The Fine Art of Positive Disruption

The last time you and I were having a conversation together it’s entirely possible that we were changing the world…for the better? Perhaps.

Or, we might have squandered the opportunity, completely unaware of the moment as a possible inflection point.

How many of these moments present themselves to you daily? Dozens, hundreds? To what extent are you truly aware of the potential embedded in each and every one of those encounters with one other person?

What might be possible for you if you understood—and trusted—that each of these moments of personal interaction—each conversation—holds within it the seeds of “disturbing” the status quo in one direction or another? That’s right, you could be squarely occupying the role of change agent without being fully aware of the impact you can have. 

As you know, I’ve long been fascinated by the power and potential of coupling one’s attention with one’s intention. We all tend to move in the direction of that which we’re most passionate about, right? Well…maybe we tend to move in the direction of what we pay most attention to (demonstrated by our thoughts and actions). Simon Sinek says what we do proves what we believe.

So, all this gets me to thinking more deeply about the power of a single conversation. I tend to be most often involved in coaching people whose work exists within some institutional or organizational setting. The questions typically directed my way have to do with effecting some sort of change, some betterment of a situation. Often, there’s an implicit assumption that “the other” has to make some change, and/or “the system” needs to change, and/or (worse) the resigned plea “what can I do about it given my powerless place in the whole context?!”

I invite you to consider that you may possess at this very moment everything you need to move in the direction you want. In fact, the on-ramp to the future you most want to see may be your very next conversation. 

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What! Something so simple and so…ordinary?!?

Yep. Let’s explore why.

Recall Margaret Mead’s famous observation, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” I believe the very seeds of world changing is contained in our conversations with one another. In fact, some students of group, organizational, and social behavior point to this “ordinary” occurrence, seeing instead the transformative nature of conversing.

What’s happening that can make the conversation transformative?1

  1. The ways in which we organize ourselves changes with our changing patterns of reciprocal personal accounting to one another;
  2. Every conversation is an open-ended, co-created, never-completed co-construction of a shared future—part of a pattern of making sense about the path to the future;
  3. Drawn as we are to designing idealized rules of engagement in advance of conversations, we find that we are shaped by, just as we shape, the conversations we experience. For most of us who’ve been influenced by management theory of the past 70 years, it is ironic (and liberating!) to recognize that clearly agreed roles are not always needed for useful participation in conversations;
  4. Grounded in the confidence of entering conversations this way, you can act without always having a clear outcome in mind for the conversation, relinquishing the self-judgement that you’re just acting randomly without intention;
  5. Paradoxically, each conversation holds within it conditions of constraint and enablement. We do not inherit the future; we co-create it through our conversation. “The significance of the past may be recast, a new sense of where to go from here materializes, there may be a shift in people’s sense of self and in their relations to others, what can be envisaged takes on a fresh shape. The patterning of our social identities shifts spontaneously” (Shaw, p. 68);
  6. Becoming consciously attentive to our conversations, we may embrace each as part of a process of prospective sense-making. To the degree we do this, we avoid the trap of seeing the conversation as a means of piecing together a real time picture of progress toward our advance idealized set of conditions;
  7. Rather than seeing our conversations as a chess match where participants attempt to invisibly navigate one another’s unspoken assumptions about constraints and enabling conditions (as if those were the de facto guidelines for the conversation), we move to shaping and shifting our co-created webs of understanding through our ongoing interaction;
  8. The transformative potential of many conversations is unintentionally blocked by one or more person’s need for clarity or closure. Said another way, the greatest potential for something generative exists within the tension of the not knowing, which is where genuine curiosity serves best.

Essentially, Shaw is “describing how we may join ongoing conversations as participant sense-makers, helping to develop the opportunities inherent in such conversations.” She suggests that “this involves moving into constraints, restrictions and premature closures as they materialize in communicative action so as to sustain exploratory meaning making.” She concludes that “these are the ordinary, everyday processes of organizational life that offer endless opportunity as we move from conversation to conversation” (Shaw, pp. 70-71, emphasis added).

So this ordinary, everyday thing—conversation—is, potentially, an agent of change in catalyzing more of what we may want to see in the future. This social construction of reality invites each of us to question the contribution we are making, because our participation isn’t neutral. It either moves what is being co-created toward the generative (what Shaw called enablements) or to a deficit (what Shaw calls constraints).

Earlier, Cooperrider and Srivastva (co-developers of what came to be called appreciative inquiry) made a similar point:

Valid knowledge…is…a communal creation. Social knowledge is not ‘out there’ in nature to be discovered through detached, value-free, observational methods; nor can it be relegated to the subjective minds of isolated individuals. Social knowledge resides in the interactive collectivity; it is created, maintained, and put to use by the human group. Dialogue, free from constraint or distortion, is necessary to determine the ‘nature of things.’ 2    

So, if you and I share an interest in (and, perhaps, a sense of calling toward) contributing in ways that foster lift and wholeness, then it seems that we must become increasingly attentive to the intention of our participation in ordinary, everyday conversations—especially those with our teams and colleagues at work. 


 1Shaw, P., (2002). Changing Conversations in Organizations, Routledge: London
2Cooperrider, D.L. and Srivastva, S. (1999). Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life, reprinted in Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, (2008), pp. 359-360