Conversations for Action and Collected Essays, by Fernando Flores

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“Conversation is not merely a prelude to action, it is its very essence. … People don’t merely use language to communicate their desires about the future; they create the future in language together by making commitments to each other.”

Reading The Unaccountability Machine reminded me of this book of essays by Fernando Flores, who invited management cyberneticist Stafford Beer to collaborate in Chile. Flores articulates the process by which accountability is created via one structured conversation after another. He is now considered the father for a branch of coaching called ontological coaching, which uses language as a way to change one’s reality. In reading Flores’s Wikipedia article, I learned that he collaborated with James Flaherty, who went on to found New Ventures West, the coaching school where I trained, so I am more closely tied to Flores than I had realized.

I love the simplicity of Flores’s Conversation for Action structure:

  1. Preparation -> Request: One person prepares a request for another person to take an action. This could be a manager asking his report to do a task, an executive asking a cross-functional peer for a deliverable, a salesperson asking a customer to buy.
  2. Negotiation -> Agreement: The recipient of the request can negotiate as to what it will take for them to agree to the request. They can say no immediately, they can say yes immediately, they can specify what conditions need to be satisfied before they accept the request (take work off their plate, get a lower price, etc). They may also negotiate over what the desired output would be. If the recipient says no to the request, then we return to step 1. If the two parties agree, we proceed to step 3.
  3. Performance -> Declaration of Completion: The recipient takes the requested action. They perform the task, they deliver the output, etc. Surprisingly, this is not the end of the conversation, because we still need step 4.
  4. Acceptance -> Declaration of Satisfaction: The original requester has to evaluate the output, and see if it meets their needs. This is the step which drives accountability; if the work is not done to the desired standard, it will not be accepted and we start the cycle over with a new request.

After reading this essay, I immediately started mapping all of my conversations to this elegant structure. It’s surprising how universal it is, and how it simplifies so much of life; if you’re not getting what you want, have another conversation and make a new request.

Tracy Goss describes a similar perspective in her book, The Last Word on Power, “what happens – whether generated by you or someone else – is always and only a conversation: always and only a request or a promise [which] move possibilities to a reality.” (not surprising since Goss trained in est, which was developed by Werner Erhard who collaborated with Flores). There is no “should” or “shouldn’t”, there’s just a series of requests and negotiations, so don’t get frustrated if things don’t turn out as they “should”; just start the next conversation.

This advice is deceptively simple, because most of us refrain from making such requests due to internal voices telling us how things are supposed to work (read chapters 2 to 4 of my book for how to deal with such voices). But the people I know that make such intentional requests and negotiate new possibilities achieve exceptional results. Everything is on the other side of asking for what you want.

To connect it back to The Unaccountability Machine, this is how we create accountability in our lives. We make requests. We don’t accept the work if the results are not what we agreed to. We keep having these conversations to ask others to bring the possibilities we see into reality. This is not easy work – activist Parker Palmer calls it standing in the tragic gap where you accept reality as it currently is (while not succumbing to corrosive cynicism) while holding to a vision of how things could be better (without floating off into irrelevant idealism). Keep making requests that will drive action towards the vision, and refuse to lower your standards if you can handle the potentially adverse consequences of working uphill against reality. Accountability is just one conversation after another.

Unsurprisingly, this philosophy also resonates with me as a coach. What I love about coaching is that a few conversations can change a person’s life; they see new possibilities, and take new actions to bring those new possibilities into reality. The accountability matters as well; I’ve had clients tell me they hear my voice in my head when they are shrinking back from an uncomfortable moment, and they step into the discomfort because they know I’ll ask them about it. When I lead somebody through that process, it doesn’t just change their life, it changes the lives of those they interact with, changing even more realities. Conversations continue to ripple outwards, creating new possibilities like a butterfly flapping its wings.

The rest of the essays in this book explore how the conversation for action can be applied in a variety of settings.

people create the future in the commitments they make to each other and the actions that they take together. … we always have a way out [of a bad mood] — taking action with others. The future is always unfolding and has not happened yet. It’s a future in which a person can make a difference. He or she can be committed to participate in inventing the future. That’s the core of a person’s identity: people see each other in terms of how they work with others to create future possibilities.

I found this so inspiring, that our identity lies in the future possibilities we help to create. There are people who shut down possibilities by saying no to any changes to reality. There are people who cultivate potential by saying “Yes, and…”. What future possibilities do you create in your conversations?

In the chapter on Building and Leading Teams, Flores observes that successful teams include “people in the team [that] have ongoing and effective conversations regarding nine commitments”, a few of which include:

Again, these commitments are deceptively simple – who would disagree with these in principle? And yet how many of us have actually been on teams operating at this level of clarity and accountability? I was fortunate to be on such a team early in my career and it set my standards of how productive an aligned team could be (I actually caught up with a few people from that team recently, and I still respect and appreciate them 20 years later).

The essays cover a lot more ground (I haven’t mentioned the reflections around listening, concerns behind concerns, and several others), and I highly recommend this book. While these ideas were familiar to me through other sources, it was helpful to read them in their original form as developed by Flores. Even if you don’t read the book, remember that if you want to create new realities, have a conversation and make a request.

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