Generative conversations at work

If you head toward the shoreline of Lake Huron in Bruce County this summer, you’ll notice the quiet and graceful sweep of wind turbines now dotting the landscape. This newer form of energy generation has me thinking about the need for new ways to generate energy and original ideas in the work place.


Perhaps you have noticed that, at work and in general, most people start the day knowing what they know – and end the day the same way. Always in a rush to accomplish, we often short-circuit a group’s ability to generate insights. We dump our completed thoughts on the meeting table and hope for collaborative agreement. Rarely do our agendas include time to open the space for something completely new to emerge.


If you are discouraged by the predictability of your meeting outcomes, do something to create a different kind of conversation. A generative conversation is one where participants listen as well as talk. Where half-formed ideas are shared and moulded in the company of others. Where no one can predict the outcome, but everyone wants to be a part of the collective learning. Here are some ideas to regenerate your face-to-face conversations.  


1.      Choose a fresh location. One of the reasons that group meetings are often lack-luster is because they are tightly scheduled between other more routine and frantic work activities. Rushing to the 2 p.m. brainstorming meeting and worrying about the 4 p.m. presentation you have right afterward is a problem. Most working professionals are so geared up to deliver results – and fast – that they can’t really relax enough to let their unconscious, creative brain into the room. Try taking your brainstorming meeting away from the office. Change the scenery by booking time at a location far from the office. Make it a whole day or at the end of a day so work is left behind. Spend time upfront relaxing a little – perhaps with a meal – so everyone can let their guard down.  


2.      Ask simple questions.  Simple and thought-provoking questions can take people’s thinking in new directions. One of my favourite questions is from a Solutions Focus approach. It is: “If you woke up tomorrow and this problem was solved, how would you know it?” This works because it shifts the thinking from what has caused the problem or challenge, to what success looks like. When we can describe success we can also often see the path to get there – if not fully, than partially. Other good conversation starters are:  “Why is this important right now?” and “What does this situation remind you of?”


3.      Make enough time. Generative conversations take time. There is the time to listen to each other, and then the time to reflect and process, and then the time to form the right words to articulate what you’re still discovering. Our usual rush to completion won’t work. Introverted thinkers and those struggling with the spoken language are at a disadvantage. Better to set your agenda to accommodate all aspects of learning together. Pay particular attention to the need for reflective time. A practical solution is to schedule an overnight meeting. Share information on day one and give a free evening for reflection and processing before the second day of insightful conversation.


4.      Help people to listen deeply. The ability to listen deeply to what is said by others is the basis of understanding and new learning. One way to do this is to slow down the conversation by taking time to draw parallels and pictures as a summary of what someone has said. By offering up metaphors you can imagine the deeper meanings others hold. A skilled facilitator can provide this service. As people talk, s/he creates visuals and re-frames what is being said. The speaker then has a model to work with, and can sculpt and reshape their words to truly reflect their meaning. This additional shading allows others to deeply understand and draw closer.


5.      Practice dialogue. Don’t wait until you have a problem that requires great learning and generative thinking. Implement the formal use of dialogue (as described by David Bohm and others) within your organization. In dialogue, the emphasis is on collective learning rather than on problem solving. It is exploratory conversation that is engaged in for the pleasure of creative thinking and deeper understanding with peers. You can host forums for the sole purpose of speaking together about the work, the industry, the business or the world. But don’t capture the output in any way, thus removing the temptation to make it a “who’s smarter” competition. Just get together in a relaxed setting and chat about the work. Have no preconceived agenda or predetermined purpose. Allow people to open their minds and their hearts to others.


Jill Malleck is a facilitator, coach and consultant who works with groups and individuals to accelerate positive change. She provides tools and techniques to create the space and process for generative conversations.

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