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.

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