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November 2009


The quality of our relationships is to some extent the quality of the conversations we have and the quality with which we have them.

We call “radical” those root, core, critical, fundamental, potentially relationship-furthering conversations that should vitalize our interactions.

However, sometimes we need to have “radical” conversations to deal with “tough” issues. While what follows is applicable to great conversations I hope you’ll have over the holiday period and throughout the year, follow the following, and some of your toughest challenges could lead to some your most powerful and productive transformations.

Step One: Have three internal conversations with yourself in order to prepare for the ‘radical conversation’ ahead. Be attentive to these three distinct conversations when you engage with others as well.


Here is where we ‘investigate’ reality, and check our understanding of the facts.

Some limiting assumptions to avoid: I know what I need to know, I know what they intended, it’s EITHER my fault OR theirs.

Liberating alternatives: We need to explore each other’s stories; we need to appreciate how we’ve each contributed to this.


This is where we dive in and assess how we really feel about this issue, so these feelings don’t suddenly surface in a mutated form to contaminate the conversation.

Limiting assumptions: Feelings are irrelevant, let’s focus on the issues. They need to hear MY feelings.

Liberating alternatives: We need to separate out impact from intent. Feelings are the very HEART of any conversation. We need to understand, not interpret each other.


Here we get come to grips with what is ‘at stake’ for us personally and overall relative to this conversation.

Limiting assumptions: I’m good OR bad, loveable OR unlovable, a good OR bad leader.

Liberating alternatives: Each of us is probably BOTH at different times, to differing degrees. We are a complex identity and need a more complex self-image.

We need to shift to ‘curiosity’ rather than staying mired in defensiveness.

After this processing and preparation, move on to:

Step Two: As you now embark on the actual conversation, clarify your purpose in having the conversation. State it as an aspiration. ‘I want to achieve X’ through this conversation.

Step Three: Transform this into a ‘Third Story’ that you can open with. This is ‘my story’ plus ‘your likely story’ into a larger, more encompassing and valuable story – the ‘WE’ story. This is how we ENROL people into the ‘possibility’ that this conversation, at its best, represents.

Step Four: Explore each other’s stories, reflecting on how we’ve each contributed to producing the situation, challenge and opportunity – without attribution or blame. Also explore feelings, decoupling impact from intention.

Ensure nothing in the context you create sets itself up as a ‘barrier to possibility’. Move from ‘obstacles’ to ‘possibilities’. Practise “OPV” throughout to ensure we are truly understanding and acknowledging each other.

“OPV” is an Edward de Bono idea and stands for “Other People’s Views”. It means we each state in a positive and constructive way, our best understanding of the view of the other after it’s expressed and get it corroborated by the other person. They then do the same for ours. This is to ensure we are discussing what each of us really mean, not reacting to misinterpretation piled upon misinterpretation.

As one author opined, “The experience of being understood, as opposed to being interpreted, is so compelling, you could charge admission.”

Step Five: Reaffirming the ‘We’ story, move on to problem solving together. State an ideal future state that you both buy into and are attracted by and which reflects this “Third Story”. Brainstorm backwards from it and create a results path in collaboration (particularly focusing on helping to improve on each other’s ideas and bridging from them).

Step Six: Focus on ‘progress not perfection’ as the aim. Agree the new commitment, commit to next steps. Also agree how you will now partner together on this, and how you will stay in touch to do a ‘health check’ and to ensure an increasing ‘breakthrough’ occurs.


  1. Re Feelings:
    • Remember have your feelings or they will have you.
    • Unexpressed feelings ‘leak’ into conversations.
    • Unexpressed feelings are the biggest barrier to being able to ‘listen’ to each other!
    • Beware of translating feelings into: judgments (if it weren’t for you), attributions (why do you keep hurting me?), characterisations (you’re so inconsiderate…), inappropriate conclusions/problem solving (if you just called me more often therefore…)
    • When you feel the need to BLAME the other person, this signals you have unexpressed feelings you need to share with them.

    • Frame the feelings BACK INTO the problem, make them PART of what we are trying to explore, grapple with, deal with, and build from.

  2. Three Great Reasons for a Radical Conversation:
    • Learning their story, sharing yours
    • Expressing views and feelings and understanding them deeply
    • Problem solving together and designing forward together

  3. Guidelines re ‘The Third Story’
  4. Curiosity produces great listening!
  5. Avoid statements disguised as questions:
    1. ‘Are we there yet?’ (Real message: This is taking too long!)
    2. Cross-examination questions which are really an implied judgement or conclusion.

      (*As someone pointed out, tickets often say: ‘Void if detached’. This is particularly true for us in ‘Radical Conversations’, hence the importance of framing an emotionally robust and highly engaging ‘Third Story’.)

  6. Get REALLY engaged emotionally as well.
    • Aim for ‘shining eyes’ by the end of the conversation, or at least eyes ‘shining more’ on that topic than when we started. Benjamin Zander, the musical maestro and leadership innovator has suggested that “shining eyes” be our metaphor for someone engaged, congruent, passionate.
    • Failure to express yourself through the range of your concerns, interests, fears, hopes and ideas, keeps you OUT of the relationship, not just the conversation.

      As we generate the capacity to express more, we enable the potential to also experience more.

