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Top Takeaways: Making Conversation by Fred Dust
Nine top takeaways and ideas on how facilitators can use them
Approximate reading time: 8-9 minutes; 1973 words.
Creation time? three hours to write, edit, and design graphics. Two Tinker Coffee pourovers and one homemade citrus cornmeal bar consumed.
Ever fought with a book? That was my experience reading Making Conversation by Fred Dust, a former IDEO executive and excellent overall thinker. I tried valiantly to avoid battling it, but my brain would not acquiesce.
It regularly interrupted my reading with ideas on how to organize the content differently, frustrations about the lack of charts or other visuals, confusion over the hierarchy of typography within chapters, or rebelling against the artifice of the overall “seven Cs of conversation” (summary here) framework.
If you opt to read the book, I hope your brain won’t mirror mine because throughout the text Dust offers fresh insights, rich and diverse examples, practical guidance, and kernels of wisdom about how to design and facilitate better conversations. YouTube has several videos of him talking or being interviewed about the book’s content. Here is a 5-minute trailer for the book.
While I might organize the content differently and design a different reading experience, I’m glad I read the book and my notes are copious. Here are nine takeaways, as well as my brief thoughts on some of their potential applications.
“ … I’ve come to realize that purposely designing slower dialogue may actually help us to solve big problems” (p. 9).
When was the last time you facilitated a session (or participated in one someone else led) that featured purposely designed slower dialogue?
I can see the value both in a slower pace for any individual conversation, as well as breaking a process down into many more bite-sized components. The latter requires an overall slowdown of the process even if any individual discussions might remain charged and faster-paced.
It is interesting to contemplate different discussions, what slowness might enhance those conversations, and what cultural norms that pace might bump into. Understanding the typical pace for discussions and decisions in organizations is a critical facilitator responsibility, particularly if you are external to the group you will facilitate.
“A creative conversation is about choosing to hold your beliefs more lightly; it’s about commitment to exploration and to staying engaged with a set of people that will help you with that exploration” (p. 26).
In Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Better Together, author William Isaacs suggested something similar: dialogue requires individuals to engage in both advocacy and inquiry. Too often, some individuals only advocate for their belief or position without inquiring into others’ perspectives and learning more about them.
I’ve introduced “choose to hold your beliefs more lightly” as a ground rule or shared agreement in several strategy sessions and team meetings I’ve facilitated. Participants seem to embrace the gentle nudge implicit in its language.
I also sometimes invite participants to express the help they many need from others given the creative exploration about to begin: “I could use your help in staying focused on the big questions versus getting too lost in the weeds.”
“A well-planned conversation should allow for more difference and more exploration with less anxiety; it should open us to more authenticity and more ways to get more voices into the room; it can offer more clarity of direction” (p. 41).
It can be hard for meeting or workshop participants to be fully present, to listen attentively, and to remain curious about others’ contributions to a conversation if you do not think this will be reciprocated. Here again, shared agreements or group norms can help guide participants’ conversational behavior.
Facilitating a “well-planned conversation” often means designing and/or using a variety of formats and approaches to ensure difference plays an appropriate role in discussions and decision-making. The Exchange format I shared previously is one approach I find useful at a more strategic level of content and conversation design.
On a more tactical level, we need to ensure everyone gets to contribute (and is heard) at least once early on in major discussions to surface differences or the range and variety of perspectives. Simple ways to do so include using:
A gavel pass, talking stick, or “around the room” format in which each individuals gets to speak uninterrupted for 2-3 minutes until everyone has been heard.
Large index cards on which participants each write one response to a critical question, post them on a wall (real or virtual), and then silently read others’ responses before open conversation ensues.
A Read and Pass. Instead of posting and a gallery walk, participants stand in a circle and read the index card of the person on their left before passing it to the person on their right. Repeat until participants’ own card has returned to them.
A Reservation List, a flipchart page to which you add participants’ names when they indicate they wish to speak. You work through the list in order. Once people know their spot is reserved, they often can listen more generously to others.
A Human Graph or Polling (virtual or physical) which helps participants share their positions on relevant topics or questions.
“When you find yourself in a conversation that is centered on a singular word or term, a term that is essential to the topic, establish its meaning early. Struggles over words and definitions often reveal a deeper struggle—not only about words, but about ideas. Figure out whether the issue is semantic or ideological, fast” (pp. 79-80).
Wordsmithing. Ugh. It can be unhelpful as well as a tremendous time sink.
Dust’s distinction between semantic and ideological is simple and facilitators can easily ask a group to make a determination: “Is the discussion we’re having now about ____ (insert relevant term) a semantic one or is it more ideological?”
