Leading a balanced conversation

“It’s only a simple brainstorm – it isn’t a power thing – everyone gets to speak.”

Do they?

The Dynamics of Difference participants think otherwise.

Imagine the scene. You’ve gathered your team together to inject some energy into your initiative.  You run a multi-national team, most of your meetings are virtual so it’s important to make the best of being in the same room together.

Let’s make the best of this opportunity,” you say. “I’d like us to share our thoughts about really getting some energy behind this initiative. So, what do you all think? Let’s share some ideas. I’ll capture them; go ahead.

A speaks for her department’s pet plan

B spots this, answers her and (very subtly) disagrees

A counters – the subtle disagreement was so not very subtle after all

B draws breath…

You “Thank you. Let’s have some different ideas.”

A ten second silence which feels like half an hour

You “What’s your take on this C?”

C speaks quietly about a third position

A counters

B counters A

A disagrees

You intervene…

And so it goes on. Participants D to G [from southern Europe] eventually get a word in, but participants H to J [from Pacific rim countries] don’t say anything.

This is not only a question of native speaker fluency and communicative competence (although that matters, of course), it is also about what we consider to be normal and unremarkable about the way we converse, or hold a meeting, or do a quick brainstorm of ideas. We tend to see these mechanisms as completely transparent and value free. This is because we take the norms for granted

Let’s take an example.

Everyone knows how to do a brainstorm. It is intended as a participative way of leading a meeting in which it is possible to make more space for more people to speak out and have their ideas heard. Indeed, most of us would be able to take up the pen and would know when the rules are not being followed.

Here’s how it usually works:

  • Someone takes the pen and invites others to offer up ideas freely (no judgement or argument allowed);
  • All the ideas are of equal value – the aim is to get the ideas flowing;
  • When everyone has said what they would like to say, everyone in the group makes sense of what is recorded.

Or at least that’s how it works in theory. In practice, having everyone make sense of what has been recorded is not so straight forward. This is because in fact, the rules don’t guarantee that everyone is heard in equal measure or interpreted in the same way. Some people are given (or take) more turns than others; and some do not make their voices heard at all.

We observe these patterns of interaction and assign possible meanings to them. It can be inferred, for example, that someone who does not speak has nothing to say; or it may be assumed that members of the group do not want to hear what they imagine she has to say – or any number of other social meanings that can be assigned to this pattern.

Similarly, a brainstorm participant who dominates the conversational floor by taking every opportunity to speak may be read as a strong leader, a domineering team member, or a native speaker of English, depending on a whole range of contextual factors including the perspectives, interests and political agendas of everyone else involved.

In fact, your average brainstorm can turn out to be a conversation where the person with the pen holds the power to decide who gets to speak. The same old loud voices get heard, and the record of what was said is skewed in favour of one or other department, one or other point of view. People shout out their ideas and perspectives from the point of view of their individual and group interests – and then jockey for position in the overall “product” of the brainstorm – because we all know that the record counts.

So what if the record was more inclusive? How might we do that? Bearing in mind that absolutely nothing is value free, we might imagine different rules with different effects.

Imagine, for example, that after generating a board full of ideas you ask, “OK, so I’d like to invite the different groups here (marketing, sales, finance, engineering…or whatever) to choose five of these ideas on behalf of the whole group – the things that matter most to everyone here.”

You’d probably witness another of those silences that seems like half an hour.

People are not accustomed to being asked to articulate what might be in the interests of other groups. More frequently we imagine the question of what is in the interests of the whole group to mean just my group. The fact that most groups can’t do this exercise is because they don’t actually know what the other groups see as priority issues.

So what needs to happen next?

People need to ask each other a limited number of very carefully crafted questions. If, when the groups call out their priorities (after having listened very carefully to what the others have to say), you choose to circle the important priorities of each group in a different colour of marker pen, you will see where the groups’ interests diverge and overlap.

That’s actually the common ground – a place we often can’t see because the accepted, unchallenged patterns of conversation obscure our view. And unless we call these out, the exclusionary processes and effects that go with them, will also remain invisible.

Image: www.freeimages.co.uk

What makes a decision stick?

The decision of the British people to leave the EU has left a fragmented nation and a population divided between elation, devastation and regret. The UK press reports financial, political and constitutional confusion; a leadership vacuum with no one “at the helm” and no direction.

A decision has been taken but no one can do anything with it.

We have been witness to a democratic process, but also a dangerous one. The divisive campaign has legitimised intolerance and taken the lid off differences hitherto contained by the unspoken rules of society. There are divisions in two major parties, between north and south, between the nations of the United Kingdom, between generations, and between colleagues, friends and family members.

A decision has been taken but it not yet clear if it will stick.

The Brexit story reminds us that a majority decision, democratically taken does not mean action.  It also reminds us that waiting for the illusive inclusive leader to take us out of the mess means we could be in for a pretty long wait.

