How can we create the space for real conversation? Not what passes for conversation-crafting the witty comeback while the other person is talking; dismissing what is uncomfortable, disagreed with, or unfamiliar; categorizing those we disagree with as bad; talking louder and/or faster in the hopes of wearing down the opposition. In real conversation people are heard, validated. Their ideas are engaged. Perhaps people want safe space because they know what to expect otherwise.
Many people view conversation as something to win. There’s less interest in learning, listening, growing, or perhaps changing a long held view. The modern conversation is like tennis, where the idea or point is batted between two opponents. The only thing that changes is the degree to which those engaged in the match agree with their own original points.
Yet, the kind of safety people often want for challenging conversations is created when they listen to each other-deeply. This is not only the intellectual listening that involves critique, judgment, categorizing the content as good or bad, but the heart listening that involves appreciation, curiosity, and acceptance. This last is not the same as agreement but it does allow that the speaker does hold his/her opinion or has had the reported experience.
Elsewhere I discuss the power of curiosity. Here I discuss the power of dialogue. The next time you’re in a challenging group conversation, try the following approach:
- State the question or challenge, perhaps use a brief background document or presentation.
- Invite each person o state their relationship to the question, with no prescritions for their input. People may be enthusiastic, confused, opposed. Invite them to give a bit of background about their input-not intellectual agreement or disagreement but a disclosure of connection or disconnection, and the background reasons or experiences for the relationship. Consider starting input with a phrase like “What this raises for me is…”
- Pause after each person speaks, not rushing to fill silence. Let the conversation emerge.
- Encourage everyone to participate while keeping their contributions crisp.
- For the first round, ask that no one participate twice until everyone has spoken once. You might keep this as a norm or just ask the group to make sure everyone contributes.
- Ask that people not rebut each other. While you may add factual information, you are trying not to convince each other but to hear each other.
- Encourage people not to talk directly to each other but to the space they all share. Imagine speaking into the campfire. If something is sparked by the contribution of a participant, others can speak to the idea or the experience, but not the person directly.
- After a few rounds, you ask-what do we know now? The same guidelines will apply.
By using this approach you may find that participants synthesize their ideas relatively quickly. They are also likely to appreciate each other more and be willing to learn more about each other.
- How do you know when you’ve been in a real conversation, deeply listened to? What difference did it make?
- When you’re engaged in conversation, especially the challenging kind, how do you listen-to ward off the challenge or to listen deeply?
- How can you tell you are listening to learn about the other person’s opinions and experiences rather than to learn how to defeat them?
- What is a challenging issue you are facing now that might benefit from this approach?