Tag Archives: leading

Serious Conversations, 4

The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.

The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.

Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.


Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.

How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?

This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.

First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.

Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying.  As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.

Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.

Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.

Serious Conversations, 3

So far in these notes on serious conversations I’ve talked about questions of authority and trust as well as the joint commitments conversations entail. What little I’ve managed to say may not amount to more than the observation that what makes a conversation “serious” has less to do with subject matter than with the mutual obligations of its participants and their disposition toward the activity of conversation.

Let me spell that out a little more. In order for a conversation to be serious, all parties would have to enter freely into it. So a police interrogation or a dressing down at work are not very likely to qualify as serious conversation, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they might become serious if things were to take an unexpected turn. Joint commitment can’t be coerced; and while it’s possible that one party in a conversation might officially be in charge of things, by election, contract or appointment, all parties have to be vested with equal authority in the conversation — or have equal standing to make claims of others, despite differences in title, social stature, organizational standing, etc. To put it another way, all parties in a serious conversation are mutually accountable to each other.

In subsequent posts I hope I can explore this basic position a little more and strengthen it — or, if need be, abandon it in favor of something more compelling. Right now I want to be clear that while serious conversation requires parity, it’s still possible to lead a serious conversation, so long as leading the conversation does not violate the covenant or commitment the participants have made. It all comes down to how one leads, and it’s possible — it’s very easy — to mislead a conversation: it happens all the time.

For example, someone might insist on getting to the point. A rule of serious conversation applies here: the point is almost beside the point.

The primary point of any conversation, which takes precedence over any insight, conclusion or plan for action the conversation might eventually yield, is that we have jointly committed to do something together — namely, have a conversation. That commitment will entail obligations to each other, some of which we can enumerate right at the outset, because we know, roughly, what conversation will require: e.g., you can’t suddenly walk away, or I can’t start singing “la la la” while you are talking or patronize you or coerce you into agreement. Others might become apparent only as the conversation wends its way, and neither of us can really know where the conversation will lead — unless, of course, one of us is being disingenuous or duplicitous, in which case the conversation is a sham.

When people insist we get to the point, they are not just short-circuiting the conversation; their efforts to control or wrap up the conversation risk foreclosing on claims we might make or unmet obligations we might have to each other as participants.

This is why, by the way, it’s important to be tolerant of meandering turns the conversation might take and of what I call verbal fidgeting and others call throat clearing: all the little tics and tacks we use before we actually get around to saying anything definite. Verbal fidgeting — “like,” “I mean,” “so…” “you know,” etc. — in conversation can be an annoyance, but it isn’t just noise; and noise-to-signal ratio is not the best metaphor for conversation.

Fidgeting can indicate that someone is uncomfortable with silence, which is worth attending to, because it might tell us the person isn’t listening or feels nervous and doesn’t know how to sit with the restlessness that being with others sometimes involves. But fidgeting can also help coordinate the conversation and the being together that conversation entails, bringing others in, building bridges, redirecting attention. At the very least it can help us get to know the habits and manners of the others with whom we’re speaking, and conversation happens where those habits and manners — those styles — meet.

Ask Is A Verb

If you have spent any time in conference rooms or on conference calls, you have no doubt arrived at the moment when someone, usually the person who commands the most authority in the room, articulates “the ask” of the meeting. Or someone will ask, “what is the ask?” and this poor excuse for a question will snap everyone to attention, demonstrating that they regarded most of what went before as inconsequential blather. They were merely awaiting their orders.

Against this slide into jargon – and it’s fair to talk about it as a slide, an intellectually lazy lapse into the jargon of bureaucratic command– it is important to assert: ask is a verb. Why? Because verbs describe and denote action, and asking is a special action – an action that initiates and coordinates new action (on a very basic level, the discussion of the request, the coordination of the actors who will attempt to satisfy the request.) Asking is a way to begin, and beginnings are the prerogative not just of nominal leaders, but of all human beings.

When a designated leader, or anyone, for that matter, talks about “the ask,” they are turning a verb into a noun, an action into a thing – into a command, more precisely, and depriving asking of its native connection to action. They are not interested in beginnings, but in ends, the outcome they already have in mind. At the level of the sentence, “the ask” or “my ask” obscures the basic relationship that the verb “to ask” usually creates between a petitioner (the person doing the asking) and a respondent (the one of whom a thing is asked), and converts that very fragile and mutable relationship, that conversation about the world and what we should do together, into a superior’s control over a subordinate.

When you ask someone to do something you will elicit a response. The response can be a simple yes or no; and the number one rule of asking  — of being a petitioner — is “always take no for an answer.” In other words, be prepared to listen, engage and adapt. Asking someone to do something – as opposed to ordering them to do it – is to initiate an event whose outcome is unpredictable. The request is fraught with possibility, uncertainty, promise. That is because when you ask, you implicitly acknowledge the independence and autonomy of the other – recognizing them as an agent capable of their own beginnings. When you command, you forgo that recognition, and the respect that goes along with it, to remind the other of his subordination, and treat him as an instrument of your will, a means to your own ends.

This little piece of jargon creates a big moral muddle, but sometimes a muddle is exactly what bureaucrats want to create because they are unwilling to assume the responsibility of command, they are averse to risk (beginnings are always risky), or they are just cowardly.  “The ask” preserves hierarchy without acknowledging power relations. It involves phony respect for the other: I am not petitioner asking you, the respondent, to do something; there is an object called “the ask” that we must address. It comes from nowhere, really; its origin is unclear, but our duty is clear.  That request from nowhere or at least nobody also keeps power relations, the status quo, intact. The course is set. Things have already begun; the task now is to complete them. So “the ask” works as a hedge against change, against doing something really new; it short-circuits the conversation, shuts down dialogue, and enlists others not as collaborators but as a pair of hands to get a job done.

I suppose that’s not so surprising in a context where the point is execution of an already-decided objective or plan, not debate; but without debate or deliberation a plan or objective will lack meaning for those asked to carry it out. They won’t have had a chance to figure out for themselves the best way to carry it out, whether they are the right people to carry it out, or whether it ought to be carried out at all.