Pulling Back the Curtain: Building Conversational Muscles

Pulling Back the Curtain: Building  Conversational Muscles

Navigating today’s workplace takes the courage and conviction to call out behaviors that limit inclusion and the full realization of human possibility. But work can be the hardest place to take a stand. We are least comfortable “taking on” colleagues, let alone superiors, when we are keen to prove ourselves as “team players.” 

How do we create the conditions to enable the courageous conversations we need for our organizations to benefit fully from the plurality of human perspective and experience? The courage to champion true belonging and inclusion – and to have the hard conversations – takes time and practice, and a commitment to a culture of openness and respect. 

Recently, Warren Dunston, Operational Excellence Coach at EnPro Industries, and I co-presented a different approach at a Diversity Best Practices member conference entitled “What’s Next After Courageous Conversations.” 

Courage as Culture

EnPro Industries, a 6000-employee global engineered products manufacturer, doesn’t talk about courageous conversations or diversity and inclusion. Instead, EnPro includes courage as one of six behaviors (together with curiosity, open-mindedness, listening, collaboration and mindfulness) it expects from all employees at every level of the organization – every day in every interaction. A “dual bottom line” company as committed to human flourishing as it is to financial performance, EnPro embraces three core values: safety, excellence and respect. 

At the Diversity Best Practices conference, Warren highlighted the many programs and approaches EnPro uses to engage its employees and to build community around these values. One of these programs is Books@Work. EnPro has partnered with Books@Work in all six of its divisions and at the corporate center. To date, Books@Work has delivered programs to well over 1000 unique EnPro employees in 26 domestic and international facilities, in seven languages. 

In his first experience with Books@Work, Warren explained, a team previously plagued by distrust and a lack of synergy began to open up to each other, “connecting their personal experiences to the reading.” As people began to feel comfortable speaking with candor and without judgment, he continued,

“we listened to each other with true empathy. The smiles and laughter were welcomed and authentic. This was the collaboration I was looking for.  Books@Work allowed me to create a personal connection with my team that I otherwise would have not achieved.” 

A Taste of Books@Work 

In the spirit of experiential learning, the one hundred diversity and inclusion professionals from organizations large and small gathered at the Diversity Best Practices conference tried Books@Work for themselves.  

Edwidge Danticat’s provocative story, “Night Women,” transported the group to the bedroom of a Haitian prostitute where a thin lace curtain separates her work from her sleeping child. Through their discussion of the story, they explored the balances we strike to serve our work and our families. They pondered the judgements we hold about people in different roles, and the nature of honest work. 

Deepening the inquiry, they looked at the ways in which gender plays a role in the way we judge people, even in our own organizations. Finally, they explored the metaphorical power of Danticat’s curtain, and the lengths we go to prevent bringing our whole selves to work and sharing our more personal natures.  

It Takes Practice 

Stories like “Night Women,” provocative as they might be, provide the fodder for deep and meaningful discussions, and the opportunity to engage on challenging topics without risk.  By creating opportunities for social learning, they permit participants to step back, reflect and take stock of a diverse array of perspectives – on the story, its themes and ideas it evokes. 

Stories also create the conditions for practicing generative and humble questioning and active listening, the critical partners to authentic connecting and deepened social relationships. These behaviors and conditions are necessary precursors to open, honest and difficult conversation. 

Like muscles, effective conversation skills take time and practice to develop and condition. Over time they become authentic and honest, ready when challenges arise, rather than confined to the training room for a narrow window of structured experience. It doesn’t have to be Books@Work that trains these muscles, but it has to be open, judgement-free and decoupled from the risky spaces of everyday work – and regular. 

To ensure the skills for courageous conversation? Invest in social learning, in the space for colleagues to deepen connection and to practice authentic conversation. 

Image: Edouard Vuillard, The Yellow Curtain, 1868, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia.org

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith


Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.