Brexit is chaos writ large on a world stage, but the practices are not so unfamiliar, as many of the Dynamics of Difference research participants have been only too keen to point out. Calls for unity accompanied by scheming and backstabbing; decisions taken behind closed doors and played out democratically for show; half-truths instead of honesty; bullying in place of leadership; and long drawn out processes of securing apparent agreement which lead precisely nowhere.

Take Maria’s story:

I currently work in an American-European multi-national and English is the common language for meetings and communications. Discussions, which are often over the phone, take place with people from the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and Spain. As an example of what I want to discuss, one initial meeting was to agree on a classification of a type of professional service. This classification had impact on delivery resources and revenue recognition between two different teams from different business units. Opinions were opposed between these two teams and my role, as part of a central team, was to be responsible for making the final decision.

Because of the nature of the decision and its impact, the discussions took place over several meetings. During each meeting, each team would describe their position but there would not be any real debate. Sometimes it seemed like participants were not listening to one another, and that it was perceived as a win-loose situation, and no one wanted to loose. Also, because the meetings took place over the phone, there were quite a lot of interruptions and misunderstandings. 

After four or five meetings my team took a decision and formally communicated that to all stakeholders. But one year later I have found out that not everyone “agreed” with that decision, and that the discussion still seems to be open. This feels very unsatisfactory as a lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to get the best decision.

As with Brexit, Maria found that when there is no clear way of hearing dissenting voices and no way of working together in spite of these differences, agreements may not be what they seem. If we treat differences themselves as the root cause of conflict, then obviously, we will try to minimise them. This leaves us in the untenable position of trying to value diversity by getting rid of it.

But as Brexit reminds us, programmes of inclusivity which hear some of the people some of the time might be in for a nasty surprise.

Let’s look again at the way we interact at work, and at the conversations we call decisions. When people with differing beliefs, needs and interests come together to decide how to proceed two things frequently happen. First, they carefully manage their contributions to the conversational floor to create and maintain as much agreement as possible. This usually means there is insufficient robust questioning of motives and interests. And second, when a consensus does not emerge more or less naturally, they put it to the vote.

And as we have seen a majority does not guarantee a sound decision. 51.9% of the British electorate voted “Leave” – a decision that will change the face of Europe for decades to come. No one in the rest of the EU had a voice.

When the situation is really serious and a great deal is at stake, we need to look at temporarily changing the “rules” of decision making so that more voices can be heard and everyone involved can see the common ground. We need a conversation where different views can be expressed and decisions can be taken which translate into people taking responsibility for making sure things happen.

For this we have the Decision Circle

First let’s shake up two mistaken assumptions:

  1. That once something is agreed publicly, then the decision is taken and action will follow
  2. That everyone has to see things the same way before agreement can be reached

Now let’s play around with the patterns of interaction:

Next time you want to make sure you have really heard different views when your group has to take a decision, give everyone two index cards and ask them to write two things they want to see or make happen. Have them sit around an empty table and read out what’s on their cards, one at a time, putting the cards in a central pace on the table. No questions, no comments and, apart from the reading of cards, no speaking.

Here’s the tricky part – if people think that what is written on the card is doable now (i.e. there is no need to push or fix anyone or anything in order for the activity to happen) then the card gets left on the table. If on the other hand, someone believes that this is not doable, then he or she should lean over and take the card out. There may be many reasons to remove a card but at the first reading, these do not need to be declared. The only speaking is the reading of cards.

When all the cards have been read, some will still be in the centre while others will be near the person who removed them. Typically, the ones in the centre are the lowest common denominator ideas and not much is at stake. This means of course, that the important proposals are not yet on the table and some negotiating needs to take place.

To lead an inclusive process of negotiation, a little more of the motives and interests of the speaker need to be shared. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is too risky. In fact, even when motives are not declared, people read them loud and clear.

Take the example of the phone and the bath. You are baking in the kitchen, your hands are covered in sticky dough and the phone goes. “That’s the phone” you say.  And you mean, “I want you to pick it up” and incidentally, “I’m the person round here who can tell you what to do.”  From a distant room your partner shouts, “I’m in the bath!” meaning, “You’ll have to pick it up yourself” and incidentally, “You’re not telling me what to do!”

And all that’s been said is, “That’s the phone!” and “I’m in the bath!”

So encourage people to reveal a bit more than usual about what’s behind what they say – you’ll be surprised at how much care they take to honour people’s views and preferences – and when something is just not going to happen, it’s better to know it up front rather than waste weeks or months of manoeuvring for nothing.

Slowly, people begin to see that if they change their cards a little, more and more can make it’s way to the centre, to the space that is for proposals that are doable now – meaning that no one in that decision circle will stop it. All that remains is for someone to take responsibility for the activity by picking up the card – and if no one picks it up, well it was never going to happen anyway!

This exercise needs power, awareness and the ability to speak and to listen as an equal. Uncovering differences, exploring dissent and heading off veto take more than a little courage. But it is a lot more effective than moving the deckchairs around on a sinking ship.