Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reframing the Purpose of Dialogue, Part 2

Circling, Time Boxing and Consent

In the last post a couple of days ago, I wrote about opportunities for participants in an important dialogue to practice being more focused, attentive and succinct in their interactions, using time boxing and conversation circles.

Somehow, when the importance of using inclusive dialogue for important topics came to the forefront as a business and community building tool in the past fifteen or so years, not very much was offered about HOW to manage these larger-scale dialogues.  They could easily become unwieldy: dominated by a few voices, long-winded with few concrete outcomes, and as noted before, they could be deficit-based and confrontational, focusing on what was wrong rather than on what might work. This did not make a particularly good recipe for full voice and trust which helps get our collective brain moving.

So, sometimes, it’s a good idea to ask participants to reflect for a few minutes on their own positions and best ideas, then to offer clear contributions in timed rounds that help us ‘cut to the chase.’

Then comes taking the dialogue into decision-making.

In the sociocratic/dynamic governance model, decisions are made by consent, a wonderful concept. Rather than voting and ending up with winners and losers, important decisions can be made by consent of all present. With consent, you can find out quickly if there is sufficient support for a direction or action, to know if the group is giving support to go forward.
In the case of the group of 75 global company managers I am using as a example in this case, they had already had a couple of hours of presentations and ‘questions and answer’ sessions, so that they knew the proposals being offered inside and out.  Then, they had done timed rounds to say what was ‘right’ about the proposal. They were spiraling toward the ability to give consent.

Consent decision-making is based on finding the parameters of what someone can live with.  A person may have a tweak to make or a slight concern, but often, that small concerns used to derail decision-making and hold up progress.   Now, participants would have an opportunity to object, but this type of objection has a fundamental difference to it. In this round, participants are asked,

“Do you have a paramount objection?” 

“If so, what is your recommendation for coming closer to our goals? What will make this work?”

These objections are asked for and offered in the spirit of finding solutions and alignment, of getting as specific as possible about what is needed.  It is done in the context of coming ever closer to the best solution to an aim or goal.

So, the table groupings did a timed round and surfaced all serious objections, made recommendations and amended the proposals.  If the early parts of the dialogue have been structured well, as it was in this case, this is usually a straightforward process.

If there are no serious, paramount objections in the room, there is a quick consent round and everyone celebrates the forward momentum and the mandate that everyone has agreed to.

What we did with this particular group, which is only together once every couple of years, was to then take the time to tap their best ideas and recommendations for tweaking and implementing.

Once again, each person at each table in the room, had two minutes to offer their own key insights and recommendations, which were captured by the conversation leader at the table and then reported out to the whole room.

Great ideas were offered, alignment was achieved, everyone got equal opportunity to offer their unique perspective and expertise, and it didn’t take forever.

This is just a snapshot of the dialogue and consent process, but you can get a sense of how powerful this reframing of dialogue can be in some situations.

The purpose of dialogue is to hear one another and engage with one another on behalf of something important.  Dialogue should end up connecting us more and taking us somewhere. Otherwise, why do it?

Contact me if you want to learn more about this way of working.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Reframing the Purpose of Dialogue

Stalking Generative Solutions

I was watching a group of about 75 company leaders from a chain of global offices grapple with reaching alignment on a series of strategic initiatives.  Even though they were arranged in groupings of no more than six at a table, they began to spin, everyone expressing their positions, desires and concerns without much thought to the impact of their statements.  Mostly, they refuted one another’s remarks and constructions, behaving very much in the way we were taught to behave in school--to critique and refute, to find fault, to debate, to point out what’s wrong with each point made. 

The ability to critique is a good skill to have but not fully useful unless it is accompanied by another set of skills— the ability to look for the strengths of arguments, see connections between ideas, and notice insights that allow us to move forward rather than remain stuck in a bog of belief – belief that the way to make a contribution in a group is to find what might be wrong or a mistake or a not completely thought-out position. From my vantage point watching the group, it looked like they were engaging in a kind of stalking behavior, stalking errors and mistakes. Having seen this phenomenon fairly often in facilitating large-scale events, I can say that it sometimes looks and feels like bullying.  You’ve all been there at one time or another.  It can sound like this:

‘Here’s what’s wrong with your idea.”
“Here’s my concern with you.”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“No, that’s not it at all.”
“What you’re saying really upsets me.”
“Oh, really, and what about when xx happens?”
“I don’t like it.”
“No, no, no, no, no!”
“The fundamental error in what you are saying is…”
“I have the floor now, and I’m going to set you straight on a few things.”