    • Say what’s MOST at stake in ‘We’ terms to get the conversation back on track and recommitted to, whenever necessary.

  7. Avoid Subtext.

    ‘There’s a lot to be done around the house.’

    ‘Is golf so important, you have to play so often?’

    Real message: ‘I miss our Saturday mornings together.’

  8. Use Socratic “Yes/Yes” (asking questions we invariably agree with that lead, step by step, to larger and more challenging conclusions) judiciously and honestly, to focus on what you DO agree on, to refocus on areas of convergence and alignment, so we can use those as a platform for more challenging or even constructively contentious interaction.


    You: “Would you agree we need a constructive relationship or else our department can’t deliver.”

    Colleague: “I suppose so, yes.”

    You: “And I guess we can both agree we haven’t had a very effective relationship to date.”

    Colleague: “No, we haven’t, but that’s not my fault.”

    You: “Leaving fault aside, it then seems we both agree the status quo of our relationship isn’t good enough and won’t get us or our department where it needs to go.”

    Colleague: “Yes, that’s for sure!”

    You: “Well it seems we have to work on our relationship. I’m willing to. Forget the past; I’m willing to from this point on. From what you’ve said, I take it that you’d be willing to work on it with me?”

    And whatever the colleague next says, you’re now far closer to committing to a future-creating “radical” conversation.

  9. Be aware of ‘crossed’ Parent/Child transactions. ‘Pace’ the intensity of the person in the state they ‘fire’ from, acknowledge the importance of that in the same ego state so they feel acknowledged, then move the conversation to an adult/adult mode.

    This refers to Transactional Analysis and also to a concept from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Transactional Analysis suggests that we operate from three primary ego states: Parent (Judgement), Adult (Objectivity) and Child (Emotion). So “crossed wires” occur when one of us say is speaking the language of enthusiasm and the other is nitpicking judgementally, or one person makes value-judgements in a negative way about someone’s intentions, and the other person lashes out emotionally in response.

    If there is an outburst, NLP suggests we don’t match or “pace” the content of the emotion, but the intensity. However we switch the content to something constructive.


    You: “I haven’t noticed you being willing to work on this” (said perhaps with Parental Judgement)

    Other Person: “You should talk! You always go around judging people!” (Child state, upset emotions)

    You (matching intensity, not content, and pacing): “I wasn’t trying to judge, honestly. I’m sorry it comes across that way! No wonder we’ve had problems.” (Lowering intensity) “No judgement, I was just sharing my perception. I want to work on this together – without me judging you or your assuming what I’m doing as I try.”

  10. Avoid unhelpful conversational ‘default settings’
    • Don’t present conclusions as THE truth
    • Share where hypotheses come from
    • Avoid ‘always’, ‘never’, leave space for Possibility
    • Keep doing OPV’s throughout
    • State appreciation of multiple realities, using ‘and’ rather than ‘but’.

      Example: ‘I’ve been feeling increasingly frustrated and ignored by you and I now realise you feel overwhelmed and unsure of what I was hoping for from you.’

    • Ask HOW as well as WHY they see it differently, if you sense hesitation, or reluctance or ‘the corporate nod’ rather than real agreement

  11. REFRAME helpfully throughout
    • Reframe ‘truth’ into different stories to explore
    • Reframe ‘accusations’ into the gap between intention and impact
    • Reframe ‘blame’ into mapping each other’s contribution
    • Reframe ‘judgments’ into feelings to share
    • Reframe ‘what’s wrong’ into how it’s going for each of us
    • Only AFTER a person feels heard and understood can you really move the conversation into a genuinely positive direction.

  12. When all else fails, and someone keeps stone-walling or being unconstructive, name the tactic as objectively as you can (don’t just suffer from it), identify the limiting dynamic, while stating this as ‘perception’ and ‘impact’ from your end.

    Example: ‘You know every time I suggest we take a next step, even one that seems clearly implied by what we’ve now agreed together, it feels to me as if you are diverting the conversation on to anything that will keep us from finalising here. Am I missing something? Can you tell me what’s going on for you here?’ (Use the ‘Third Story’ to remind them of the stakes and the importance of moving forward from here TOGETHER)

  13. Create a ‘test’ of the new idea or recommendation before it’s finalised, if they’re still not sure.
  14. If you’re not sure, clearly state what’s missing at your end.
  15. If they’re still not sure, after you’ve understood (OPV) what’s missing from their end, enrol them in problem-solving on that front TOGETHER with you while using the ‘Third Story’ needs as a referee. Don’t make it just YOUR problem, but rather a shared challenge to imaginatively tackle.

    Agree standards for the future. Frequently check in on how the “tasks” you are seeking to accomplish progress from this point onwards. Also check in on the “process” of how you are both relating, so you can be constructively conscious of impact on each other throughout and can then calibrate accordingly.

    Agree such Task/Process check-ins in an ongoing manner to keep the relationship and the new commitments on track.


Conversations are an art form. We too often jump into them as either an evasiveness manoeuvre or an advocacy exercise. Instead they have to be a stand we take for authenticity, candid engagement, robust relationships and progress.

Practice the above until these “training wheels” become unnecessary and you can fluidly and elegantly enter into the dance of powerful communication.

Our job together, one radical conversation at a time, is to make personal as well as collective leadership possibility REAL!