In deeply divided times, and with so many forces competing for our attention, a good conversation is rare. I’m not referring to casual pleasantries, but to authentic challenge-your-thinking conversations with someone who expands your point of view.
We can go days and months with only the most perfunctory interactions, often aided by social channels and digital devices. And even then we tend to gravitate toward people with whom we already agree.
But what are we sacrificing by not challenging ourselves to more?
Good conversations build trust, invite learning and break down barriers. They are among the core business processes of successful organizations. They represent the most active form of learning we engage in every day – at work, at home or in the community. And the ability to encourage a good conversation is the most important characteristic of successful leaders.
But a good conversation takes work and practice. And, in today’s environment, a new set of skills. A good conversation also takes some help, especially if the topic “on the table” is challenging (think diversity, inclusion or politics). We tend to hold back for fear of offending someone, or even worse, stoking the embers of division.
We also run the risk of declaring victory too soon. Without structure, a discussion can ramble, skirting the important topics and leaving everyone undernourished. But it’s hard to create an effective structure amidst competing emotions, complex agendas and personal sensitivities.
Enter the facilitator – a trained expert who shapes a discussion and re-engages the participants when a conversation gets awkward. A great facilitator both leads and responds, balancing questioning and listening to permit a group to connect, explore shared ideas and engage frankly. Good facilitation skills are a proxy and a model for good relationships skills: asking curious questions, listening with humility and suspending beliefs long enough to entertain the perspectives and realities of another.
At Reflection Point, we recruit and coach diverse facilitators (both college faculty and seasoned professionals) who are naturally curious and keen to learn with a group. And we start in a story as an indirect entry to some of the most sensitive aspects of the human condition. But the story is only the starting point.
By asking thoughtful questions, grounded in preparation but also building on the insights and reactions of the participants, good facilitators deepen an otherwise surface level conversation. They make space for all voices, even the quiet ones. Stepping back when appropriate but pushing when needed, a facilitator – especially an outside facilitator – enables colleagues to delve into corners and places they would not have gone alone.
A participant recently commented that one of the most powerful moments of his Reflection Point experience was instigated by the facilitating professor. He “pulled on a thread in the story that was less obvious, and it changed my point of view entirely.”
We are all guided by our own personal filters that shape the world we see. In removing the proverbial wool from our eyes, this “pulling on a thread” unravels our biases and challenges our paradigms. A facilitator models and helps unveil these limiting points of view, widening the lens of awareness. They demonstrate the very process of pulling new threads, leaving participants eager, able and skilled at pulling their own.
To move toward effective and meaningful conversations – the ones that solve problems and spur innovation – we must be willing to hear and explore completely different approaches to shared issues. Business writer Meg Wheatley goes further: to achieve true connection “we must be willing to be disturbed.”
Well-facilitated story-based discussions encourage participants to read, ask questions and entertain ideas with a new openness to diverse perspectives. Facilitation turns these shared ideas into honest and trenchant conversation. This is more than talk. This is a critical practice for the kinds of discussions and debates collaborative and inclusive organizations require.