[ 4-minute read ]
Conversation is a generative process: it’s about building something new together.
And, conversations are emergent things: a flow of ideas, thoughts, feelings and concepts arise and join up, to form some new picture of the topic, of people’s experiences and insights, of possible solutions and next steps.
Conversation is about building something new together.
Perhaps surprisingly – since it’s really simple and involves no bells, whistles or tech – conversation remains one of the most efficient and effective means for groups of people to think and take decisions together. The ideal group size might be five to ten (5–10) people, but larger or smaller groups can work as well, provided people follow some guidelines.
Consider holding a conversation (instead of having a meeting or discussion) the next time you and your team are faced with a challenge or opportunity that requires a decision soon, and where:
- people’s buy-in and ownership matters;
- the issues aren’t completely straightforward; and
- the correct solution isn’t obvious.
Some guidelines for conversation
|• Pause … before you make your contribution.
• Some gaps and silences are OK.
• Slow down.
• Listen deeply: fully receive what others have said.
|• Ask from a place of curiosity and wondering.
• Try to put aside your assumptions (about people or issues).
• Be willing to ask the “dumb” questions.
|• Speak your own truth: use “I” not “we”.
• Share what’s present for you here and now.
• Speak from your exploring edge – uncertainty is okay.
• Wait until you are moved to speak.
• No “speeches”.
Conversations don’t require a facilitator, though one can help if the topic is especially sensitive, high stakes, or difficult in some other way. It’s usually enough to share these guidelines (and have them visible in the room), then frame an open question or state the topic clearly.
- “How shall we respond to situation X?”
- “We’re not meeting our targets – we need a new strategy.”
That should get the ball rolling. Set a time limit (30 minutes / 45 minutes / 1 hour) and let it unfold.
The conversation may be slow to start, but don’t panic and fill up the space. Silence is fine, provided it doesn’t go on for minutes at a time … It usually just means that people are thinking.
Intervene only if participants don’t follow the guidelines: e.g. people interrupt each other repeatedly; one person dominates the conversation with long speeches; two people get into a heated exchange and every else sits and watches. Then you might need to remind people of the guidelines and invite others to contribute. (Try calling the guidelines “rules” if this happens more than once!)
Otherwise, your role is simply to participate in the conversation and notice when the time is up – and perhaps take some notes. At the end, check what conclusions have been reached. Offer a short summary or, even better, ask others to share their conclusions.
Conversations work best when the participants are willing to be really vulnerable and open with each other – but holding conversations is also one way of building this kind of open, connected climate in a team/group. If you do this regularly, your team will build the capacity to slip into conversation quite naturally when that’s what’s required.
Conversations don’t always produce gold, but – surprisingly often – they do.
Conversations don’t always produce gold – or even workable solutions – but often, they do. Even if an “answer” isn’t forthcoming, you are usually left with more clarity on what to do next en route to one.
If your conversation does start going in circles or it dries up completely, try reflecting back the strongest points that have come up so far (“What’s standing out for me is …”), or asking a focusing question (“What has not been said that still needs to be?” or “What feels most significant so far?”).
Often, the most effective way of seeking a solution is to make space for one to emerge … that’s precisely what a good conversation does.
What if it doesn’t work?
When conversations fall flat, the problem usually comes back to one of three things:
- The guidelines are being ignored.
(Remind people of the guidelines/rules.)
- Participants can’t follow the guidelines because a rigid hierarchy is getting in the way. For example, more junior staff might fear the consequences of speaking their truth. Or senior people are afraid to admit that they don’t have all the “answers”.
(Giving permission can help with this. As the leader, role modeling vulnerability and openness helps a lot. And, while diversity adds a great deal of value, sometimes it is simplest to start with a group of peers.)
- People don’t care about the topic, don’t believe that talking about it will make any difference, or need to talk about something else more.
(Ask if this is what’s going on. Sometimes an unspoken issue or conflict will prevent progress until it has been allowed to surface and be addressed. It’s also essential to have the right people involved: conversation is an invitation to own the problem/issue – if people don’t, it won’t work.)
In the end, the most effective way of seeking a solution is often to make space for one to emerge. And that’s exactly what a good conversation does.