The Lost Art of Having Conversations

There are times when having a good chat is the very best way of helping decide what you really think about something. But conversations can be hard to have. Sometimes, instead of a discussion, it becomes a debate – someone seems to think you need convincing, or they have a ‘position’ that it is so important you understand. Sometimes you get talked at rather than with. Then again, of course, there are the interrogators. These put up a barrage of questions, barely waiting for your response before firing off another one.

We met the need for running a conversation when we talking to some clients about some concerns they had. As accomplished, or at least experienced, consultants we immediately suggested a workshop. Linda, the client grimaced. “No, I don’t think so. This is a Venus issue, not a Mars one!”

“So many workshops degenerate into a hunt for a solution”

Intrigued by this reference to Gray’s famous maxim, we followed up. “So many workshops,” Linda complained, “degenerate into a hunt for a solution. Some in the workshop see their role as giving the ‘less knowledgeable’ the information they are missing. What we need is to find everyone’s perspective, not to convert views and funnel them all to a single viewpoint driven by a leader or powerful influencer.”

“Ouch!” So how do you establish a forum where everyone’s view has equal status? How do you prevent judgemental processes interrupting the sharing of opinion, fact, and fiction?

AVOID FACILITATION – PROMOTE CONVERSATION

One answer that came to mind is ‘the conversation’, the sort of thing that happens naturally amongst friends and even drinking companions. The challenge is how do you set one up and keep the tone conversational?

Some research carried out for a Master’s thesis on the use of social media in learning approaches was a helpful source. Long-running and valued interactions on platforms and forums such as LinkedIn – some lasting well over 23,000 exchanges and months and months – when analysed had some distinctive features. Attempts to provide closed responses – answers – were not picked up and after a time stopped occurring. The interactions were moderated but there was no facilitator, no nexus or focus. No one played the ‘status card’, or if it was attempted that strand withered.

The analysis was so startling that we adopted a phrase from a contributor in the social media interchanges. It so powerfully sums up what these rich and rewarding exchanges seem to symbolise, “I store my knowledge in my friends”. Everyone’s view is valuable, No one source is privileged or ranked. Understanding flowed from the aggregating and segregating of perspectives.

TIPS FOR CREATING A CONVERSATION

So how to make it work when real people meet together in a room, and it needs to work and not be a haphazard outcome?

HERE’S WHAT HAS WORKED FOR US

  1. Set up groups of people (4 -8 people) who are interested in a topic with one of the group elected as a moderator – NOT a facilitator
  2. Ask the members of the group to come with two things: an experience or opinion that they would like to share around the topic,; and an aspect of the topic that they would like to hear and share other peoples’ experience or opinion
  3. Set aside two hours. One is not enough, and over two leads to indulgence
  4. There is no agenda, there is no formal note-taking, and the role of the moderator is to keep all things in moderation: emotion, air time, language, and interpersonal behaviours. They do not lead, summarise, refocus or control the flow.

Be prepared for energised and excited people. It is amazing. It amazed us.

If you would like to be involved in a Community of Practice Conversation then drop CITI a line with your ideas to info@citi.co.uk. Alternatively, you can find the output from a recent conversation on Benefits Management here.

CITI are the UK consulting firm where leading organisations look for support in managing successful change through projects and programmes.

They exist to add value to the organisations they work with, helping them overcome the challenges of turning strategy into reality through projects and programmes.

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