Setting the Table
Some of the best conversations we experience seem to emerge spontaneously, focus on a theme or topic that quickly captures our interest and resonates with our minds and our hearts. The experience can be soulful, a sense of spiritual joining of people on a plane not commonly accessed.
Is it possible to have those conversations and access that spiritual joining by intention and through practice? What are conditions that make such dialogues possible? Are there practices or approaches that can reliably draw people into heart-full and mind-full speaking and listening? Can such a conversation be scheduled for Thursday morning at 10 AM?
What Is Really Happening During Deep Conversations?
The questions I am sure have many possible answers. One – which may be a distillation of several possible answers – is a cycle of deep listening, reflection, and speaking, where each person is primarily interested in listening to the thoughts and feelings of others and secondarily interested in speaking their own thoughts and feelings. When they do speak from their own thoughts and feelings they are offering a reflection on what they have heard and felt rather than starting from their own world view that they habitually download.
In my own experience the chatter of self talk quiets or even ceases. So intense is the attention paid to others that I lose the need and the desire to give voice to my own thoughts. Not only am I content to listen, I can feel a palpable excitement around the possibility that I am about to gain access to an insight that might not have otherwise come along.
Conversations By Design
The challenge it seems to me is to create the cycle of deep listening, reflection, and speaking as a matter of intentional design. I refer to this as a dialogue protocol. They are conversational “rules of engagement”. A protocol is in simple terms a set of rules that guide the conversation.
As an example, a protocol for a conversation that hopes to reveal some creative ideas might be Once Around, Uninterruptible followed by Open Conversation. Each person in the conversation offers comments which cannot be interrupted by anyone else. After each person has spoken the conversation is open and it will flow to wherever it flows.
At a minimum it delays one common enemy of creative thinking, the tendency to jump in and judge the merit of an idea before it has been explored, before idea scaffolding has been given a chance, where each idea is used as a stepping stone to the next.
Brief History of Protocols
My colleague Cheryl Barker and I attended the NeuroLeadership Conference in 2008 in New York. Upon her return she began to explore how meeting agendas might be improved. She and her colleagues at Neundorfer (a pollution control company in Northeast Ohio) developed the concept over a period of months. Included for each of the agenda items was a protocol. In simple terms it laid out the expected unfolding of conversation for that agenda item.
For sharing information the protocol was Presentation. For converging on a decision the protocol was Preference or Acclimation. The intent of the protocols was to ensure all voices were heard (that wished to be heard; anyone could say “pass”).
Can Rules Lead to Freedom?
Such was my introduction to dialogue protocols. Their appeal to me personally centered on their ability to slow my thinking down and delay my tendency to draw conclusions about the thoughts of others before I have given them their just due.
Is bringing orderliness to a conversation a real and feasible stepping stone to the conversations I described above? While the protocols measurably improved the quality and the productivity of meetings, they did not seem to reliably lead to that deeper exchange that signals the joining of minds, hearts, and souls. (The agenda item itself was a factor; a final decision is more analytical than it is creative.)
Was the failure an indicator that protocols (rules) were not the way in, or could it be that the protocols needed to be developed to a greater degree?
A Dive Into Synergy and Collaboration
Cheryl Barker introduced me to Nancy Klein’s book, “Time to Think.” It is an excellent read; I recommend it to everyone. At the heart of the book is the question, can we get people to do better thinking if we fail to make the time and the space for thinking?
Concurrent with this I was exploring the possibility of a major writing project with two colleagues. We had a number of discussions around synergy and collaboration, more at the level of responding to the spirit and energy of the words than taking the time to actually answer the question, What does that really mean for each of individually and all of us together?
As we discussed the words, I repeatedly referred to thinking, as in synergistic thinking, collaborative thinking. I had it in my mind that what I sought was at a deep level, where thoughts are formed, memories were accessed and recombined into new thoughts and ideas. But, I never really found the words to paint the picture I had in mind, that intimate weaving of thoughts and ideas, and it proved to be a frustrating experience for all of us.
Having failed to reach some meeting of the minds on the meaning of synergy and collaboration, it is no surprise that we had very divergent opinions on the practice of synergy and collaboration. For one of us it was presenting a reasonably well formed idea to the other two and soliciting responses. While that was certainly more collaborative then simply embarking on a solo effort, it struck me as more of a negotiation than collaboration and synergy. It was also far from the partially formed, ill-described idea of synergy and collaboration with which I was struggling.
The Place of Synergy and Collaboration: Dialogue versus Thinking
I started to have doubts about my own assumptions. I started to lean into the possibility that it might be more a question of dialogue than thinking. Since we each had our own separate brain, failing a Klingon mind-meld it was unlikely that our neuronal thinking processes could be physically combined.
