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Challenging Conversations

| August 15, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Ingredients:  A challenging topic, participants, rules and processes for conducting the conversation, (if the number of participants is large), and a “container.”

Today, we live in an age where the “art” and “practice” of having a conversation, a discourse, on a challenging, perhaps very complicated and controversial, subject has become dim.  We don’t take the time for face-to-face interactions on either easy or difficult subjects.  Instead, we fire off emails, texts, or tweets back and forth thinking we are discussing a subject when often we are simply exchanging position statements, not furthering either our understanding or advancing the discussion towards reaching a shared understanding.
Earlier this year William Isaacs, Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and Jason Jay, also a Senior Lecturer at the Sloan School with Gabriel Grant, a doctoral candidate in Leadership and Sustainability at the Yale Center for Industrial Ecology, have written describing processes whereby individuals can have safe conversations that develop resolutions to contentious, challenging, sometimes very long-standing problems.  Taken together their work defines a multi-step process that can be used to structure conversations between two and larger numbers (perhaps up to 20) of individuals.
Before describing the process, we need to introduce the concept of the container.  The idea is simple:  Create a protected space where people can interact in new ways to make meaning of their situation.  Isaacs describes it this way:  “Within a container, there is a transformative shift of atmosphere that induces people to suspend the certainties of their beliefs.  Suspending them, in this context, doesn’t mean renouncing them.  It means talking openly, thinking dispassionately about one’s beliefs, and becoming more aware of one’s behavior and ideas, as if observing oneself and others from a distance.”
To be successful, the container must be strong enough to hold and enable these conversations, and for these new behaviors to develop.  If the new behaviors don’t develop, the container will not be strong enough and the effort will likely fail.  Strength will come through the collective behavior of the participants to want to succeed.
The process goes like this:
0.  The convener invites participants to the process, stating the issues to be addressed.  The invitation needs to state the homework assignment and note that the meeting will be of a different nature than what they might expect.  If he or she thinks it might be helpful, they may want to outline the process that will be followed.
1.  Before the first conversation, carefully, and as completely as possible, define the problem.  Each individual must understand and be clear about the beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices that he or she brings to the discussion.  These are not just talking points but what motivates the individual, what inspires him or her to act, what really matters.
2.  Organize your own thoughts, beginning by stating the issue from your own point of view and continue by exploring what really matters to you.  Writing your thoughts here down will help you hold yourself accountable in the conversations that will occur later.
These last two steps represent pre-work for the first conversation.  Next comes:
3.  The first conversation begins with the convener talking about the meeting, introducing the concept of the container, and talking about the process.  Then each participant, in turn, states his or her position on the issue and explains how he or she came to it.  Other participants are invited to inquire about the reasoning.  Jason Jay warns that this is not a time to continue “preaching to the choir” or being righteous and certain about your own position.  Before proceeding to the next participant in the go-around, there should be a “check-in” to see that there are no further questions about the position or the process of reaching it.
4.  Since this is a conversation about a difficult issue, areas of conflict and disagreement are likely to surface.  Accept these as a natural part of the process.  After the initial go-around to state positions and reasoning, come back to these issues to make sure that everyone is fully heard.  This is not the time to attack another’s positions.  So, “that’s wrong” is out of bounds.  Much better is “I don’t understand you, how it would work.  For example, how would what you propose work in this situation?”
5.  As the conversations unfold, listen carefully for how the various issues could be brought together, how any needed change could actually occur.  This is when the solution begins to take shape.
It may actually take multiple conversations to get to the point of listening to how the various ideas that have surfaced play together.  It’s important to be unhurried, to let all the participants become comfortable with each other.  Each person needs to reach the point where he or she can share their not-yet-fully formed ideas and potential solutions without fear of harsh criticism.
Isaacs notes that there are four phases in this process:  Politeness (3 above), Breakdown (step 4, when people begin to tell-it-like-it-is), Inquiry (step 5), and the Collective Thinking that follows from step 5.  If the “container” is sufficiently strong, if the bonds of those involved have developed in such a way that the individuals are committed to reach a productive resolution of the issue together, then inquiry and exploration of potential solutions continues in collective thinking until a real resolution is reached.
It takes practice for an individual and for an organization to become proficient in this process.  Conversations that are called for here are not easy, and we are unpracticed in having them.  But, they are possible with the right attitudes, atmosphere, and the willingness to take the time to give them a try.  I think that it would be worth the time and effort to do that.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
William Isaacs, Conversations That Change the World,, February 2017.
Jason Jay, Breaking Through Gridlock:  The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World, YouTube, July 2017.
Jason Jay and Gabriel Grant, Breaking Through Gridlock:  The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017.