Most of us are good at this, even masterful, but does it make for generative dialogue—for exploration that moves us forward and toward informed decisions? Usually, we have come together to find solutions for shared purposes, but we easily end up posturing defending, derailing and talking over one another. Not a good use of all the time, money, and jet fuel it takes to get people into one room.

Conversations are ALWAYS consequential.
What you say matters. How you say it matters.  

What if we go about dialogue in a different way…

Circling and Time Boxing

Fortunately, in the case of the global company leaders mentioned above, we had agreed ahead of time to have some open discussion and then to build a circle process as the meeting progressed toward final decision-making on strategic initiatives.

We began to practice speaking powerfully and specifically [rather than just random offering of opinions] about a particular proposed initiative. First, we asked each table to take a couple of minutes to outline any clarifying questions on the topic.  There was a timekeeper at each table and a discussion leader selected from the group. Once those were answered around the room, each person got one minute to give quick reactions to the proposal.

Next, we asked for each table to reflect on:

“What’s right about this proposal?”

Each person was allocated up to two minutes to make their points, until every person around the table had been heard.  This was happening at every table around the room--full voice being played out simultaneously.
Each group quickly reported out their results to the whole room.

By this time, we were ready to move in to decision-making mode.  Amazing.  This simple, focused process provided the discipline that most so-called ‘dialogues’ are often missing.  It’s really not difficult to clarify positions and possibilities with intentional discipline.  It was a relief to the group to have their energy funneled into a conversation that not only allowed each person to be heard but also asked them to clarify their thinking--to offer the condensed best of their expertise and ideas to the rest of the group.  Rather than creating anxiety, the time boxing relaxed the group, and each table found their ability to report out clearly and succinctly was enhanced.

When we take seriously the fact that stakes are high and we have the right people in the room, it makes sense to provide a framing that allows those people to do their best work.

What I described above in just one of many ways to do it. Some of you will recognize the connection to the sociocratic [known as Dynamic Governance in the US] circle process, which I adapted for this dialogue. This simple way of working helps us quickly contribute what we know and to hear what others know and offer. It easily disciplines us to offer our best:

·      What contribution do I have on this topic? What’s most important to say?
·      What don’t I need to say?
·      What’s most important for us to focus on?

Next time, I’ll deal with the decision-making process we used. If you want to learn more about it, contact me.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Reframing to Include and Create More Possibility

Paradoxical ‘ANDINGS’

Does this situation, problem, dilemma or opportunity require holding two opposing ideas in mind? Is there a way to include both in some sort of ‘and’? 

This AND that?

Planet AND profit.
Sciences AND the Arts in education.
Budgetary savings AND social services.
Compassion AND self-interest.
Individual rights AND Community Wellbeing

Step back until you can include both in the same frame. Discover connections. Are they really opposed? What are we ALL trying to understand and accomplish? What do we all want more of?

Years ago, my friend and colleague Marge Schiller introduced me to the concept of ANDINGS.  At the time, she said, “Electricity goes in both directions—positive and negative—that’s why it works. When faced with two irreconcilable views, choose both, and the energy will flow.” That energy will push us to discover connections in our seemingly polarized positions and from there, to solutions, if we are willing to step back and embrace more, if we allow connections among ideas, stories, beliefs and people.

ANDINGS require acknowledging the co-holding and co-owning of issues and social dilemmas.

It seems to be the modus operandi in our culture right now that we find ourselves in such tightly polarized positions that we can hardly find ways to have conversations together.  Even debates ring false since they seem to not be real forums for the exchange of different views and subsequent learning and resolution—they are just opportunities to put forward a position with almost no listening on either side.  No embracing.  No stepping back to include.

It becomes easy to despair, thinking that no answers are possible. We spiral into separation and a loss of community, a poor outcome and one with enormous consequences, even consequences of survival.

