Change the Conversation

Reprinted with permission: Authentic Conversations by Jamie and Maren Showkier © 2008 Jamie and Maren Showkier (Berrett-Koehler).


Change your company culture by fostering adult-to-adult conversations.

Most organizations operate with a cultural dynamic that is as familiar as it is difficult and unproductive. Familiar because we have all experienced it in some way or another within the context of our families. Difficult because in today’s demanding business environment, an entrenched parent-child culture in the workplace won’t lead to the best results. If organizations don’t find a way to shift to an adult-adult culture, they will be ill-equipped to survive in the highly technical, global, diverse and changing-at-the-speed-of-light marketplace.

For true cultural change to happen, new conversations must remain at the adult–adult level. We all grew up in environments riddled with parent–child conversations. Even with daily, conscious effort, engaging in parent–child relationships and the associated conversations can be an extraordinarily tough habit to break.

One of the first things to acknowledge when changing workplace conversations is that the world of consistency goes away. Engaging in this new way puts relationships at risk in an environment where relationships feel paramount. We each have a history of behavior upon which our relationships are based. Maybe you say “can do” even when you have serious doubts about whether it can be done. Maybe you feel you must always appear in control because of perceived cultural rewards. Maybe you choose silence instead of making constructive suggestions because you fear looking foolish. This behavior history is challenged when you alter the way you engage others. It doesn’t feel familiar anymore and may even feel frightening. Each new conversation means creating moments where you are unsure. It requires great courage.

Adult–Adult Relationships

To create and sustain adult relationships, people must make a number of critical agreements. We frame these agreements as a set of rights and responsibilities. These are the rights we claim and the responsibilities we choose. Claiming rights without responsibilities is anarchy. Responsibilities without rights is oppression. Consenting to rights and responsibilities is necessary for us to claim our place as adults. The rights and responsibilities we propose look like this:

Each individual becomes the eyes and the voice of the business. This means it is no longer all right to isolate yourself or let others isolate themselves. You can no longer afford to remain blind to the fortunes of the whole enterprise or ignore the difficult issues that must be raised and resolved.

To be the voice of the business means to develop an informed viewpoint about what’s going on in the business, the difficult issues, and the prospects for the future. It means putting the success of the whole before personal ambition.

Each individual brings an independent point of view and is open to others’ perspectives. Though you are committed to being the voice of the business, you realize your voice is one of many. We all make sense of the same data in different ways. Each person will bring an independent point of view about defining the issues, what changes are needed, and where attention should be focused. You expect and embrace passionate, heated discussions and dissent.

While valuing dissent, it is mitigated when you make yourself open to the influence of others. Leadership is no longer defined as “having the right answers,” but as an ability to engage others to find the best solutions. By doing this, you avoid the pitfall of having to be right, insisting on your own way or having to win. This is the heart of collaboration.

Each individual is expected to raise difficult issues. In adult relationships, people are expected to raise difficult issues directly, simply and explicitly, without aggression or hostility. Previously in the work environment, you could feel safe in ignoring these issues because they were someone else’s responsibility. Now you raise and confront difficult issues because doing so makes a difference to your work relationships and to the business. You make it clear by engaging and confronting these issues that you are committed and passionate about success. When raising difficulties, you avoid blame and criticism, give others the benefit of the doubt, forsake cynicism, own your contributions and focus on resolution.

Each individual extends a spirit of goodwill to the endeavor. No matter how tough the issues and difficult the realities, you choose to bring goodwill to business conversations and manage your own emotional responses. Goodwill is not a feeling. It is a conscious choice you make about how you will engage with other people.

Extending goodwill means viewing others not as adversaries, but as business partners to whom you are committed. At the same time, goodwill means you tell the truth as you see it. Your words and intentions are spoken out of commitment to the business and to your coworkers.

Each individual creates business literacy in others. You choose to increase and spread business literacy. You expect to fully inform those around you of everything you know that is relevant to the business. You expect to create literacy with others about your understanding of the business, and expect them to do the same for you.

Barring extenuating circumstances, there are no secrets regarding information pertinent to the business. What you know should be okay for everyone else to know. Information must be open to anyone. It is your responsibility to initiate opportunities to distribute knowledge by teaching and openness to learning. Unless we are all fully informed, we cannot be partners.

Each individual chooses accountability for the success of the whole business. This commitment recognizes that the business is a collection of interdependent units and relationships. Maximizing one at the expense of others is detrimental to the success of the whole. Sometimes a unit, product or process may require specific attention, and people might be inclined to feel resentful about dealing with the ramifications. Choosing accountability for the whole helps you take these situations into account without resentment because you understand the business reasons behind the decisions and give them your support. This also speaks to the heart of collaboration.

Think about the way traditional organizations manage their budgets. When you prepare a budget forecast for the upcoming year, what’s the routine? You ask for more than you want so that when the budget is inevitably cut, you will have what you need. How might the budgeting process and conversations change if everyone took accountability for the whole?

