Conversations Worth Having: New Possibilities in Everyday Conversations
On any given day in higher education, we accomplish most of our work through a series of planned or unplanned conversations. How many times have you been deeply engrossed in a project only to be interrupted by a meeting request that ends up being an hour-long deprecative conversation that doesn’t achieve much? Some of us might be lucky enough to have well-facilitated and organized meetings throughout the day, but there are enough, “This meeting could have been an email” memes to indicate that we’ve all had conversations at work that haven’t been as productive as we’d like.
David Cooperrider, founder of Appreciative Inquiry, wrote, “We live in worlds our conversations create.” (Stavros & Torres, 2022, p. 1). For professionals in higher education, whether administrators developing policies and practices designed to address diversity and equity initiatives, recruitment and retention teams working to meet institutional goals or faculty and staff working directly with students, having conversations that truly matter is critical for maximizing limited human and financial resources.
Conversations Worth Having, a framework Drs. Jacqueline Stavros and Cheri Torres have developed, offers a way to be intentional and strategic in leveraging everyday exchanges as opportunities for organizational transformation and innovation. These types of conversations “make the invisible visible, create shared understanding, generate new knowledge, and inspire possibilities” (Stavros & Torres, 2021, p. 72).
Conversations Are Not All the Same
In Conversations Worth Having, Drs. Jacqueline Stavros and Cheri Torres (2021) suggest that we can think about conversations as being above the line and below the line. Knowing what kind of conversations we are having helps us intentionally and strategically cultivate conversations that are generative and create possibility even in situations that often appear closed in.
The term “below the line” refers to a conversation that is depreciative in nature and characterized by qualities like judgment, closed-mindedness and blame. If you take a moment to recall a critical or destructive conversation, you might notice that you can clearly recall the physical and emotional sensations of the moment. That makes sense. We are designed to respond to psychological stressors to prepare for threats. Through a complex series of responses, our systems go into protection mode; our brain resources are allocated to preservation and survival, reducing our capacity for higher-order thinking. The result? We’re biologically impaired against being our most creative and innovative when we’re reacting to stress.
The term “above the line” refers to a conversation that is generative in nature and characterized by qualities such as connection, creativity, open-mindedness and critical thinking. Take a moment to recall a generative, energizing conversation and notice what you recall about that experience. It’s likely very different from what you can recall about the previous conversation. Barbara Fredrickson’s work (2001, 2013) on the impact of positive emotional experiences is illustrative here.
Frederickson’s broaden-and-build theory (2001) shows that positive emotional experiences expand our capacity for creative thinking and action not only in the moment but also expand our capacities moving forward. Positive emotional experiences connected to great conversations help us build our reserves to respond to challenges long after that experience has taken place. The generative impacts of conversations worth having are lasting.
Conversations differ in quality and outcomes.
When you think about most conversations you have in a day, how do you know what kind of conversations you’re having? As an experiment, start paying attention to your energy levels, your physical responses the quality of your thinking and ideas after various conversations. Reflect on when you feel especially energized and take note of what conversations—and their qualities—spark that energy.
The Conversations Worth Having framework offers tools that can shift us out of autopilot and into a culture where conversations worth having are the norm. Two key tools are generative questions and positive framing. Generative questions are founded in curiosity and make visible the invisible. Often, the generative question’s greatest value is to surface unexamined assumptions that constrain conversations and keep things stuck. Positive framing focuses our attention and our action on where we want to go, drawing people in and inspiring curiosity, imagination and interest from others.
It’s worth noting that positive framing and generative questions are not asking us to focus solely on the positive in a situation or to forgo conversations that are uncomfortable and require us to reflect, engage and inquire into deeply entrenched issues and topics. In fact, understanding that generative experiences are not always comfortable creates space for a wider range of human emotions to help us learn. That space is where the possibility for innovation and transformation exists. Applying that understanding to conversations allows us to explore the possibility of conversations as an intentionally generative space for transformation and innovation.
In their book, Drs. Stavros and Torres (2021) share a story set in higher education about a learning management system change initiative that was receiving mixed reviews (pp 59–60). The provost leading the initiative was complaining to the consultant about the resistance they had encountered and, while the consultant initially agreed with the provost, she realized there were unlikely to see generative outcomes from the conversation if she didn’t shift the depreciative trend. She decided to experiment and see if reframing the conversation could actually shift it. At the next pause, she asked if there were any faculty who had been on board with the new system. Unsurprisingly, there were. In fact, the provost was able to refocus on the excitement and energy the business and management school team brought when they adopted the new system “wholeheartedly.” By asking one generative question that reframed their exchange, the tone and nature of their conversation shifted, creating new possibilities that would have been missed otherwise.
Conversation Quality and Outcomes Matter—Particularly in Higher Education.
While conversations in any industry influence others and impact outcomes, higher education provides particularly unique opportunities to benefit from the extraordinary outcomes possible from conversations worth having:
Conversations around prioritization
Institutions of higher education that prioritize conversations worth having are better poised to respond to students demanding change in the academy. These teams and organizations will be able to leverage strategic conversational skills and adapt to the changing needs of students and communities.
Promote connection and well-being
Conversations worth having are instrumental in promoting connection and well-being. When students, staff and faculty feel heard, valued and supported, the whole academic community is more likely to thrive academically, personally and professionally.
Visionary leadership conversations
Strategic conversations worth having are vital components of visionary leadership within higher education. Leaders who are intentionally generative in their conversational strategy prioritize openness, inclusivity and collaboration, and inspire their teams to work cohesively and chart new pathways for the future. Cohesiveness is critical for efficacy and efficiency when resource constraints make every expenditure and savings opportunity a critical one.
We Can Influence Conversation Outcomes
Leading teams in the current higher education context is no small feat; we’re working (sometimes remotely) all over the world, often travel is restricted, social expectations and demands seem to change faster than our processes and technologies can keep pace. As leaders, we must invest our time and attention in nurturing environments in which our teams feel inspired, excited and purposeful. It’s never been more important to have strategic conversations that are generative; it’s never been more critical for every conversation to be worth having.
Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218–226
Frederickson, B. (2013) Positive Emotions Broaden and Build in P. Devine and A. Plant (Eds), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, (1–53), Elsevier
Stavros, J. & Torres, C. (2021). Conversations Worth Having. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.