A Transformative Conversation (Part 2)

with Dr. Ada Gonzalez

Aug 05

This week we continue with Part Two of our interview with Dr. Ada Gonzalez. In her new book, Transformative Conversations, Dr. Gonzalez weaves wisdom from many sources. She makes a case for the value of engaging in effective dialogue and gives the reader clear guidance about how they can harness the power of dialogue to ignite the level of engagement and commitment needed to accomplish their own business priorities and goals.

Dr. Ada Gonzalez is an executive coach, facilitator, and consultant in organizational development. She translates theory and research findings into practice in day-to-day activities, supporting business strategy and results. In addition to undergraduate and graduate work at Andrews University in Michigan, she earned her Ph.D. at the Union Institute and University on Organizational Behavior, with an emphasis on leadership, dialogue, and change. She is currently working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.


How does being comfortable with not knowing as a leader contribute to fostering dialogue?

Some leaders are tempted to think they must know everything about everything, so to speak. As leaders gain professional maturity, they realize that’s impossible and impractical. It’s a leader’s role to be the catalyst for others to become experts in their disciplines. This is why the best leaders are not necessarily specialists in their fields—they focus less on giving advice and more on asking probing questions. This technique allows employees to discover the best path on their own. That is the power of not knowing. To facilitate transformative conversations, a leader must “not know.”

Similarly, in dialogue, you leave the comfort of the known to explore the unknown. Not knowing requires a humble, patient, open perspective: you are the student, not the expert. Not knowing can:

  • Fill dialogue with fresh wonder
  • Encourage deeper dialogue
  • Create meaningful connections
  • Take you in unforeseen directions
  • Surprise you with an unexpected destination
  • Awaken new perspectives
  • Open the space for wisdom to emerge.

What is the role of listening in transforming conversations?

Dialogue makes listening to the centerpiece of the conversation. People take listening for granted—yet it is a difficult skill to master since it takes more than two ears to listen. Leaders often report listening as their greatest weakness, and they are not alone. Research indicates that only about 7% of the world’s population is good at listening. Leaders busy themselves with talking, directing, telling, and influencing. In the process, they forget how vital listening is to dialogue.

The Chinese symbol for “to listen” best exemplifies the complexity of the act of listening, as it’s both artful and wise. The elements of the symbol essentially read, “When I am listening to you, I give you my ears, my eyes, my undivided attention, and my heart.” It is the best definition for wholehearted listening, which requires all of you: your body, your heart, and your energy. Total presence is required to become the listener rather than to do the listening.


What do we need to do to become better listeners?

First, you need to have the right attitude, and second, you need to develop skills. To have the right attitude, you first need to want to listen. It’s easier if you already have a stance of not knowing because then you understand better how vital listening is. You must:

  • Put your ego aside
  • Strive to understand and give authentic responses
  • Uphold appreciation and respect for the speaker
  • Suspend judgments
  • Block internal and external distractions to become totally attentive
  • Look for connection points rather than agreement points • Listen for the meanings behind words
  • Engage your heart and your head
  • Genuinely want to understand
  • Open your heart and exhibit patience
  • Sit quietly and make the speaker’s words your priority.

Then, here are seven tips to help you develop the skill of listening up:

  1. Focus. You focus on what you value most. When you pay attention to another person, you tell the person you value him or her.
  2. Just listen. Don’t think about what you are going to say. Understand the message.
  3. Establish a dialogue. Confirm understanding by rephrasing pertinent points. Summarize what you hear. Then offer an opinion or fact. Your role is to help people think critically.
  4. Be curious. Never assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. Ask intelligent questions. The speaker will feel valued.
  5. Respect silence. When pauses occur in the flow of conversation, avoid the urge to fill the void. People need moments of silence to digest information.
  6. Remain patient. It is rude to interrupt. It suggests you care most about your own opinion.
  7. Think first. Wait a few seconds before you talk. Is your contribution relevant? Is it the right time? If not, keep quiet.

Responsible listening is an art form worth mastering. You can develop and strengthen it with practice, and the result will be a sustainable competitive advantage over your peers and competitors.


