learning Conversations. The answer is very simple: Learning Conversations are when the discussion explicitly addresses the assumptions in the operating system as well as the task in hand. Learning Conversations help us see the assumptions and separate them from the raw data by allowing us to compare our reactions and assumptions with those of others.

Working with clearer, more accurate information makes for better analysis, more options and better results. Bringing these unconscious assumptions into clear view allows us to examine them and alter them. By doing this we can get away from our reflective, unaware responses that are keeping us stuck – and give ourselves new choices of how to act to get different results.

Spotting the need for a learning conversation

In the next edition, I’ll tell you more about how to create Learning Conversations and some of the pitfalls that can get in the way. In the meantime, how do you identify the areas where reflexive, unconscious responses are keeping you stuck – and a learning conversation can help?

There are two simple tests for this – and they apply equally for you individually or for your team.

  • Are we stuck with something? (Have we been dealing with this for a while without finding a satisfactory resolution?)

  • Would anyone else see this situation differently and reach other conclusions? (This is an important clue that some hidden operating system assumptions may be at play)

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.