Conversation “Flipping” as System Disruption

We’ve talked before about how we’re living in powerful times. By now you’ve been bombarded by messages and evidence that the so-called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world is real…and it’s unfolding all around you. As individuals and organizations navigate these mixed signals, it seems to evoke a protective posture where you and those around you want to cling tighter to the current situation—maybe only because it’s familiar—despite that it may not be altogether good.

The more the clinging, the greater the tendency to see the things that aren’t working, the things that distress the situation even further. Repeated over time, these reactions tend to produce stagnation, freezing people in place due to their natural fear of uncertainty, the destabilization of constant volatility, and/or the dire hope for some clear signals that can lead us out of this current moment.

All this tends to find individuals and teams (human systems) in a nonstop problem solving loop, often unconsciously downloading past practices whose efficacy was exhausted long ago. Frustration mounts. Positions harden. We each wait for the other to “give ground” and “see it my way.”

My study and practice over the years has reinforced in me a belief that we can learn to employ some tools to make a more powerful contribution during times like these. In fact, I think we can positively disrupt the current dynamics of our human systems by deciding that we’ll enter differently.

One tool I’d like to explore today is “flipping” conversations from the problem-responding search for solutions to the embrace of appreciative gravitational pull.

Let me explain.

Simply Put, What is Conversation Flipping?

Using positive reframing to shift a conversation, topic, or task from a deficit-oriented, problem-highlighting tone to a positive one that broadens and builds creativity and engagement. Stavros and Torres’ book, Conversations Worth Having, is one of the simplest, most practical presentations of this concept.

Flipping Applied

Often in client and new client encounters I’m in discovery mode. I ask simple open ended questions, like, “What's going on here?”…or…”What would you have me know about your situation?”

If I’m working with some really self- and situationally-aware people who are conscious of all the interconnections around any transformative moment, it enables me to start at a much more elevated, more advanced level of strategy development. However, it's been my experience that in most rooms, those voices of high awareness are either in short supply or easily constrained by the dominant power dynamic.

Take a short pause here before reading further. Think about your own work setting. Ask yourself, “What's the tone of the conversations in which I’m invited/drawn to participate?” If you’re like me before I adopted this hugely beneficial tool, you might be drawing a blank right now—perhaps recognizing that you really haven’t been dialed in to the nature/tone of most conversation; you just take each as a given?

Once I practiced attending to the tone, I noticed a pervasive pattern across a broad spectrum of situations. People quite naturally share problems; things they don't like or that feel in the way; things they wish were different; struggles they may be encountering; questions about why we can’t get from here to there easier/faster.

In my client work, I listen for those things. And I also listen for favorable, welcome tailwinds that may ALSO be contributing to what is going on. Initially, I don’t ask what’s going well and I don’t ask what’s keeping you up at night. I just listen. I don’t steer, shape, or guide the discovery. I just try to listen without judgement. When I sense that the group is unaware of how they “are” in this transformation space, and when the nature of their conversations becomes noticeably narrow, habitual, and grasping (what Otto Scharmer calls “downloading the past”)—I consciously reach for my flipping toolkit.

I tend to start wherever the group tends to start, and the group will often default to describing their current situation by naming what's wrong—especially for me, the outside consultant. This might produce a laundry list, which I quietly note.

From repeated experience, I know that too much time among the items in this laundry list typically brings about a downward spiral—in energy, creativity, and patience. So I follow up by asking about this list, “What are the ‘real’ underlying issues? What do you think they are?” Usually this second step produces a much shorter list which, again, I note.

At that time I observe for the group that we have a choice of how to proceed. We could hunker down and try to resolve these underlying issues head on, which, I point out, they’ve likely been doing with unsatisfyingly limited success for quite some time, because the issues remain. Or we could approach this differently.

Here comes “the flip.”

