Meaningful Conversations

Meaningful Conversations

The dotted line my father’s ashplant made

On Sandymount Strand

Is something else the tide won’t wash away.

Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber and Faber 1996).

Ever wondered what it is that makes people into great leaders?  I am not thinking about Winston Churchill here but more about the people we have met and know, people in positions of authority and trust who we look up to, respect and have learnt from. It occurred to me this week that the answer may simply be that they may just be good at meaningful conversations…

A MacIntyre colleague, Belinda Manning, facilitated a workshop recently where she asked us to think of a leadership figure who has had a positive influence on our lives.  She then asked us to think of a specific memory and to consider why it was so positive.  The exercise took only two or three minutes but we were all able to think of someone and to recall a particular memory.  What was interesting the specific memory was usually the recollection of a conversation or maybe a series of conversations.  The chances are the other party may not even recall the moment but for us it was highly significant in some way; providing us with unexpected insights or opening up new possibilities. I actually thought of my Scout leader: an old school, God and Queen, Scout master who loved tradition and formality and had a gift for telling adventure yarns. I recollected a conversation when he gently persuaded me to lead my first camping trip as a new patrol leader.  This was despite the fact that the previous week I had managed to get us all lost in a night hike which resulted in the local police and our families searching for us! He simply told me  to remember what I had learned and that I was ready.

This was one of several such conversations I had with him, which at such a formative age, helped me to see beyond the restrictions and fairly low expectations of my existing life.  To have the confidence and self belief to try new things even when faced with setbacks is a great message to give any fourteen year old and it ignited a flame, a passion for adventure, which still burns brightly to this day. Undoubtedly he would have had similar conversations with hundreds of young lads- he wasn’t paid, it was just his way.

The theme of influential conversations was taken up a few days later by Andy Bradley of Frameworks 4 Change.  Andy introduced me and a few others to what he terms as the “habits” of people who are good at communication; key skills we can all learn which, with practice, will become more habitual when we interact with others.  The first is to listen attentively with no interruption, the second is to ask questions that matter and the third is to show appreciation.  Sounds simple doesn’t it but I actually found it quite challenging!  We were asked to pair up with someone we were unfamiliar with and spend just a few minutes each taking turns and I tell you: the impact was quite remarkable.  Having just three minutes of someone listening to you attentively, asking thoughtful questions and then showing appreciation was, for me, the most memorable moment of the day.

Like imprints in the sand left my Seamus Heaney’s father meaningful conversations punctuate our life and persist in the daily ebb and flow.

Postscript to last week’s blog:

Thank you to everyone who commented and sent messages following the publication of my last blog. The issue I raised about the consequence of putting process before people resonated with everyone and none more so than the families of loved ones reliant upon the decisions of others.  I won’t comment further at this stage as I am not here to preach or tell others how to do their job but I will point readers in the direction of some current work designed to improve commissioning practice:

A partnership between the Department of Health, Association of Directors of Social Services and the Think Local, Act Personal partnership have jointly created a new set of commissioning standards supported by a self-assessment known as, Commissioning for Better Outcomes: It is currently being piloted and the hope is this will encourage a greater alignment between procurement practice and commissioning intentions.  If you are interested I will report back on this after the first pilots have been completed in late April.