Grant Sprague – Active Engagement ‘Liberating’
Clarity and Compassion
Make Tough Discussions Less Threatening


How do you tell the boss that his or her directives appear to be off the mark? How do you tell esteemed colleagues that the ways they are accustomed to doing business are going to change, whether they like it or not? Few of us, no matter what our level of authority is, can avoid dealing with at least some potentially uncomfortable, even downright, threatening issues.

Chief Counsel, Sustainable Resource Development (SRD), Grant Sprague is among several people working in SRD and other Alberta government departments who are discovering that the Practice of Active Engagement (alternately PCD) offers ways of moving through difficult discussions that can mitigate the potential damage to relationships (and, therefore, some of the trepidation) that such encounters often hold. Says the passionate lawyer, Active Engagement has enabled him to feel capable of engaging in tough discussions with clarity and compassion.

“One of the things I’ve noticed,” Mr. Sprague says, “is that the practice helps liberate me in my conversations from worrying that it is all about me. It is about the context or the matter we are discussing. If, for example, I need to pose a question to a deputy minister about an incongruity I perceive, I am exploring an issue that is causing me concern. I am not questioning the deputy’s judgment or intelligence. ‘Can we talk about this? How can we talk about this?’ I don’t feel so wholly invested in the matter of the discussion that I am fearful.

“I’ve found that being clear in my intentions and expressing them enables me to be okay about having awkward or potentially awkward discussions with superiors. ‘I’m asking you about a specific matter; it may be uncomfortable to discuss but it’s not my intention to make anyone uncomfortable, it’s only about the matter at hand. I’m trying to mprove my understanding.’

“It is my assumption that I am here to provide advice, to provoke the discussion, about whatever the topic is and it is about the topic; it is not about the participants at the table. It has been interesting to do that. Sometimes it is necessary to help set the table to have that conversation. It’s not an automatic thing. ‘My assumption is that this is what we’re trying to do. And, if I’m correct about that, then I have difficulty understanding how this development gets on the table. My assumptions about the development are this…and it strikes me as being off page of the business plan or whatever it is.’

The conversation is about that. And it’s absolutely liberating. It’s not about: once again the lawyer has found a problem. It is that the lawyer has identified an issue we need to discuss. I’m quite happy to be wrong. The discussion is not about whether I am right or wrong it is about coming to a reasonable understanding on the topic. I have found the practice helps give me that distance.”

Active Engagement invites us to pause enough to notice how our defensiveness might incline us to hold tightly to our own assumptions and leap to the conclusion that our perspective of an issue is the right or only one. Leadership frameworks and sociological analysis by such authors as Chris Argyris and Karl Rahner suggest ways of understanding how individuals develop distinct lenses in viewing the world. They also offer transparent processes of engagement that encourage the examination of differing assumptions to gain a better understanding of a matter from all perspectives and unearth the common ground.

As Mr. Sprague has discovered, “If you start out naming your assumptions and inviting others to test them as well as their own, you become very transparent about what you are trying to do. This transparency invites people to participate openly. It doesn’t mean that some won’t misapprehend what you are doing; then, you just need to spend more time unraveling where their assumptions bump up against yours. Reflecting upon and stating my assumptions helps me to be clearer, more focused.”

“Taking the time beforehand to reflect upon what we are talking about is, in my view, a good investment. Otherwise we can tend to just leap into what can become an emotional, even visceral, confrontation where the discussions go off the rail almost immediately because there isn’t clarity or focus. That means we are all doing it on the fly.”

“We might arrive at the same spot this way but, oftentimes, at enormous cost – people’s noses are out of joint, we’ve wasted an incredible amount of time and we’ve just driven over each other. That’s not terribly productive. The point is that everyone doesn’t have to be on the same song sheet and the conversation doesn’t need to be a simple one to be non- threatening.”

“We need to be very clear in our personal intentions and transparent about why we are bringing issues to the table. This is often helpful to the people we are engaging with. Why not just be up front? My intention is not to change your mind. Usually it is to ensure or to satisfy myself that others have considered some aspects or implications of a matter. It’s my job to put those considerations on the table.”

But what if one’s intention, one’s directive, is to present a decision that isn’t open to negotiation? As a member of SRD’s Executive Team, the Chief Counsel had the chance to test that out: he was charged with the task of advising a group of senior staff that some lines of authority had changed. It was time to apply the Active Engagement skill of “noticing” to the foundation of his fears.

