“Conversation changes the world. To suggest to someone that their ideas will be heard and acted upon is the most radical thing we can do. Any time we listen to someone that is what we are conveying”
One of the most fundamental teachings for me from the Art of Hosting is about attention to design. When we sit down to consciously create conversational spaces in which people are invited to show up whole, we can have a significant impact on the work at hand.
Meetings are popularly knocked for being all talk and no action. Business magazines are full of strategies for getting the most out of a meeting, or better yet, determining how important a meeting is, and finding ways to blow it off. This is the result of meetings that are planned and hosted with no attention to the quality of the conversation that is to go on. Most companies and organizations seem to save quality only for the “real work” – producing goods or providing services. For some reason, conversation and the skillful design and conduct of productive conversations aren’t seen as work and so they don’t get the same attention as “results.”
And yet, everything we know about innovation, creativity, competitive advantage and responsive service talks about how critical it is that these be incubated in an atmosphere of quality social interaction. Convening meaningful conversations is hard work but the effect of skillful dialogue is real talk and real talk is real results.
As a facilitator, and a designer of conversational and learning process, I like to be intimately involved in the creation of spaces for conversation. Oftentimes clients will call me with an agenda pre-set and want me to “facilitate” by which they mean keep people on track, take notes on a flip chart and do little more than chair the meeting. Without exception, these kinds of meetings seem to always fall short of expectations. When I can begin working with a client before anything is written in stone, we can design process that takes our conversations to a generative place, a place where meaning, emergence and innovation happens. And this is accessible on a daily basis, even in the mundane conversations of day to day organizational life. This kind of conversation is satisfying, and people leave feeling like they have done some real work.
These days, my most satisfying projects are ones where we begin with a conversation about the project that is well hosted. If talk really is results, then every conversation we have in the project needs to be this way. Conversation that springs from what really matters engages both the heart and the feet – passion bounded by responsibility – and becomes a powerful catalyst for the kinds of changes we are looking for.
Although creating these kinds of conversation is an art in itself, there are several things you can do to design conversations that matter:
- Be present. Full conversations occur when we show up whole and offer our full presence to the work at hand. This means relieving yourself of any distractions, and giving the gift of real attention to the conversation and the people within it.
- Work with real questions. A client yesterday provided me with a set of questions for a consultation meeting that were abstract and academic. For a consultation, my concern was that the questions would reach the edge of learning for both participants and the client. They were good questions to start with but we quickly moved to questions that were real, questions which were actually on the minds of people doing the work and questions to which no one knew the answer. When we can invite people to converse around questions like this, engagement goes very deep very quickly.
- Invite the edge. There is an edge in every good conversation that makes it real. It is the edge between known and unknown, control and emergence. When we sincerely invite people to join us in an exploration of the unknown, and we let go of expectations for outcome, we get on the same side of an issue. It’s a scary place to be, but it is the edge at which new ideas emerge, ideas which were never present in any one mind at the beginning of the meeting but which leave the room in everybody’s minds, and with energy around them to boot.
- Pause, reflect, discern. A capacity to steer plain old discussions to meaningful conversation is the capacity for discernment. Instead of judging what you are hearing, sit with it. Invite a pause: “Wait a minute…let’s just reflect on this for a second.” And then really give some silence to this. Invite people to sense what is going on and perhaps take personal notes about what they are sensing. Then invite the conversation to resume and watch how meaning suddenly arises out of the more attentive social space.
- Harvest deeper learnings. Once the business of the meeting is done, take a moment to reflect on the deeper story. What happened? How did we get from the beginning to the end? How did ideas and innovation arise and under which conditions? What is replicable here? This kind of learning is known as second loop learning, and it is how we practice and learn and then practice again. I am now doing this with projects as a whole, especially where the projects engage powerful emotions and feelings. When we are done the substantive work, we head into a retreat, which could be a day or just a few hours, but it helps to do it away from the regular business environment to harvest the deeper learnings. The result is a much deeper commitment to what has happened and a better appreciation of the ways in which conversation has helped the change.
There are many ways of mapping and designing good process, whether you use appreciative inquiry, Sam Kaner’s diamond of participation, focused conversations or other dialogic methods, but what matters is practice. Continually seek the opportunity to refine your practice of both hosting and engaging in real conversation. The practice field is vast: it appears every time you speak with another human being. Take every chance to understand how it is that talk changes everything and soon you will begin see it happening.