Alternatively, I suggest we might ask a different question. In other words, we “flip” the line of questioning to ask, “What do you want? What do you want more of?” People (individuals and groups) typically pause at this point. Think of a ceiling fan as an analogy for what might be happening in the human dynamic. When it's really whipping on the problem side (down draft) and you flip the switch to reverse it so the air gets pulled up, the fan doesn't immediately start whipping in the other direction. It slows. And then for a moment, it pauses and ever so slowly starts to turn in the other direction, which is what I find happens in the dynamic of the room during some of the client encounters I’m describing.

This third step—the conversation flip—starts to invite people to explore what they DO want; what they want more of. Sometimes it's just the positive opposite of the issues they noted in step two, yet I invite people to go beyond telling me that all they want is the absence of that problem. “Tell me what you want. What do you want more of?” Once again, I note their observations, gradually building out the progression (in my mind, if not on paper).

After they've identified those things they DO want and the fan blade now starts spinning a little bit faster, I move to step four, whereupon I ask something like, “What would be the best expression of those things just named? It's like putting your stated “wants” on steroids. What does that look like? Paint that picture for me.” The result is an emerging picture of some positive impact or outcome.

Finally, step five invites the individual or group to articulate the question(s) they’d inquire more deeply into to understand the origin/source/roots of their step four impact. I ask, “Explore what questions you’d inquire into to discover how those things that you just identified might actually exist today? What evidence is there that there's even a tiny particle of that in today's existence? What generative question would you ask (and/or what topic would you explore) if you went looking for ways to evoke the step four impact/outcome just named.”

I did this exercise as part of my work with a university. The client sponsor would make me available to many leaders and departments in the campus community. Sometimes I get offered up into a meeting and I don't know why I'm there. I'm just there to be a resource. This story is about one of those meetings.

A few years ago, I showed up for what was scheduled to be a two and a half hour meeting with the dean of one of the colleges and their director of development. To get my bearings at the meeting outset, I asked why we were gathered. They were not really prepared with an agenda, so they had no advance expectations or intended outcome. Not so uncommon in my experience. I just suggested we see what we might best do together.

There was a big empty whiteboard in the room, which I ended up using for the exercise outlined above. When I started the conversation we were at long table, with the dean and the director seated side by side, both with arms folded and kind of leaning slightly away from one another. And as the conversation unfolded I put their summary responses to my questions on the whiteboard. They had no idea what I was doing, I didn't announce this. I was just listening and taking notes into unlabeled columns.

By the time the discovery had progressed to the 3rd and 4th columns, the dean and the director were now actually sitting closely side by side. They were leaning in, they were animated. They were leaning forward toward me. And they were saying about column four—their impact/outcome ideation—"That's what we should be talking about!”

What started out as a conversation about being unable to move the needle on any important stuff, lacking the energy, feeling cynical about support, turned into seeing an opportunity to shift the dialogue in the college to one of opportunity and significant impact. Even better: these leaders had emotionally internalized the pathway.

Following is a photo of the completed whiteboard and a subsequent transcribed version—along with an additional conversation flipping example from a different organization struggling with teaming issues.

Application Example 1a

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Without telegraphing to the client what I was doing, I began posting my “discovery” notes in column 1. When I heard from them something that sounded like an asset or something going right, I used a green marker and posted it toward the bottom. Deficit-based observations were listed in black at the top of the column. See transcribed version which follows.

Example: A State University Community & Technical College (CTC)

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Take a look at the tone and content of Column 1 compared to that of Columns 3 and 4. I helped these leaders see that by loosening their hold on Columns 1 and 2 AND by focusing their curiosity, time, and attention on the topics and questions of Column 5 that they were far more likely to produce tangible signs of Columns 3 and 4.

Application Example 2

Aspirational Teaming Dialogue: Finding the Central Element of our Dialogue Inquiry

Note: In this sample case I began my leadership team discovery interviews by asking about the current situation and the “real” issues beneath them. Due to the presence of so many tough, thorny issues, the result was a more negative and potentially divisive tone, which I felt it would be detrimental if shared with the entire team—which was our intention. Therefore, when presenting to the entire team, I started with a new column 1 that would otherwise be column 3.