As a leader, what can you learn when you listen with openness, and how does this contribute to better dialogue?

When you listen, you will earn the speaker’s loyalty and best efforts. You may be surprised to find that listening becomes your single most powerful skill, for it is an act of respect. True listening promotes cooperation because it assumes the other person has dignity and something to offer. When people know that you listen, they are encouraged to listen better themselves and to share from their hearts. They can then listen together. Dialogue becomes a shared experience where the voice and meaning emerge from the group, and themes will surface through this shared experience. This flow of meaning through dialogue occurs when individuals relax their grip on what they think and listen to what others think.


What types of questions promote dialogue, and what types shut it down?

Powerful questions contain the seeds from which dialogue can grow. It’s best to ask open and nonjudgmental questions designed to learn more: strive to discover together. The process of looking more for meaning and less for absolute truths can foster innovation.

Be aware that unproductive questioning may shut people down. They include:

  • Rhetorical questions to make a point
  • Interrogative questions to uncover hidden information
  • Critical questions point out flaws in the person’s arguments.


How important is it to know both sides?

Curiosity and inquiry are the cornerstones of learning. Transformational learning emphasizes critical reflection. When you ask questions out of curiosity, they will reveal solutions and perspectives that may not have otherwise surfaced. Be sincere and ask questions because you truly want to know, and in the process of explaining, people will come to a better understanding: if you ask the right questions, people will provide the right answers.


Can you share with us how culture and transformative conversations are linked?

An organizational culture that values diversity will understand that although diversity can bring moments of tension and disagreement, through dialogue, they learn to tolerate people of different backgrounds and cultures. Understanding, leveraging, and welcoming the diversity of people’s minds is critical to success. Growing numbers of women, minorities, intergenerational workers, and persons with different lifestyles and ethnic backgrounds will bring fresh light to long-held processes and beliefs if they interact through transformative conversations.


And with that, is it more important for leaders to inform themselves about more cultures to equip themselves with the necessary tools to make sure something positive comes out of the transformative conversations?

Smart leaders surround themselves with people who offer various strengths and ways to perceive and process information. Having a diverse workforce gives a leader countless opportunities to learn more about different cultures. You can avoid groupthink by encouraging a free-flowing dialogue where diverse thinking is appreciated. A diverse atmosphere encourages people to take concerted actions and make wiser decisions.

You can also reach inclusive decisions through dialogue. As a result, collaboration and cooperation will occur in compassionate, fair, just, and effective ways. Thus, the resulting action will be more efficient. Benjamin Akande, Dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business, says: “Organizations which are sufficiently bold and astute at recognizing the strategic value and competitive advantage of diversity and inclusion will own the marketplace in the 21st century.” I totally agree with him.


Can you share with us why collecting and documenting the conversations that take place is key?

Because conversations can be easily forgotten, distorted, or lost, people fear that no action will emerge from dialogue or that discoveries will be difficult to implement. That’s why it’s critical to harvest and share the wisdom that results from the dialogue. Nurturing productive conversations is a fundamental leadership skill. It’s especially vital when the goal is action and transformative change.


What should be the focus when one is doing this?

The focus should be on recording people’s reflections, ideas, understandings, gains, experiences, processes, meanings, and plans for future action.


What is important about storytelling, and why can we best use it to have more powerful conversations?

Storytelling is a powerful way to discover who we are, what we know, and how we grow. It lets us evaluate the factors that make us strong and those that contribute to our growth. Stories have been used and passed down throughout the ages to offer wisdom. Stories are natural and easy. Humans seem to have the ability to tell and follow a story from a very early age. Listening to stories is refreshing and energizing. Our mind comes to attention. When it’s time to share stories, the energy in the room becomes palpable. The storyteller invites the listener to visualize a different world. The shared imagining between the teller and listener creates a common space where change becomes desirable. Stories help people cope with the complex. Stories bypass resistance. Stories engage emotions.


What makes it difficult for people to be fully attuned to what needs to happen to transform discussions into dialogue?

