The Conversational Bubble: Downloads from My Tour with David Whyte — Part Four


The following is the final part of this four-part series of posts inspired by my conversations and deep listening with celebrated poet, author, and business consultant, David Whyte. I had the privilege of accompanying him and some hearty travelers on one of his tours through the countryside of West Ireland to experience the magic, poetry, and wisdom of the ancient Celtic culture and beyond.

One of the biggest themes that David pointed out, in terms of how we get in our own way as leaders, is when we get stuck in our own conversational bubble. Our conversational bubble forms when we assume we have all the answers, are not really open to feedback from the outside, and lack the vulnerability it takes to ask for help.

In fact, leadership gone bad is on display daily in our media channels. When you rise to the top on the org chart or hold any leadership position in business, government, athletics, or any realm, any flaws or shadow aspects are highlighted for all to see. In fact, we have been seeing a daily barrage of prominent leaders (ahem) that have a hard time admitting they don’t know something, aren’t able to own when they’ve made a mistake, and cannot take the next steps to repair the problem at hand to move toward a solution.

So, let’s take a closer look at what forms a conversational bubble around leaders, and how to pop this for more effective and impactful leading.

#1—Assuming We Don’t Know

When we advance in our careers through being recognized for our skillsets and abilities to solve problems, a false sense of confidence mixed with some arrogance can easily creep-in—i.e. that we have all the answers, as this was what got us to the top. A danger around complacency can sink in that “we’ve arrived” as we can start to unknowingly close off to the feedback and wisdom of others as this might be seen as a threat to the success we’ve achieved to date.

When a leader makes it to the top, there is more at stake. They’ve achieved the gold medal, the result they’ve been aiming for, or the top position that they’ve dedicated themselves to achieving. There’s more to lose as all eyes are on them to direct the department or business direction. And any misstep will come with more criticism than before.

Yet what got you to the top is not what you need to stay there. As the business landscape changes like the seasons and the next disruption in your industry is right around the corner, being open to change and adding other perspectives to your leadership direction is critical.

When we assume we know, we lose our curiosity and open-minded approach to a situation. Our strategic minds keep us safe in this way as we don’t have to risk being seen as not knowing. Yet in instead of standing in our vulnerability, which actually brings people closer instead of further away, we add a protective bubble that keeps others out.

So, instead, how do we make friends with the unknown and welcome this to our strategic decision-making? What if you started your next meeting by declaring that you don’t know the answer to the problem you’ve been facing and want to hear what everyone else has to say about this?

#2—Asking for Help

Having open feedback loops is critical to a leadership team’s success to get real-time data on what’s happening on the ground with customers, with staff, and the user experience. Yet too often, leadership teams can become insulated within their own departments and section of the org chart.

Asking for help is vulnerable and can be hard to do. But when we take this risk, people can actually contribute to us in ways that weren’t possible before. The leaders that I respect the most ask for help when they’ve hit a dead end, and have the confidence to show that they can’t do it all alone. This adds to a thriving company culture where dialogue and new perspectives add to the company’s growth and bottom line. And most importantly, this is one of the fastest ways to pop the conversational bubble that can form around each of us.

Where do you know you need to ask for help?

#3—Being Open to Feedback

We all say we want feedback, but do we really? Even if it’s tough to hear? The more we can stay open to what those around us see and feel, the faster we can make adjustments to lead effectively. One of the fastest ways to pop the conversational bubble is to allow space for others to enter the conversation.

You already know what you think! When you are stuck or want to make sure you are looking at a situation from a 360-degree view, bringing in other perspectives at the right time is critical.

One powerful question that Jonathan Raymond,—CEO of Refound—asks, is “What is it that you think I don’t see about our culture?” This type of question immediately shifts the power dynamic, allowing the employee to feel respected and contribute valuable feedback that can add to the organization.

#4—Getting Fluent

As David Whyte reminds us, “What language do I need to learn for the world I want to enter?” He spent years as a naturalist on the Galapagos Islands before he would become a world-renowned poet and organizational consultant. For someone who has spent decades refining his words to inspire and challenge others, he had to unlearn all of this in order to listen to the conversation that was happening around him. Often, it’s the language of silence that enables one to hear the conversation of Darwin’s Finches, the Galapagos Tortoise, or the Whale Sharks.

And same is true in boardrooms around the world. What language do you need to learn if you want to engage with your customers? How are the different social media platforms more or less helpful in speaking effectively? Where do you need to get more fluent, which truly includes listening, if you want to better understand your new hires or the tension that may be happening with your business partners?

If we stay content with the language we know, we don’t stretch ourselves to stay relevant in the marketplace.

And sometimes the language we need to learn is simply being able to listen to the deeper intuitions and gut instincts that have been clamoring for our attention as we go about our day.

All of these techniques are guaranteed to pop us out of our current conversational bubbles into a more engaging dialogue with the world around us, where we can learn from each other and continue our leadership development.