If semantic, I often ask the group if we can note that accordingly and move on, adding further review of the term in question to the list of post-conversation action items. I’ll often try to get people to agree on a placeholder term, one that captures the spirit of the meaning people can endorse even if they might quibble with the word itself.
Dust’s calls his approach Assert and Agree: “Assert a definition (as facilitator) and ask that people agree to that definition for the duration of the conversation.” Assert and Agree might be particularly helpful in strategic planning sessions given the wide range of definitions attached to words commonly used in those deliberations.
If the concern over terminology is ideological, I’d suggest the goal then is to efficiently elicit the different perspectives in play and help the group determine how it wishes to proceed given what has surfaced.
“Constraints can establish the rhythm and pace of a conversation; they can allow for ways to interrupt when things go awry; they also can allow you to shift gears when the goals of the conversation change. The right constraints can make the creative difference in the conversations we have. Constraints create” (p. 147). (emphasis added)
Time limits for segments.
The number of ideas to generate.
How many options to identity.
The number of other people with whom you must speak.
The amount of support an idea requires in order to be advanced.
The likely impact an idea must have.
The scope or scale of who a new initiative must serve.
The revenue a program must generate to be renewed.
These are just a handful of the constraints I’ve used in past discussions in order to accelerate creativity, freer thinking, or more meaningful output. The design and facilitation question is simple: Given the outcomes for these discussions, what constraints might I introduce in order to best help participants produce them?
“Choose a few formats, constraints, or tools you like and work with them over and over again. It’s not about getting good at the format—or rather, it’s not just about getting good at the format; it’s about letting the conversation feel so familiar and routine that it can fall to the background and you can start getting good at change-spotting (p. 178).
My friend and former colleague Mike McRee often uses the expression practice reps, and I think it is quite apt for what Fred Dust describes. The more practice reps I have with a participation format, group activity, or content presentation segment, the more its mechanics are in my muscle memory.
This allows me to focus more on what is happening in the conversations, to zoom in and notice more granular shifts in small groups or among individuals. I can listen more intently for the flash of insight that if amplified by my voice might be a catalyst for additional insights or connections.
In terms of facilitating meaningful interaction and engagement in workshops or classroom settings, Dust’s advice is invaluable. The more command you have of your content and the more confident you are in managing your chosen teaching techniques or learning formats, the more you can be 100% present, shifting with the flow and reactions of learners and effortlessly calling audibles to better address what is unfolding.
“Think of conversation as a journey you’re undertaking with others. You’re all moving in the same direction and a key component of making it to the end is stopping every once in a while, recognizing how far you’ve gotten, and encouraging each other to continue on” (p. 199).
As part of my graduate school assistantship, I escorted two busloads of college students from northern Illinois to South Padre Island for Spring Break. I still recall the wild cheers and mayhem unleashed when the buses first crossed into Texas … even though we still had 8-10 hours of driving ahead of us.
Like a road trip, meetings, workshops, and conversations in general can benefit from rest breaks, a chance for participants to stretch their mental and physical muscles and assess the progress made. In extended sessions, I find it particularly helpful to note and display the decisions reached, action items identified, or key questions generated. It has a subtle effect of saying, “look at all you’ve done so far.”
“We think big conversations should be followed by big actions, but the truth is, sometimes you just need to do anything rather than nothing. Look at the solutions and imagine: ‘What’s the smallest way we could do this? What allows us to make the conversation manifest? Can we stop talking and start trying?’” (pp. 209-210).
Dust is in good company here. Numerous business book classics like Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner champion the value of getting in action and pursuing small wins. In Little Bets, Peter Sims extols the value of placing little bets and experimenting in order to discover where you may subsequently wish to invest more. Or consider IDEO’s mantra for innovation: try a lot of stuff to learn what works.
I’ve long advocated and implemented for this approach as participants tend to feel more strongly about a meeting’s success if it produces some tangible outcomes, even if they are small. The facilitation question I use is: what is the biggest step forward you can commit to today without reservation?
“If you bring a diverse set of organizations together to work on a problem, that doesn’t mean you have the organizations in the room that can fulfill that promise. It would be far better for that group to spend time working in what organization or player in the world is best suited to take an idea forward, in which case the last stage of a creative conversation might really be just to identify who is best to continue the work and how to draw them into the conversation” (p. 214).
Such a useful reminder. Even when those gathered represent a diverse coalition of sorts, the people or organizations best suited to advance the issues or ideas generated (or make critical contributions to doing so) might still not be present. Planning for outreach and engagement is an important agenda item.
Instead of doing a Resource Review as in the past, I’m experimenting with this Top Takeaways format. With books I spotlight, my ultimate goal is sharing information in a manner that helps you apply their ideas to your facilitation efforts. If you’ve got feelings or feedback about which format does that best, feel free to email me.
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