Our mental maps play an important role in how we perceive the world around us. To create change, we have to encourage moments of insight in which we can question and eventually shift our attitudes and habits of thinking—to expand the way we see in order to get more of what we want, to avert tragedies, to continue building a world that’s habitable and resilient for future generations.  

That’s not a usual outcome of debate.  It’s not enough to be told about new ideas by our local or national leaders and then to vote on them in a ‘which one wins’ way of thinking; we have to experience insight ourselves about the stakes and the size of the systems we are seeking to impact with our decisions. How might we all win?

One Way to Create ANDINGS

Inquire and explore together first [before debate].
In community work, I have seen phenomenal outcomes emerge from asking people why they are passionate about something, how they came to believe what they do, and what their experiences have been. Every shared dilemma is also personal--ask for their stories.

I was fortunate enough to work for several years with a large Catholic community of women religious.  They were considering their future identity in the face of diminishing numbers and painful differences in what they thought their role and ministry should be, as well as what the right level of governing authority, if any, the church should have over the community.

The issues were divisive, but over time, we were able to open up and continue dialogue that allowed the congregation to surface and build on their long-term connections to one another and their commitment to a spiritual life, even though they had very different ways of living that spiritual life.  Being able to see and appreciate their connections allowed them to embrace and listen to their differences, not only what the differences were but also why different individuals and groups believed as they did. They enlarged their circle of inquiry and possibility long enough to begin co-creating a shared future.

They answered these questions [in more specific form] with one another first:

  • ·       Why is this important to you? 
  • ·      What brought you here? What drives you to be involved with these issues?
  • · Why do you think [your position] is the answer? What have your experiences been?  What’s your story?
  • · What future are you seeking for the community? Where will your ideas lead us? What will we look like if we go in that direction?
  • · What will be better if your vision is implemented? 

The shared exploration helped them channel their passions and best ideas into understanding and a shared path forward.

Another Way: Step Back and Make the Frame Bigger

Sometimes, we can encourage insights and connection by consciously stepping back as a group, through expansive directed dialogue and/or with physical circle expansion.

A friend of mine asked me what central question he might use to create better dialogue among a group of property owners who shared a common lake, yet disagreed about how that lake should be used, in terms of future development, recreation, safety, and privacy.  After thinking about it together for a while, I suggested that he asked the group to look at what they loved best about living on the lake, and then to ask themselves in-group, “what’s best for the lake?”

I was concerned that I hadn’t gotten the questions just right, but he later reported to me that it had worked—the debate turned into a constructive exploration and sufficient alignment on what would ensure a healthy lake and healthy ownership into the future.  There were [and are] many complexities in the situation, but the logjam dissolved, and their shared caring for the lake informed their work together. They were able to expand their image of the future by stepping back, including, and exploring together, moving from ‘what do I want/what are my rights’ to ‘what’s best for the lake and for owners.’

We can consciously expand the circle around an issue to seek greater wholeness. Join hands and step back, expanding the circle as we explore what has to be included and what we can all agree that we want more of, together. What has to be encompassed in our circle of connection? 

Sometimes, we have to step way, way back. Together.  Still in the circle. The name of my consultancy, Shared Sun Studio, goes back to the realization, years ago, that sometimes when I begin working with a group, the only thing they seem to be able to agree on, encompass, and include among themselves is that they share the sun!

What about when we are dealing with social dilemmas that put self-interest up against common good [I vs. We], in issues such a gun control or some of our corporate structures?  Or with seemingly intractable issues like poverty, human rights in certain cultures, or climate change?  We tend to focus in on a narrow perspective rather than stepping back and looking at the connections.  What are ways that we can step back in order to ‘lean in’, together?  There are many ways to find bridges to one another. 

I believe all of us have had multiple experiences of ANDINGS.  Reflect on this for a minute:

  • ·     Think about a time when you were in the presence of ANDINGS, whether in your family, your work, or your community, a time when divergent thinking converged or expanded horizons into new ways of thinking and finding solutions. What was the situation? What made the shift occur? What powerful outcomes did ANDINGS create?

  • ·         What are some of the paradoxical ANDINGS that you long to co-create?

If you want, add some of your ideas in the Comments section.