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“Every good conversation starts with listening” – how conversations can support organisational transformation

23 Apr 2021 | Kim Ansell As part of our Connect Member Benefit theme for April and May ‘Transforming organisations: from student to board’, colleagues at Advance HE share insights, experiences and tips to frame and hold transformative conversations.

Connect Member Benefit theme for April and May: ‘Transforming organisations: from student to board

Authentic conversations and two-way communication are central to supporting organisational transformation, and the first tip is to start by truly listening. In her blog introducing the theme, Kim Ansell, Senior Advisor at Advance HE, offered the provocation that, “Leaders must find ways to create and explore shared understanding about culture, identity and the organisation’s direction of travel in a way which unites”. That means finding ways to listen and understand.

Resistance or lack of engagement in organisational transformation is not a new phenomenon. But it has been heightened with recent Covid realities and unprecedented levels of change and ambiguity, which challenge universities to deliver their work online (research, teaching and assessment, leadership, management and governance), and implement socially distanced campuses. Conversations about grief, exploring injustice and fairness have also received more visibility in recent times, despite having always been prevalent. In these situations, it is common for senior leaders in most sectors and organisations to want to control where a conversation goes, whether it is with the Board, staff or students; but according to Stephen R Covey, in his book 7 habits of highly effective people’, “people usually listen with the intent to reply, not to understand”. He recommends, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

Gareth Morgan’s work, Riding the waves of change : developing managerial competencies for a turbulent world, Chapter 2, Emerging Waves and Challenges: The Need for New Competencies and Mind sets puts conversation and communication at the heart of transformation, while Barbara Bassa, Senior Advisor, (Leadership and Organisational Development)Advance HE, is convinced that, “having transformative conversations is a foundation for building strong relationships, motivating students, colleagues and teams and for creating healthy environments for students and staff to work and thrive”. Many of the requirements for successful organisational transformation.  

Staffordshire University has been on an 18 month transforming culture programme which became even more important after the pandemic hit. They had already surveyed staff about culture and put in place a series of virtual roadshows to listen to staff from all parts of the university.

Paula Cottrell, Director of HR&OD at Staffordshire University said, "The survey and the roadshows helped us to talk to staff through different lenses and we made the time and space to engage – this was not a quick fix but an open and transparent listening exercise."   

We know that in challenging times conversations can become fractious and emotions are heightened; and this has been a common characteristic that we have found in our culture reviews and development programmes at Advance HE. In her blog ‘nodding as a non-performative, Sara Ahmed recognises the process of “institutional venting” to enable complainers to, “get the complaint out of their system.” But she cautions against this being a green light to allow that complaint to disappear, “a hearing can be a disappearing”.

As most of us have come to understand over the last year, there are less physical or social clues with virtual conversations, so honing our skills to ’relate virtually’ is even more important.

Sara Ahmed also explores the meaning of physical clues in a conversation and indeed how they can sometimes be counter intuitive.

“Nothing can be what is being achieved by nodding.” Sara Ahmed, feminist writer and independent scholar.

David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry is a departure from deficit based to strengths based approaches and can usefully frame many conversations about change. However, the change agenda has significantly shifted over the last 18 months and it is important not to present such an approach as ‘don’t complain to me’ or ‘I’ve heard it before, let’s move on’.  Conversations must make space to listen and believe hard truths about race, gender or toxic environments. They must be compassionate, realistic and authentic.

We therefore offer our members a reflective enquiry framework and propose a four step approach and reflective questioning before starting a conversation:

  • Step 1 – Initial reflection
  • Step 2 – Framing and gaining clarity
  • Step 3 – Understand context
  • Step 4 – Explore options and outcomes

Some conversations will be challenging because they relate to sub-optimal conditions around behaviours. For example, performance management issues, dignity, respect and professional boundaries. Others may focus on organisational changes that cause anxieties about job security (organisational restructures, changes to strategy and personal objectives) or be about topics that explore the experiences of marginalised groups. Some conversations cut across organisational reporting lines, for example conversations between board and executives, cross-faculty/school/department or between academic and professional service leaders, or between different communities cutting across, for example staff and students. Whatever the context – transforming those conversations can have an impact on the whole institution.

Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, empathy and influencing changes in behaviour will be key attributes for leaders and managers to navigate these conversations effectively.

Individuals must dig deep in terms of recognising and understanding what they are bringing to the conversation, and searching for what lies beneath the surface of a conversation.

Clare Pavitt, Principal Advisor at Advance HE understands particularly how effective conversations are informed by an understanding of how issues of privilege, power, diversity and bias play out and how that understanding can impact the way we communicate: she advocates, “A focus on the skills required to build authentic and positive relationships which acknowledge diversity, respect lived experiences and address unacceptable behaviour, to help navigate the way through these issues in a way that is both supportive and challenging”.

However, challenging these conversations seem to be, Kay Hack, Principal Advisor at Advance HE suggests that “ways to engage students in dialogue in an inclusive way is critical to the future of universities”.  Sheffield Hallam University has done just this with their ‘Listening Rooms’ project, which has been so successful that they have just made the decision to extend the project from students to staff. Listening Rooms is about hearing the authentic student voice and actively listening to student experiences. They have found that the qualitative method for better listening can help students articulate what needs to be different in the future.

Focusing on what we want to create – the new reality that we aspire to be a part of – requires transformative conversations which need to understand all stakeholders, start with listening, be purposeful, contextual and authentic.

“We all need to have more transformative conversations to create more meaningful workplaces, more connected societies and more sustainable environments. Having conversations takes energy. If we need to have them, let’s talk about things that matter!” Barbara Bassa, Senior Adviser (Leadership and Organisational Development), Advance HE 

We can change the world – 'one  conversation at a time.'

Please go to our reflective enquiry framework, and let us have feedback for future iterations.

As part of the April and May ‘Transforming organisations: from student to board’ theme month, Advance HE has created a visioning activity as an example of how institutions can listen to all stakeholders about the journey of transformation. Take a look at Don’t tell me, show me and participate in this in order to experience a different way to students. Full details on this theme and related outputs can be found here.

Find out more about Advance HE's Transformative Conversations Programme supporting participants in developing an understanding of context, self and others and helping build confidence to have difficult conversations within their teams and higher education institution.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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