20 September 2013

Enough Boring Meetings – A “Taster” to Explore the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter

Written by Beth Tener, Posted in Facilitation, Strategic Questioning

“I hate boring meetings!” was the way Madeline Snow from UMass Lowell explained her passion for the Art of Hosting and its techniques for convening conversations that matter. She facilitated the September meeting of the Leadership Learning Community’s Boston Learning Circle where participants had the opportunity to experience a “taster” trying out several techniques including Revealed Presence cards, World Café process, Open Space technology, and the Proaction Café. The Art of Hosting is a worldwide community of people who develop, practice and share techniques for hosting group conversations in more powerful ways. The work is based on some underlying principles:

  • The wisdom is in the room – There is a power and potential that can emerge from a group that creates something better than we could create on our own, for example, sitting at our desk trying to write up a strategic plan. The art is in how to access that.
  • With the right convening methods, groups can self-organize to create valuable conversations and new insights about the things that matter to them at that time.
  • Presence – The key is to have participants present and participating with their full attention (not bored, distracted on smart phones, or sitting quietly while a few voices dominate.)
  • It’s ok to “not know” the answers or how everything is going to work out in a meeting. Feeling comfortable with not knowing while trusting the group opens up conversation and the exploration of ideas and possibilities.

Spark Reflections and Connections
Colorful cards with photo images were placed on each table (Revealed Presence story cards created by Carla Kimball.) For introductions, each participant was asked to pick a card that reminded them of their current experience of meetings and introduce themselves explaining how it related. The creative responses to how people used the images to RevealedPresenceCardsdescribe their experiences generated laughter and nods of understanding, for example:

  • A pond of lily pads with a lotus blossom where the pads are the people with overlapping interests and the flower is the new potential that can emerge.
  • A couple of Adirondack chairs overlooking a lake shrouded in fog was compared to the experience of people in a meeting with shared purpose working toward a future they could not see clearly yet.

The back of each card has a related question. Both the images and questions are a tool to encourage storytelling, inspiration, reflection, and creative thinking and can be used at various stages of a meeting.

Deeper Conversations on Questions that Matter
The next technique we explored was the World Café process, where people break up into groups of 4-5 people to discuss a powerful question, recording ideas that emerge with colored markers on white paper at their table. After about 20 minutes of conversation, one person stayed at that table and everyone else randomly moved to a new table, sharing the highlights of their previous conversation. Benefits of this process are that instead of one conversation around a big table, you have multiple ones, generating more ideas and accessing the ideas and exchanges of many more people in the room. The small group format is valuable to engage the participation of those who are more introverted or uncomfortable speaking in a large group. The movement and mixing enables cross-pollinating of ideas and often a “magic in the middle” can emerge from the combined wisdom of the group.

The first question we discussed was: What is the most important conversation we are not having? Groups came at this question at different levels – from conversations we don’t have personally, to how we evolve beyond materialism, to how we shift from the same pro-anti gun control conversation we keep having. When the groups mixed, people got a sense of the diversity of perspectives. In the next round, the question was: What will it take to have this conversation?

We discussed how to harvest the ideas that emerge, e.g., ask what ideas people found most exciting, have note-takers at each table, ask people at the end to write up the 2-3 ideas/insights they found most valuable and collect these. It was also noted that World Café is a great technique when you are trying to build new connections and understanding across fragmented parts of an organization or system. The conversations and new connections/relationships that result themselves create change in a system, even if you don’t harvest every idea that came out of the conversations. As one participant later stated, “The goal of World Café is not necessarily collective action.”

Open Space Technology
With open space, there is not an agenda for a meeting or conference defined ahead of time. The facilitator surveys the group for what topics are most of interest. Each one is written on a yellow sticky and put up on a grid. People are directed to various tables for the topics suggested and they can choose the one they are most interested in. A key organizing principle is “The Law of Two Feet” – if you are in a conversation that turns out not to be working for you, it is encouraged that you move to another one.

We had a good discussion of how it can feel awkward to leave a group in the middle of a conversation. As facilitators introducing this, we can name this discomfort and emphasize that in this process there is higher value on people getting value and contributing, rather than being socially polite and staying in a group. Magic can happen when you follow your impulse to move - perhaps you run into someone and that becomes a valuable conversation. Also, you can always return to the group.

Some of the topics we explored were: Facebook: Good or Evil; Soliciting Feedback as a Facilitator; Ideas about How to Generate Ideas; and Mountains or Oceans? Madeline explained that a topic suggestion that sounds random, such as “mountains or oceans?” can lead to conversations that yield unexpected insights or changed relationships. When people shared highlights from each conversation, we found that some conversations were quite tactical, sharing strategies and ideas while others were more personal or big-picture philosophical. The groups took the conversation to the place and level where they needed to go.

When you consider what makes meetings boring or deadening, it is when you have to sit through tedious sections that are not relevant to what you care about or need at that time. While the norm is to pre-plan agendas, it was clearly energizing to let the group decide in the moment the topics of most interest and self-select the conversation to join. This really is about respecting the wisdom of the group about what are the conversations that matter. In one of the small groups, a participant asked to have each person in the group speak about what was important to them related to the topic. His point was that participation of all members is critical so it is valuable to hear from all of them first before the conversation takes off in the direction set by whoever speaks first.

Pro Action Café
Pro Action Café is a method for peer conversations that helps an individual explore a current challenge with input from others and discern what actions to take. It was conceived by Ria Baeck and Rainer von Leoprechting in Brussels, Belgium. The facilitator asked for about five volunteers to offer up a current challenge. Each one sat at a separate table and the other participants split up to form a small group with each volunteer. There were three rounds of conversation. In the first round, we explored: What is the quest behind the question? The participants focused on asking questions and listening to the person with the challenge. The aim is not to give advice or answers, but rather to help the person explore the challenge. Not giving advice was challenging for some in this room, e.g., those who are consultants or professors and are used to giving answers and “expert” advice.

In the next round, participants moved to a new table to engage with another person’s challenge and explored the question: What is missing? And then the third round, explored: What has been learned? What is the next minimal elegant step I will take? The value of the process is that you get a diverse set of perspectives on a challenge, with the opportunity to “listen out loud” as you talk about it and hear others questions, and get to action steps. Even if it is not your challenge being discussed, the conversations and questions can spark ideas or new insights.

A key insight that came up several times was that often the initial challenge or question presented was often not the real issue. For example, one participant had a question of how to deal with entitlement, e.g., with long-term employees who are resisting change. The conversation about “the quest behind the question” led to her voicing her feelings of empathy for older employees close to retirement who are not technically-savvy and have fear and need more time to adjust to the technology changes underway. When the question was reframed from one of dealing with entitlement and resistance to one of “how do I support and respond to those who are struggling with changes underway,” you could sense this was an “aha moment” that would lead to different responses and possible paths of action.

Final Reflections
“These tools can open new possibilities.” In the final reflections, many people said they could see ways to use these techniques in their meetings. One participant was moved by the knowledge and talent of people in the room. My view is that these types of meeting techniques tap and make visible and useful that latent potential in a group. As the room buzzed with many conversations at the end and people exchanging business cards, it was clear that this had not been a boring meeting.

About the Author

Beth Tener

Beth Tener

Beth Tener, Principal of New Directions Collaborative, is a facilitator and strategy coach who helps social entrepreneurs and change leaders collaborate across organizational boundaries to create collective impact and systems change. Her work is informed by experience in how change happens, systems thinking, and sustainability issues, gained through work with over 150 non-profits, government agencies, foundations, and companies.

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