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[1] GARY’S SUGGESTION: There’s no need for us to restate what we state in the new values. Assume the topic of inquiry is built upon our explicit embrace of those value. Common characteristics of a “good” topic: 1) it is affirmative, stated in the positive; 2) it’s desirable, identifies something you really want [rather than just being nice to have]; 3) you’re genuinely curious about this and you want to learn more [versus it representing a point that you want to drive home to others]; and 4) this topic could very likely create gravitational pull in the desired direction. NOTE: the topic does not attempt to indicate how it will be achieved.

This conversation flipping technique can be pretty powerful—applied in 1:1 and group conversations. It's largely based on the questions that you ask and on what you listen for. As I use this tool in my work I’ve found repeatedly that I can see mindsets open and shift; I can see energy, creativity, and engagement rising. People leave encounters like this feeling buoyed, hopeful, and sensing a greater level of agency to affect the environment for the good. I’ve learned later that they’ve shared their new attitude with those they immediately encounter, which creates a positive ripple effect. This is much preferred over the negative ripple effect following yet one more problem rehash meeting.

Theory and Context Supporting This Tool’s Use

Unconsciously, the default posture of many individuals and groups is characterized by naming the undesirable and then jumping to fixing (aka, problem-solving). By the time one achieves any level of organizational professional responsibility and distinction, we’ve been steeped in, and rewarded for, just that – solving problems.

Is that a bad thing?

No, yet it is artificially limiting and repetitive. Someone once described it as being as effective as picking up a drop of mercury with a hammer. Just when you think you’ve driven it down, it squirts out again, often in multiple droplets. Appreciative inquiry thought leaders like David Cooperrider remind us that when beginning from this problem solving posture, we can find some incremental improvement, yet we tend to remain stuck in the repetitive cycle of seeing the undesirable. Why? Because we’re so keenly focused on it.

Remember, we move in the direction of what we pay closest attention to.

The flipping tool aids the mental shift to explore the positive deviation from the normalized skepticism and cynicism alive in many teams and organizations. Perhaps it’s the rogue-like belief that there must be a pony around here somewhere, given the big pile of poop!

When someone lifts up the negative and wants to explore why it’s happening, it’s a hidden  reflection of their world view, their mental model. A deficit-based mental model may largely be a manifestation of their socialization, enculturation, and training. In another attempt at positive reframing, we might embrace that view as a signal that the individual(s) has in mind an ideal not yet realized and has chosen to focus on the gap rather than the ideal.

That’s powerful to illuminate for people. It opens them to a shift in their mental model.

In appreciative inquiry, we tend to ask: How do we bring rigor to the good, the positive, and the most life-giving. As human beings and professionals, we tend to give great rigor to problem-solving, but far little to the nourishment of life-giving forces. Intellectually, we take positive things for granted. Hence, a tool for whole system disruption is the search for positive deviation from the norm.

We live in the world our questions create. Leadership effectiveness grows from the questions you ask. Good leadership is increasingly creating the conditions where people willingly and readily explore possibility. As you create these conditions time after time, you’re actually developing others’ leadership abilities. Cooperrider calls this creating absorptive capacity – supporting an individual’s ability to absorb the positive and the changes it brings about.

Inquiry is an intervention. Flipping invites experimentation. It invites possibility. Therefore, it’s a powerful tool for fostering a positive disruption in a human ecosystem seemingly stuck in a negative reinforcing loop of interaction and behavior.

What I’d appreciate most of all is your dropping me a note about your observations when using this tool. Maybe you want to rehearse its use before trying it out? If so, just reach out to me.


If you’re still curious about the possibilities of this flipping tool in your hands, treat yourself to a special bonus by wandering over to YouTube and watch David Whyte’s Conversational Nature of Reality (19 minutes).