Each individual manages his or her own morale, motivation and commitment. Although you support others, you do not take responsibility for their emotional welfare or expect others to do this for you. You resist the impulse to blame others when things go wrong and instead look for understanding and resolution of the issues. You discover what your contribution to the problem has been and make it public before you take it on yourself to articulate how others contributed to the problem.

One of the most powerful adult positions you can take is showing goodwill and commitment by saying, “As I reflect on this issue, I want to acknowledge what I have done. Here is how I have contributed to this difficult situation.” You choose to hold yourself accountable for the part you played in creating the problem, rather than waiting for someone to catch you.

A Word about Adult Relationships

Disappointment is inevitable. In adult relationships, we will disappoint each other. Even with good intentions, there will be times when we don’t fully inform each other and times when we won’t muster goodwill. Sometimes we will withhold rather than share relevant information, obscure rather than raise the difficult issues. We may fall into silence rather than expressing our viewpoint.

Here’s an example from our own life–two people who have been working on authentic conversations for years. Early one afternoon, Maren suggested going to a local music club that night, and Jamie agreed. After several hours of running errands, however, going to the club to dance and hear music seemed less appealing to Jamie.

“How important is it to you that we go out tonight?” Jamie asked Maren. She got a look of disappointment and her mood changed almost instantly. “Well, if you don’t want to go, then it’s fine. We won’t go.”

Jamie broke the tense silence in the car on the way home: “You seem disappointed. I really hate disappointing you.” Maren remained mute and simmering.

We spent two heated hours untangling the knot that resulted from that inauthentic conversation–and we reluctantly admit that there was a shortage of goodwill. After we were finally able to debrief the argument calmly, the following points emerged:

·      Jamie didn’t want to go out, but instead of stating it directly, he asked Maren how important was it for her to go.

·      Maren had been looking forward to going out and was disappointed by Jamie’s question. Instead of saying that directly, she said, “Fine. We won’t go.” And then she pouted.

·      Jamie realized that it wasn’t disappointing Maren that he hated, it was dealing with her reaction to that disappointment.

·      Maren realized it didn’t serve the relationship to say one thing when she clearly felt another.

We did not go out to the club that night, but we did learn some valuable lessons about being authentic and about forgiveness. What is important in such moments of disappointment is the choice you make in response.

Elements in the New Conversation

Once we embrace the commitments, we acknowledge each other as adults and begin new conversations. But you don’t have to wait for the whole organization to get on board to make the change. You can change the culture in the moment, in any room. There are four critical elements that are part of the new conversation.

Honestly acknowledge the difficult issues and name the harsh reality. Adults must acknowledge reality in order to deal with unpredictability, anxiety, frustration and cynicism. They state the facts as they understand them and realize that others have different and valid points of view. To deny this is to deny our collective experience.

State your contribution to the difficult issues and acknowledge its harmful effects. By owning your contributions, you take responsibility for your actions and invite others to examine their own contributions to the difficulty. We often get asked, “What if I haven’t contributed to the difficult issue?” Contributions can be acts of commission (something you did) or they can be acts of omission (something you ignored or didn’t do). Acts of omission are also contributions, and anyone involved in an enterprise has contributed in one way or another.

The adult response, which is often difficult to muster, is to examine and own your contribution. Stating it out loud is a daring act of personal accountability. What we acknowledge allows us to honestly examine the world together.

State the risks and acknowledge difficulties, including the possibility that things might not work out. The truth is you can never know the future. To pretend you can is both dishonest and demeaning to others. It doesn’t serve anyone to soften the truth or to insist on putting a positive spin on an uncertain future. Denial is dangerous. When the future is uncertain and risks are explicit, it is vital to work together for a solution.

Frame choices about how you can engage the future. Ultimately, you will be accountable for the choices you make. Even a decision not to change or to do nothing is a choice that comes with natural consequences. You choose whether you will authentically try to make something succeed or surrender to your sense of failure.

A number of choices will be faced in this fourth step, but the relationship choice is primary. To have any hope for success, we must all choose to take responsibility for collaborating with each other and for managing our own disappointment. We must move closer, we must engage. As adults, we choose to increase our ability to cope with potential failure rather than retreating into the childish hope that somebody else will take care of it for us.

About Personal Transformation

To make new conversations authentic and transforming, clarity about your own intention is essential. This requires self-awareness and a willingness to be honest and vulnerable. You reveal your uncertainty instead of trying to appear as though you have it together and under control. If you manage people at work, this is probably antithetical to just about everything you have learned about managing and motivating others. But it is the path to building an adult culture.

Personal transformation comes first. It is the most important work. If you can’t choose hope and optimism, you can’t expect that of others. If you can’t face the harsh reality of difficult issues, you can’t raise them with others. If you are not willing to state your purpose publicly and ask others to hold you accountable, you can’t expect others to choose to be accountable. You cannot help others create what you cannot create for yourself.


Jamie and Maren Showkier have wide experience in education, business and journalism. In addition, they are partners in Henning-Showkier & Associates, Inc., a firm that provides training in communication in both business and academic settings. The Showkiers live in Phoenix, AZ. Visit them at and



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