Conversational Leadership: An emerging field near Gestalt

By John Hovell

As a practicing Gestaltist, you’ve likely noticed the often under-appreciated value of conversations. Many of us engage in them for a major portion of our day. We’ve likely practiced phenomenology as well as deep noticing of what’s present for us, for others, and for relationships during our conversations. 

Conversational Leadership is shining a bright light on conversations. Expanding the notion from the textbook definition of “an oral exchange between two people” to the vast concept of “interaction of senses across time and space”. For example, some conversations could be conducted purely in a visual way without any oral exchange, or others that are exchanged in a written format possibly over hundreds of years. Certainly, it must be possible to have a conversation with a group larger than two people? And even ones held by doing something such as cooking food and “conversing” through taste buds, with or without available vocabulary to orally describe it. The list of possibilities goes on. 

Conversational Leadership was born 5 years ago by approximately one dozen people practicing the disciplines of Gestalt, Knowledge Management, Organization Development, Diversity Equity Inclusion, Communications, Project Management, and several other practices. The interest appears to be rapidly expanding on an international level so we invite and welcome you to the emerging conversation. 

Conversational Leadership tends to ask three questions of a group. Those three questions are: 

1. “What is the conversation we need to have right now?” It is not assuming that the conversation needs to be difficult or challenging, in fact it could be a simple conversation that the group needs right now. This question is intending to create time and space for shared clarity of our individual and collective conversational needs. 

2. The second question is “in what way do we need to have this conversation?” This question refers back to the expanded definition of conversation, it is mostly referring to the process. In other words, do we need to speak? Or write things down? Draw pictures? Take turns speaking? Split into subgroups first? What about the emotional and embodied aspects, are there any boundaries or expectations there in this conversation? The options are endless as you know. 

3. The third question is the most recently added question – “in what ways is this conversation forming community?” Especially by experiencing Conversational Leadership workshops, we’ve noticed that some conversations seem to form community and others disband the sense of community. Conversational Leadership apparently holds a core value of building community, even if the conversation needs to be uncomfortable. Checking in on the community with this question has had noteworthy impact. 

Now, in addition to such a focus on conversation, there are two more focal points as well, namely leadership and collective sense-making. Leadership might also be expanding in its definition from “getting a group to accomplish something because they want to do it” to “an ongoing practice of shared power where each of us step in and step out.” Henry Mintzberg is re-labeling leadership as “communityship” and there’s even a chance that Conversation Leadership becomes re-labeled as Conversation Communityship to clearly denote the aspect of leadership as a relational process (as opposed to a focusing on an individual leadership position or role).

Which brings us to collective sense-making. In the practice of Conversational Leadership, we’re finding ourselves fascinated by “what conversations have led us to this point in history” and leveraging leadership/communityship asking like Dr. Patricia Shaw, “what if leadership is convening conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened?” Given the often divisive nature of current day conversations and individual/shared perceptions of truths, maybe there’s room for Conversational Leadership to bridge across disciplines, leverage many aspects of Gestalt in particular, and see what we notice from there? 

John Hovell is author of the upcoming book “Creating Conversational Leadership”. 

Join in at: Http://www.conversational-leadership.net
And: https://epm.umd.edu/workshop-program/conversational-leadership/

This page first appeared in the UKAGP Newsletter. View the Newsletter here.