Sometimes it’s easier to have a discussion than to explore new ways of thinking. It takes hard work to abandon long-entrenched habits, shift, and reflect individually and collectively before taking action. You operate from habit and inertia during most of your waking hours. You’re not even consciously aware of what you’re doing. Indulge me and try something: Cross your arms. Now cross them in the opposite way. What happened? If you want better results, you have to kick yourself out of your comfort zone into the learning zone.


And how do they resolve these issues?

You have to be willing to evolve. If you’re not evolving, you and your organization are in decline. It’s imperative to accept the reality of the present situation, make a feasible growth plan, and persevere until positive transformation brings liberation. Dialogue will transform the way you interact with others and take you to amazing places.


What does it take for those in leadership or in life to become ready to have transformational conversations?

It takes a willingness to create the space and the attitude to have those conversations and reflect together. Today’s fast-paced society tricks us into believing we do not have the time or prerogative to pause, be silent, think, and reflect: run faster, breathe harder, repeat. It’s a vicious cycle and not reality. We must pause at some point. Silent reflection props open the mind’s door long enough for new perceptions, ideas, and solutions to emerge. Conversations need breathing space, and therefore it’s critical to slow down conversations so insights can occur in the space between words. The more emotionally loaded the subject matter, the greater the need for silent space. Dialogue requires you to pry open the “in between,” a space where you can focus. A space to hear all the voices. A space to experience deep connection. A space to experience differences as gifts that can create a stronger result. A space to interrogate reality. A space to learn. A space to tackle challenges. A space to enrich relationships. A space where greater wisdom can emerge from the expression of all the voices in the group.


Can you share an example of how you were able to improve dialogue in that type of setting?

A good example is a three-day meeting I facilitated in Iceland. The goal: bring together an international group of sixty people who had been working together for two years in a recently designed section of the company. They were having communication issues and were frustrated by the challenges of different spaces, cultures, and ways of thinking.

The group hoped to unify criteria and push innovation forward. They likewise desired increased worldwide collaboration. After two years of failed attempts, they realized the true value in coming together for face-to-face relationship building. However, they did not want to lose time in unnecessary talk. They spent the first morning getting to know each other through activities and mixed-group conversation where we discussed greetings, circles, and dialogue. People had time to greet one another and share stories of strength. We gave the lead team an opportunity to discuss their struggles, and we reflected and took turns talking in a large circle, interacting in smaller groups and reconvening for reflection.

Their feedback was both encouraging and uplifting. In summary:

  • They thought the process would be difficult, but they actually enjoyed it.
  • They learned more about each other and felt better able to interact.
  • There was collective anxiety, and people were relieved to learn “it’s not just me.”
  • They felt they were able to accomplish more in that period of time than in the past two years of difficult interactions.

What emerged highlighted how dialogue can improve and as a result, the whole division of a company could move forward in a much more efficient way.


How would you like to see people become more involved in having transformative conversation or engage in more dialogue?

I would love to see leaders willing to shift from operating in a fortress to embracing new ideas, products, services, and solutions. This requires the courage and foresight to transform through conversations, and transformative change involves emergence, discovery, and invention. For it to work, you must engage in collective dialogues and make meaning as a unified body. Change can be disruptive—even terrifying—but it can also be exhilarating and bring the fresh energy needed for innovation. I want leaders to allow dialogue to guide them through powerful transformations on their ever-changing leadership journey.


What one thing can we all do today that would encourage and support the type of dialogue needed to transform conversations personally and professionally?

Take the time to connect at a human level. It might be something as simple as really seeing the other person you are greeting. Then stop the noise in your head long enough to interact, and take the time to pause, to really listen, and to acknowledge the validity of every person’s ideas and feelings.

Of course, I’ll have to say that another thing you can do today is buying my book. And then take the time to read it. You will learn very practical ways in which you can encourage and foster dialogue. I can promise you that your conversations will create more connections, will become more meaningful, and will lead to positive transformation.

If you’d like to purchase Dr. Gonzalez’s book, please visit Amazon by clicking here.

For Part Two of my interview with Dr. Gonzalez, click here.