Conversations that CountGuest Post by Graham Williams

In ancient Hindu, Sumer, Roman and in Greek civilizations conversations were crucial to progress. Practiced by the Knights of the Round Table, group conversation was the engine of the Renaissance. Conversations enlivened French salons, and are integral to early Aboriginal, Maori, African cultures. Shaka Zulu’s UK UXO Xa impi were motivational warrior conversations around a fire, to comfort and encourage each other. Sacred Native American Talking Circles focus on harmony and balance. The Sufi spiritual practice of story sharing in a sacred circle where there is absolute trust, respect, transparency and a meeting of the minds and hearts, is called Sohbet (translated literally as “conversation”).

Anita Diamant’s book, The Red Tent, is about the rape of Dinah. The red tent was a safe, special, hallowed place where women could talk about this taboo topic. Socrates believed that individuals are not able to be intelligent on their own, but need the stimulation of others. We become intelligent through questioning, listening, sharing, contemplating, and processing ideas that lie outside of ourselves.  Good things happen when people share and partake in circles.

Narrative happens between persons, not within a person – Jerome Bruner

Can we have a true conversation?

But digital monologs, selfies, and superficial chats seem the norm these days. If politics and TV “chat shows” are anything to go by, exchanges seem increasingly aggressive and divisive. Scientist and philosopher David Bohm (On Dialogue) points out “… Communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale … Different groups … are not actually able to listen to each other … the consequent sense of frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual understanding and trust”. Mark Twain gets it right: “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation”.
On the plus side, the group-analytic model is now the prevailing form of group therapy in Europe. The title of John Schlapobersky’s award-winning book, From the Couch to the Circle, says it well.

Circles in the Business World

Transpersonal psychology is not new to the business world. Over recent years we’ve seen ‘talking cures’ for small groups taking the form of Café Table Conversations, Carbon Conversations, Anecdote Circles, and so on.

A new “Conversations that Count” process is successful to break through the tendencies to repress or avoid that which should be discussed (taboo topics) which results in anxiety, disharmony, dysfunction. It helps to respond quickly and thoroughly to an emerging challenge (for example to establish the opinions and feelings of 2000 people in a diverse global company). It also works to trigger culture change….

Conversations that Count: can you do it? Click To Tweet
Three current applications are ensuring future hardiness to change in a fast changing and digitizing insurance climate, addressing a serious conflict between different ethnic groups in a fast-response, emergency situation, achieving a culture change from militaristic to an authentic, caring purpose in a service provider organization.

In brief, the framework for the Conversations that Count process is:

1. Confidential, online questionnaire on a selected topic. Topics include the masks we wear, escaping psychic prisons, change fatigue, diversity and discord, the spirit of our workplace, stifled creativity and innovation, I or We in teams, developing a culture of sustainability, accommodating spirituality, and much more. The questionnaires expose respondents to new thinking and act as conversation-starters.
2. A menu of articles, reflections, and exercises allow participants to immerse themselves in the topic.
3. Constructive, confidential, well-facilitated anecdote circles provide a “right-brain” component where there is a safe sharing of experiences, stories, and feelings. Participants often go beyond the ‘edge’ of what they might previously have explored and offered. Change is already occurring: viewpoints, attitudes, connections, motivation. And ownership is taking root.
4. People are now ready to undertake conversations that count, are armed with rich information and in a position to steer change together

Exploring the dynamics of the process

The process is:

  • reminiscent of the Appreciative Inquiry sequence of ‘discover, choose destiny, design and develop together’
  • supported by behavioral science findings on the benefits of mindfulness, attentive listening, using ‘AND’ rather than ‘EITHER/ OR’ to dissipate resistance, bringing people to a shared perspective, guiding collaborative decisions, applying new ways of nurturing change, and entering an emerging future together in a safe and fair place
  • of a transpersonal nature, encouraging individual integration and growth at many levels, and producing excellent group task and relationship outcomes. Confidence and trust is boosted

It trumps training.  For example, after diversity training “ … many participants actually report more animosity toward other groups”. (David Rock and Heidi Grant).
If you’re keen to learn more and explore the introduction of conversations that count to your organization, visit
I will be one of the speakers at the WISDOM FOR MODERN WORKPLACES © conference, October 3-4, 2017, Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ll also give my one day workshop the day before on October 2.

Graham Williams is a certified management consultant, thought leader, business narrative practitioner and author based in Cape Town, South Africa. He can be reached at

This is a Summer guest post.

Marcella Bremer, the founder of Leadership & Change Magazine is blogging her next book: “Positive Power at Work – How to make a positive difference from any position.” She will resume this series in September 2017.
In the meantime, to catch up reading – start with post #1 or check the Positive Power overview and read the Positive Agent Manifesto.

Sign up for the updates.

Leave a Reply