Book Review – “Conversations for Action and Collected Essays” by Fernando Flores

First, I am impressed with how well the information in this book has stood the test of time. I might even go further and say that the material is more relevant in today’s work culture than it was 30 years ago when it was written. Our modern, technology-connected, but personally-disconnected life can certainly benefit from improving how we converse with each other. Dr. Flores offers an astute analysis of how we communicate, from the basic linguistic elements through an appreciation for background concerns, flow, moods, and trust. He deconstructs our everyday exchanges with other people into their essential elements and then constructs a compellingly simple model of the back and forth “dance” that goes on to achieve shared action. The “conversation for action” loop he developed 3 decades ago remains a powerful model for improving knowledge worker productivity.

In particular, I found the discussion of autonomy vs. accountability very relevant in the context of our current generation of workers. Along with shifts toward less loyalty to company and increasing worker mobility, we can sense a growing demand for increasing autonomy in how (and where) work is conducted. There are obvious benefits to this trend, including increased employee engagement and innovation, but maintaining efficient coordination may be more challenging. Adherence to the conversation for action model adds clarity and a modicum of rigour to work conversations that can make accountability explicit and visible. A growing number of case studies attest to the improvements in collaboration the model provides.

The book offers valuable insights like the following:

— We all make “characterisations” of others and of ourselves. We say “he is trustworthy,” “she is unreliable,” “I’m bad with numbers.” “These features are not real; they only exist in conversation…when we forget that characterisation is a conversation, we perpetuate our competencies and incompetencies, and those of others…grounded characterisations allow us to have productive conversations; these are conversations for moving forward together rather than staying stuck in the present.”

— Our background mood affects how we perceive the world and the people around us and how we behave. A person’s mood is driven by their vision of the future. “A common belief is that the future is basically an extension of what is going on today.” To manage moods, therefore, it is necessary to create a different understanding about the future. Dr. Flores suggests “the most important key to generating moods of challenge, confidence, and ambition is to understand that people create the future in the commitments they make to each other and the actions they take together…we invent the future together.” There is key information in this section for any group leader to consider.

— “Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfil the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective. The leader is the person who is granted authority by the team to take care of these conversations in an ongoing manner.”

— Language is central to being social. “We build networks of people with whom we participate in conversations.” These are not one-way messages like “take out the trash” or “do this task,” but rather two-way conversations in which two or more individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing. These are the kind of principles we should be mindful of as we design modern work management systems.

Perhaps the gem of the whole book, however, is the last chapter “On Listening.” Using examples as seemingly far apart as a used car salesman and Lech Walesa, Dr. Flores presents an entirely new approach to the practice of listening. Exhibiting keen observation skills, the author exposes the mechanics of dysfunctional conversation patterns that are immediately recognisable and then presents a new model for listening that can achieve genuine engagement between people with entirely different backgrounds. We see how the traditional training on listening skills is flawed, and we learn an observable, but radically new way of participating in conversations that any reader can utilize and benefit from.

My one reservation with the book is that I was left wanting more examples of these principles in practice. The everyday examples in the book are used only for explanatory purposes. I think the book would have benefited from the inclusion of some case studies where the ideas made a difference. I know they’re out there…perhaps in the second edition?

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