A friend pointed me to this pdf: The conditions for thriving conversations by Kathia Castro Laszlo and Alexander Laszlo.
I’m really interested in what makes a great conversation and how to have more of them. This brings together some clear thinking. It’s an academic paper so you’ll need to cut them a bit of slack on the jargon front. Here are some of the nuggets I’d pick out.
Conversation, in contrast with debate and other forms of antagonistic discourse, is collaborative. It demands from the conversants an openness to changing views and perspectives that is, it involves learning and can foster coordinated action.
The authors go on to reflect on what makes for great conversation, and what doesn’t. They talk about a blend of generative and strategic dialogue: the former is conversation which builds the familiarity of participants with each other – the relationship focus; the latter is about the explicit purpose or subject of the conversation – the task focus. It’s not an either/or choice of course, and you need both to create a thriving conversation.
Rather like William Isaacs in his book Dialogue, they talk about the stages of conversations and the need to live with chaos:
Thriving conversations are not exempt from such stages – it often happens that an initial agreement (integration) is followed by disagreement and chaos (differentiation). However, a true thriving conversation transcends this stage of divergence and arrives at a new level of organization and meaning
They introduce the notion of synergic inquiry, which supports participants in going through four stages: self-knowing; other-knowing; holding differences; and transcending differences. I think the ability to hold differences without automatically leaping to attack/defend mode is a crucial sign of a group that is capable of something special. I’d just emphasise my own learning about these models: these are not predictable circuits you go through once, in order, then you’re done… in conversations (in life) we’re going through them all the time and not necessarily in the same order.
They have an interesting listing of five different kinds of facilitation, from first generation (outside expert) to fifth generation, who…
not only involves the group in the design process, but also helps the group to learn how to learn to facilitate.
The bit that most caught my attention this morning was their discussion of one factor that differentiates a thriving conversation from a boring one. They quote research on Evolutionary Learning Communities (ELCs) by a guy called Alexander
The composition of a group is critical to its success…. Perhaps the filter relates to relative passion objectives: if the passion objective is to live, learn, and understand from the process in order to enrich ones life, then the ELC will not transcend; if the passion objective is to live, learn, and understand from the process in order to enrich the world, then the ELC will transcend. In the former, the quest is for realization of the self, with contribution to and betterment of the world being secondary and a by-product. In the latter, the quest is for contribution to and betterment of the world, with realization of the self being secondary and a by-product. ELCs cannot emerge from individuals with proximate life passions. They must seek and attract and embrace individuals with transcendent life passions.
This resonates with me. Lots of people like to talk about synergy but I think it’s easy for that word to simply mean: a process where I get to take out more than I put in, as if it is a risk-free, safe process. What makes for thriving conversations, and thriving groups, is a sense of a goal beyond our immediate egotistical desires and a willingness to take emotional risks to get there.