A conversation about harmony
With a board of directors, 18 people, I conducted a thought experiment, a Socratic Dialogue. The issue they wished to consider was "harmony". It was the "elephant in the room": a theme that constantly played itself out in the background but was never tabled for discussion. The questions that were formulated were, among others:
What do we understand by harmony?
How might we work more as a team?
What are we missing in that area?
To make clear that a Socratic investigation really is an open search in which results are not predetermined, I added two more radical questions:
Does harmony really exist?
Is harmony really desirable?
This triggered an immediate protest from one member. "That can't be true: we've been working on harmony for the last two years, for example with the new matrix structure. So we need not, or to put it even more strongly, we may not question its existence!" The elephant threatened to present itself again even before its trunk had departed. I reassured him that the questions could be answered positively during the exploration, thereby stimulating real harmony. But we cannot exclude them beforehand. He finally agreed to take them along as legitimate questions.
In order to explore the theme fundamentally we set out to find practical cases in which tensions concerning experienced harmony had cropped up. The moment selected occurred when a name and a logo had to be selected for an extensive cooperative agreement with external parties.The managing director chose a name in which the name of the mother company did not recur. The main reason for this was to stimulate the involvement of(potential) external partners. However, did that serve the harmony within the company? If it were adopted then employees would not longer consider themselves as part of one organisation, but of numerous sub-units. Everyone engaged sincerely in terms of feeling and thinking. Various decisions and considerations emerged. A lively conversation developed. This resulted not only in the provider of the example picking up new action guidelines, but especially that many aspects involved in the search for harmony arose and were given a place in the process of thinking together about the issue. Fortunately, there was a great deal of overlap in the thinking, but also the necessary differences. Necessary, because the differences were not denied or ignored, but considered and used to provide the investigation with more depth. Differences force you to provide justification for your view. Underlying concerns, ideals and uncertainties can thereby surface.
At the end of the conversation the participants indicated that this had been the type of conversation they would like to have during regular meetings of the board. But for one reason or the other it just never happened. One of the participants asked, "Normally, when we tackle an issue head-on we speak in terms of abstractions and the differences quickly escalate.The conversation becomes disagreeable and fruitless. That did not happen this time. How can that be?"
I had been given an indication when we discussed the theme "harmony" during the first round. One member opened the conversation (rather pontifically) with the statement: "What we mean is that we work from a single concept." With some hesitation someone else asked how that should be interpreted, where upon many different facets were differentiated. After a defensive silence the conversation continued, resulting in the abstract refining of the interpretation. Everyone lost sight of the details, but everyone created enough space to protect whatever he or she did in his or her part of the organisation. And that space was fought over with slightly accusatory questions like:"But then what do you think about X,because..." An unpleasant conversational climate developed, one of not understanding and not feeling understood.
The reason why a Socratic Dialogue as described above helps to break the impasse lies particularly in the making of questions concrete. That makes the conversation personal: a real dilemma is introduced, by someone who feels deeply involved with the issue. By forcing, as a first step, that everyone put himself in the position of the person who introduced it before providing an answer, the others cannot remain outside the discussion. Vulnerable as it may make them, they express their own intuitions and considerations. These thereby become tangible, recognisable and open for critique. In addition, abstractions disappear from the conversation, because each consideration introduced is immediately tested against the practical example: what, exactly does that mean in this case?
The disadvantage of working from such a concrete case is of course that the general question (What's the situation with harmony in this organisation?) is restricted to a specific case. However, while reflecting on the one instance, through the diversity of perspectives introduced, general insights develop. At the end of the investigation one can return to the initial theme with the question, what has all this taught us about 'harmony within the company'?
Unfortunately, time constraints precluded getting to this with this particular group. I had planned to close with a brief written piece in which insights acquired could be expressed together. Just as in Plato's dialogues this conversation ended too quickly, leaving ragged ends. Is that a bad thing? I wonder about that. I think it is more important to experience engaging together in an intensive conversation about an issue of concern than to end with a shared closing statement. In the course of speaking together and thinking together harmony develops.
A conversation about harmony
Four conversational virtues
A Royal Dialogue
Time for a conversation?