Dialogue on the other hand (the outward and audible manifestation of thinking) was something that took place in common space and time, and could be joined through listening and thinking. And that returned me to the idea of a protocol as a means to an end. If we could have a conversation that sounded like the one in my head, even if we had to hammer it into place, I thought my colleagues could experience what I was failing to verbally communicate, and the way forward would be a bit more accessible to all of us.
The Challenge of Dialogue
At the same time I was seeking a concrete entry point into synergistic and collaborative dialogue, one of us, Gail Severini, had been doing thinking around openness in organizations. She was (and is) very interested in understanding what conditions were necessary for this to happen, and what type of dialogue might be possible if and when it was achieved. This struck me as a framework highly compatible with synergy and collaboration.
It seemed to me that the primary challenge was decreasing the time that each of us spends with our own thoughts and increasing the time we are fully present to the thoughts of others. To that end I proposed a dialogue protocol to my colleagues for an upcoming conference call scheduled to discuss an article that John Barbuto (the third colleague) had written. We were at a crossroads, where we had to declare the path we intended to follow for thinking and writing. (This was not a rigid decision, more akin to saying, from here forward we are headed roughly east, at least making clear that north, south, and west were no longer on the table of possibilities.) They agreed with some hesitation and doubt.
Digging Deeper into Dialogue Protocols
The dialogue protocol unfolded this way.
1. Time to Think
This did not assume that no one had done any thinking prior to the call and needed a few minutes to catch up. Rather, it was explicit time to synchronize the prefrontal cortex with the amygdala. So, facts were synchronized with feelings. There was actual silence during the call.
2. Possibilities, Once Around, Uninterrupted, No Discussion
Each in turn briefly shared her/his view of the future possibilities that s/he had derived from John’s article. Brief meant brief, favored by having taken time to think. Each of us was expected to distill everything down to as few words as possible. This was discipline as well as creativity.
3. Time to Think
Time for each of us to think about the possibilities others had contributed. This was a reflection. There was actual silence during the call.
4. What I Find Interesting, Once Around, Uninterrupted, No Discussion
This was a “shift” exercise. As an example, I spoke to John about what I found interesting in his possibilities, John spoke to Gail about what he found interesting in her possibilities, and Gail spoke to me about what she found interesting in my possibilities. The protocol prevented me (as an example) from speaking my own thoughts without continuing to be present to the thinking and feelings of John (and the same for each in turn).
5. Time to Think
Another reflection. Each reflected on what her/his dialogue partner found interesting. This was not a compare and contract with one’s own original possibilities. It was thinking centered completely on what her/his dialogue partner found interesting. There was actual silence during the call. (While a reflection is obviously our own thoughts, the intent was to push each of us to center our thinking on what someone else had contributed to the dialogue, as opposed to our own default position on the idea.)
6. The Gift Received, Once Around, Uninterrupted, No Discussion
Each of us in turn shared the gift they received in what her/his dialogue partner found interesting. (The order was the reverse of #4; John shared the gift he received from me, Gail from John, and I from Gail.) This was also designed to keep each of us centered in the thoughts of another person. (Similar to above, while any articulation of a gift received was obviously our own thoughts, this protocol also kept each of us anchored in the thoughts of the other. In order to complete this protocol, each of us had to remain present to our dialogue partner.)
7. Time to Think
Another reflection, on the gift received. This was actual silence during the call.
8. Open Discussion
I think everyone found a rule based conversation odd to some degree. It was considerably different from a free flow conversation where anyone can express any idea in any order that seems logical to that person. There were murmurs of approval mixed with hesitation. It seemed to approach a new dialogue without actually arriving.
For me, it at least allowed a glimmer of what I had in mind to show through.
Was the Dialogue Protocol Effective?
Short-term, it is likely that dialogue protocols can feel confining, even counter productive. Having spent a good deal of time designing and imagining this protocol inside my head, the periods of silence seemed very long to me. The lack of familiarity with the protocol likely dampened dialogue to some degree.
Long-term, it seems to me that the promise of dialogue protocols is when written rules are internalized as habit, when taking time to think and being fully present to another person become normal and routine ways of having dialogues and being in conversation with each other. The overt sense of “rules of engagement” gives way to the normal and routine manner in which people engage each other’s feelings and thoughts.
The future possibility, for me, is a reliable way to have conversations that matter on a routine basis. This doesn’t mean that every dialogue has to be structured; there is much to be said for completely spontaneous conversations that flow where they flow and the point of departure and the destination take on less importance than the journey.
Notwithstanding, in the course of work we have to eventually be about the business of the business, and to make forward progress on that front in a more productive and meaningful way is very attractive to me.
I invite others to develop and try dialogue protocols, experiment with them, share their experience, and work toward enriching dialogue (by this or any other approach).