We recently received an email from a dear friend and colleague with whom we are working closely to foster civil civic conversation in our community. It contained a comment she saw in a forum discussion on the website of The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), a 1,400-member organization formed in 2002 that promotes learning and collaboration around innovative ways to bring people together for productive conversations around our communities’ most challenging problems. Here is the posting:

It seems to me there is need to begin de-emphasizing the word “civility” as we seek to engage the full political spectrum in conversation. Cognitively, the word “civility” has a defensive posture to it and can, therefore, not be “heard” (or is often heard with suspicion by many as meaning “be nice” — don’t be honest.)

A reframe to “civil conversation” (overused and thus meaningless), could be “authentic conversation”, “meaningful conversation”, “getting real”, “telling it like it is”….

The initial reaction to his post was defensive (even though I couldn’t help liking his reframe suggestion of “authentic conversations.”) Who could possibly advocate that we don’t need to establish “civility” in our society, when harmful effects due to the lack of civility are evident every day?

But on further reflection, we began to open up to the writer’s point. In fact, it was related to a blog we wrote last year.

The adjective “civil” has its roots in “citizen,” according to the dictionary. “Civilized” denotes courtesy and etiquette, with an underlying connotation that it is acceptable to withhold what we consider in the truth in the name of keeping the peace. “Civil often suggests little more than the avoidance of overt rudeness,” according to the synonym discussion below the dictionary definitions.

Surely solving our complex, tangled problems demands more of our conversations than avoiding contention or disagreement. Civility in its purest form is not only a perfect recipe for potential resentment; it destroys trust, is unproductive and is potentially dangerous to the common good.

Authentic conversations, as we define them, require telling the truth as we know it — always with goodwill — and the ability to sincerely argue another person’s viewpoint. When we get clear about our intention to be authentic, we come to the conversation with an open and curious attitude. Added to that is a sincere to desire to solve problems in a way that serves the best interests of the whole (community, enterprise, business) rather than satisfying the need to “get our way.”

Truly meaningful civic conversations are those where people choose to be authentically collaborate with each other in the interest of strengthening our communities. They require something far more robust than civility.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


Our final bit of advice in honor of the New Year and Decade is the present of presence, via our friend and Larry Dressler, our fellow Berrett-Koehler author who authored Standing in the Fire. He posted a blog about “holiday presence” that we found meaningful and useful as a guide to remembering the power of being present to the moment.

Staying present is essential to having authentic conversations. It helps us be both participants and observers as we engage others. The participant/observer skill will help you manage your own emotional reactions so they don’t get in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish, so that you can better observe the emotional reactions of others. If we can describe what we’re seeing in others — without judgment or defensiveness— we can help get those emotions expressed, which will allow the focus to remain on the content of the conversation.

Larry suggests keeping a talisman with five knots in your pocket, with each knot representing a question that will help you stay present. Adapting this technique to keep our intentions for authentic conversations at the forefront is easily done:

§         Who am I here for? (What is it I want to create in this moment, with this person?)

§         Why am I here? (How will this conversation serve the good of the whole business or enterprise in which we are engaged?)

§         What can I release from my grasp (e.g., an expectation, distractions, judgment, desire to “win”) that will put me into a stronger partnership with my reason for being here?

§         What would my wisest friend or teacher whisper in my ear at this moment? (Who are your role models for being authentic?)

§         Where in my body can I imagine compassion hiding, taking safe refuge, and reminding me of its ongoing presence? (How can I demonstrate goodwill, even if things are getting tense, or difficult?)

Reflecting on those questions before a conversation, or in the moments when the going gets a little difficult will give you the gift of “presence.” And don’t forget to breathe.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.




The first newspaper I worked for as a freshly minted journalist had a monthly bulletin that doled out kudos and critiques to the writers and editors. We would applaud our colleagues for snappy headlines, great writing, and beating the competition on a news story.  We were invited to nominate the best news and feature articles, with the final winners chosen by a committee. It shined a light on the unsung heroes of the copy desk, publishing the mistakes they caught before our readers ever them, and helping us learn what not to do again. It also pointed out the mistakes that did get through, and areas that needed improvement. Everyone was encouraged to contribute.


One of the monthly “awards” I have learned to particularly appreciate over the years was called The Good Try that Didn’t Work.


Our editor, Max Jennings, believed passionately in helping us learn to take the initiative to try something different. Whether we were crafting a story, photographing a news event, or designing a page, Max didn’t want us to be afraid to butt our heads against perceived boundaries. And he wanted to make sure we celebrated attempts to push beyond our comfort zones, even when those attempts fell flat. One of his favorite sayings was, “If it ain’t broke, let’s break it so we can fix it.” It used to drive us crazy, and we used to tease him that his motto should be “Ready, Fire, Aim.” But his influence fostered one of the most dynamic, creative, passionate organizations I have ever worked in.


I was reminded of this when I saw that Seth Godin had released another book called Poke the Box. In a Q&A published on his Amazon book page, he says that conformity once was crucial to success, but compliance has become a killer in today’s competitive world. “We need to be nudged away from conformity and toward ingenuity. Even if we fail … we learn what not to do by experience and doing the new.”


So take the initiative to try something completely different. Maybe it will be a mistake. If it is, you will still have a reason to learn and celebrate.


“You want people to know one another,” says F. Mark Gumz, CEO of the Olympus Corporation and the Feb. 13 Corner Office feature in the Sunday New York Times business section. “If you pull people together and share how they do things, they work better.”

It is encouraging to read about leaders who understand the power of conversation, collaboration and knocking down organizational silos, so we wanted to both applaud and share his story.

Gumz rejoined Olympus after a long period away as an independent consultant. When the company approached him about the job, he was worried about readjusting to a corporate environment. But when he decided to make the leap, he was clear about the kind of organizational culture he wanted to create. One of his key strategies was tohelp people understand that a successful bottom line depends on seeing and effectively navigating the inherent organization’s interdependencies. He used their wallets to make his point.

“I made part of their compensation based on the company’s overall performance,” Gumz says. “And I focused on getting people to share processes from different parts of the organization.”

He also instituted a rule prohibiting people from eating at their desk, both because he understands that taking a break from work is re-energizing, and also because he knows that conversations in the lunchroom are a great way to learn more about your coworkers, what they do, and what they are working on.

Gumz clearly has a management strategy that emphasizes personal accountability for the success of the whole, something that keeps the focus on business results instead of self-interest. Because this is a strategy that is at the heart of our own work, we’re always grateful to see a high-profile leader living out those values.