Learning conversations

Learning conversations


  • How to have productive conversations and be in a collaborative posture?


Peter Senge, an American management professor and author, and the originator with Chris Argyris of the concept of the learning organisation, has modelled a very simple approach to the posture of collaboration, based on the following 5 elements

  • Solve problems as a group.
  • Experiment.
  • Learn from experience.
  • Learn with others.
  • Transferring knowledge.

This sheet, inspired by the work of Rick Ross and Charlotte Roberts (MIT & SOL publication, Society for Organisational Learning), makes explicit what these learning conversations are, balancing advocacy and enquiry (balancing Advocacy and Inquiry).

We will see how to integrate them practically into relationships with others in a collaborative work situation (with peers in a collaborative relationship, but also with clients, suppliers, or in the hierarchy).


Possible postures

1. Weak Argumentation and Questioning

Remaining passive, observing, standing back... the person is watching but contributes little. This posture may be appropriate in an observational situation (I don't know the subject, I don't have a clear position or enough information to ask relevant questions). It does not demonstrate commitment and therefore does not allow for collaboration / co-creation.

2. Weak Argumentation and Strong Questioning

Questioning, investigating, searching again... the person does not assert their opinions. This posture can be useful for seeking information, if it is done with authenticity and sincerity; not to be used if I have a strong position on the subject and my hidden intention is to bring my interlocutor to my point of view through directed questioning; this is then manipulation.

3. Strong Argumentation and Weak Questioning

Explain, persuade, argue, "yes...but" attitude.

This posture can be useful in providing information on a topic, but does not create common understanding or commitment... imposing one's views usually leads the other to conform (i.e. submit) or resist.

4. Strong Argumentation and Strong Questioning

Collaborate, learn, seek truth, "yes...and" attitude.

It allows for a true two-way conversation, and leads to learning and collaboration.

The Learning conversation, which corresponds to posture 4, is according to Peter Senge the one where true collaboration happens:

"I present my point of view and worry about yours; I invite you to share your position and be interested in mine."


Conversation in "strong argumentation - strong questioning" mode


1. Ask your interlocutors to make their thought process visible

  • What makes you construct this, what makes you say this?
  • Non-aggressive language: can you help me understand your reasoning?
  • How does this relate to our other topics?

2. Compare your assumptions

  • Can you give me a typical example?
  • How would your proposal affect...?
  • Is it similar to...?
  • Is it correct to say that what you are saying is...?


1. Make your thought process visible

  • This is what I think and this is how I got here
  • I suppose that...
  • To get a clear picture of what I am proposing, imagine that you are a client affected by...

2. Test your conclusions and assumptions publicly

  • What do you think of what I have just said?
  • What flaws, what can you add?
  • This is one area where I am not totally clear, could you help me think further