“The need to have that conversation weighed heavily on my mind and I agonized about how I was going to convey this message,” recalls Mr. Sprague. I found the process of thinking about what bothered me very interesting. I was worried about my relationship with all of these people. What is it about the relationship I am worried about? They probably won’t like what I have to say.”

“I came to realize that I was trying to control something in my head that wasn’t mine to control. These folks are going to do whatever these folks decide to do. It’s not up to me. I need to speak about what I need to speak about. I can control the way I do that and I can be mindful about the relationships so maybe I should talk about that. Why not?”

“Integrity was another piece I agonized about. I was going to speak to an accomplished, talented group of people about a decision from executive that I assumed they wouldn’t like. It was very tempting to say that “they” decided this and I’m just the messenger, so don’t shoot me. But, I am part of executive. And whether I am the
author of the decision, whether I was a participant in the discussion or a mere observer or even whether I happened to be away that day as a member of that executive team, it seems to me, that posing as a mere messenger was not an option.”

“It struck me that if I was going to speak with any integrity to this group and not dilute the message, I needed to be up front that this is the decision of executive and I am speaking to you as an executive member. I realized that deflecting my involvement would dis-empower me and, at the end of the day, I would have absolutely no integrity. And I can’t think of a worse place to be. I can imagine the group saying, ‘send a memo next time, would you?’

“This reflection enabled me to come to the meeting with clarity and full presence. I said that this is the decision we, as executive, have come to and here are my assumptions about what this means, what the expectations are as we go forward. As I had anticipated, people were not happy but we had a full, open discussion about the implications of the decision. I was able to engage in a purposeful dialogue about positional and statutory authority and challenge my colleagues to consider whether the decision truly diminished their authority. Because I acknowledged my ownership, I could address concerns directly. If I had shirked this responsibility, I believe my power would be lost as would the group’s in coming to terms with the reality of how the decision might impact them.

The practice of Active Engagement challenges us to consider how we are affected by our SCRs – ‘Socially Constructed Realities.’ As we naturally strive to make meaning of our world, we construct systems of understanding and belief that we rely upon to be true. However these “truths” are often specific to our cultural perspective of the world. They may not hold the same meaning or value to others or even to us under different circumstances and at different times in our lives.

The ability to reflect upon and deconstruct such SCRs in a non-threatening way can be helpful in generating better understanding of ourselves and others. This awareness can also help us realize that what we perceive as offenses on the part of others may simply be behavior that emerges from an SCR differing from our own.

Mr. Sprague’s experience gave opportunity for the group he was addressing to explore SCRs around notions of authority. His own reflections in preparation for the meeting allowed him to consider what SCRs he was holding around being a likeable colleague. “Being liberated from emotional assumptions and SCRs about myself and others, and walking myself down the levels of thinking that lead to my defensiveness gives me the power to hold my own,” he says.

Mr. Sprague also finds that the PCD has helped him in day-to-day discussions with his staff members. “I encourage them to chat with me about any issue. If something is bugging them, it affects their work and that affects our service to our clients. I’ve enjoyed being able to work with staff, leading them through the exploration of assumptions and talking about SCRs. It helps all of us to have clarity and focus about what we’re really talking about. If I am the problem, my staff needs to be able to tell me. I’m not going to jump off the roof. We need to be able to have those discussions without fear.”

The fact that some of his colleagues from SRD and other government departments also practice Active Engagement skills has helped Mr. Sprague in his own leadership development. “The more folks you have the chance to share the practice with, the better you become. It’s much easier to have indepth conversations with them without the need to pussy-foot around perceived areas of interest or protection.”

Mr. Sprague admits that he, like many of us, needs to challenge the instinct to find an escape route out of tough situations: a temptation to avoid the conversations and ownership of unpopular decisions. However, he realizes that the toll on this route is too often exacted at the expense of personal values. He takes seriously the Alberta Public Service values of excellence, respect, integrity, accountability. “To uphold these, we need to think about how we are doing things as much as what we are doing. We need to be able to challenge ourselves and others when behavior strays from these ideals. Otherwise these values are mere words on a piece of paper.”

By Deborah Witwicki