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Quality conversation: Cicero’s advice to Organisational Change Managers

Source: CPA Practice Advisor


In ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero (136 BC to 43 BC) was famous as a statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, writer and orator. While it is not clear – I have never come across any source indicating this – whether Organisational Change Management existed as a profession / discipline or not during his time or during the Roman Empire, Cicero has provided some great pieces of advice which Organisational Change Managers can follow to their advantage. You can blame me for taking the poetic license to claim that Cicero meant these for Organisational Change Managers, however, I intend only to show that despite living during different periods of history, we can still benefit from Cicero’s wisdom.

Cicero (Source: The Historian's Hut)

Below I have listed each of the pieces of Cicero’s advice with my explanations of how professionals can benefit from these:

Take turns in speaking:

Conversation can be thought of as a two way dance. The primary purpose of having conversation with others is we either want to help someone solve a problem or we seek their assistance in solving one. If we do not let the other participant(s) speak we will never be able to solve the problem or get the others assist us.

Speak clearly and easily but do not too much:

It is undoubtedly difficult to define what ‘clearly’ means, but the way I see it is before starting the conversation asking myself some basic questions: Do I have a problem statement? What am I attempting to achieve? What is my elevator pitch?

It is very important to be precise. Some topics require long conversations and deep dives.

Never criticise people behind their backs

Do not interrupt the other person: Since conversation is a two way process, this is important that you make the other parson in the conversation feel respected and the best way to do it is by not interrupting them. This is a tricky task and perfection comes with a lot of exercise and experience, but some key methods to avoid interrupting are prior to your meeting sending a list of topics you want to discuss, raising your hand if you want to clarify something, noting a question that you can ask the other participant at the end of your meeting.

Be courteous:

The golden principle is always true: courtesy costs nothing but wins everything. The easiest way to be courteous is at the start of the conversation thanking the other participant for their time or asking them how they are doing or if they have any plans for tenor weekends. This automatically breaks the ice in any conversation and makes it easy to have a good and effective conversation.

Deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones:

While it is next to impossible to provide a universally acceptable definition of what ‘serious’ is and what ‘light’ is, in most cases as a seasoned professional you should be able to define / assess these in your workplace. If the matter is serious assure the other person that you appreciate their concern and you will help them sort the problem either by your own efforts or by escalating to the right point. For a ‘light’ matter, don’t say anything that they might interpret as ridiculing them.

Never criticise people behind their backs:

As humans we always ‘judge’ others and there is nothing wrong in it, but remember how we express our judgements / opinions can make or break things. Someone may not have delivered on their promises or made some errors, but it is possible and desirable to raise it with them first in a constructive way rather than criticising their back. When you criticise someone behind their backs, the person who is listening to your conversation might become defensive and start to think that you will criticise them too behind their backs. As a result, you might lose all your stakeholders.

Stick to subjects of interest to both or all of you:

The primary purpose of a conversation is solving a problem. Yes, we do not always stick only to the main topic / subject matter of the discussion and we occasionally deviate from the main topic; but, if we deviate to a subject that is of no interest to any of the other participants, then you run the risk of wasting everyone’s time and add to everyone’s frustration.

Don’t talk about yourself:

This comes to keeping the focus on the purpose of the conversation. There may be certain times when people want to know about you, but if that is not the case, keep the focus on why you wanted a conversation with your participant(s), what you expect from them, how they can help you or vice versa.

Never lose your temper:

It is not unusual to be upset during a conversation, but losing a temper can burn all the bridges. Even if you are upset with something, there are ways you can express your dissatisfaction without losing your conversation.

Author’s note: I took the quotes of Cicero from The Art of Conversation: Change your Life With Confident Communication by Judy Apps.


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