Coaching Tool No. 3

Four Ways of Talking and Listening

One of the most important indicators of a project’s future success is the quality of its supporting conversations.

By Flip the Clinic

Conversations traditionally break into four distinct conversational modes: downloading, debating, reflective dialogue, and generative dialogue. Although generative is the ideal, understanding all of the modes helps bring clarity to the quality of conversation.



To say what is polite, known, or expected. Ex: How are you? I am fine. Strength: predictable and efficient, downloading supplies the right answer without hesitation or uncertainty. Weakness: functional confidence can easily slip into dysfunctional overconfidence. Problem: When the context changes and the rules don’t work anymore, downloading is rigid and brittle. In this mode, the listener is projecting their own ideas and beliefs.


A team shifts from downloading to debating when someone speaks
their mind openly, even at the risk of fragmenting the system. Ex: How are you? I am terrible. Actively searching for alternative facts, perspectives, and options represents a significant leap in the modes of conversation. In this mode, the listener is judging whether or not they agree with the speaker.

Reflective Dialogue

Essential for deep change, reflective dialogue requires empathy and self-reflection. The listener is seeking to understand where the speaker is coming from.

Generative Dialogue

Occupying the most rare and precious area of conversation, generative dialogue allows a group to discover its deeper shared purpose. Fully present, group members appreciate each other’s different perspectives and they experience a moment of collective understanding. Generative Dialogue is vital for the success of deep change initiatives. Group members are in flow and authentically finishing one another’s sentences.

Diagram adapted from: Adam Kahane. Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2004.