Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Art of Focused Conversation (Book 22 of 30)

Title: The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace
General Editor: Brian Stanfield

In a previous post, I mentioned facilitated group reflection activities.  These are group conversations that are facilitated with a specific purpose in mind, and that purpose is to reflect upon what has happened and what can be learned from it. The groups are gathered to reflect on a common experience, which allows for group learning and not just individual learning. Sometimes, there is also a proactive element to the conversation and as the facilitator, I may ask, "given what you've just learned, what are you going to do next?"

This book takes a broader approach to conversations and helped me broaden my understanding of the value of facilitated, focused conversations.  People in general do not want to attend yet another meeting, especially if you tell them that it's going to be a "conversation".

As a side note, I created a series of events which I purposefully called "Critical Knowledge Conversations" rather than the more standard Knowledge Sharing Workshops.  It takes time for the vocabulary to change in an organization.  When people RSVP for the events, they're still calling them workshop or training sessions.  Once they've attended a couple of theses conversations, they understand the difference.

Getting back to the book... a quote:
"Besieged by information overload and seduced by knowledge from books, tapes, and the Internet, many people -- especially in their work lives -- suffer the tyranny of data, feeling the loss in the form of the fragmentation and alienation of their relations with one another.  More and more, people appear to have forgotten the value of wisdom gained by ordinary conversations.
But, at different times in history, conversation has been regarded as an art form -- a crucial component of human relations.  Conversation has the power to solve a problem, heal a wound, generate commitment, bond a team, generate new options, or build a vision.  Conversations can shift working patterns, build relationships, create focus and energy, cement resolve." (Back Cover) 
I've found that in the process of facilitating conversations, there is a danger of becoming group therapist.  Perhaps that's a good thing, as long as you're prepared for it.  The conversations can have a therapeutic impact on the team.  This can happen perhaps simply because some individuals were finally able to say something they've wanted to say for months and couldn't say in a regular staff meeting.  I consider that a secondary benefit.   My goal is to get the team members to talk to each other so that they can help each other articulate their thoughts and insights.

In a typical session, the team members start by addressing their comments to me, they are looking at me as I stand with my flip chart and write key comments.  Ideally, within the first 15 minutes, they start talking to each other and almost forget that I'm in the room.  Then I only need to stop them once in a while to redirect, repeat to make sure I captured an idea correctly, ask a question to clarify something that was said, ask if everyone agrees, and keep the conversation moving.  Often, the team members will start talking in circles and I have to stop them and ask, "So, what's the lesson?  What do you want other teams to know?  What should they do differently?"  If enough of the team members have already participated in one of these group reflection sessions, one of them might even interrupt the conversation and ask "what's the lesson here?"

I could write a lot more about what I've learned in 9 years of facilitating these sessions but the book is a great source of practical guidance for a much broader range of work-related group conversations, an excellent resource. Another useful resource is Michael Marquardt's Leading with Questions.  When facilitating a conversation, asking the right questions the right way is critical.   Leading with Questions is also a great way of getting Results Without Authority.

From a KM perspective on conversations, I would highly recommend Nancy Dixon's blog, Conversation Matter.  Nancy's blog is also a great example of what I would call a substantive blog because each post is really a short, very well written essay.  Of course, David Gurteen in inescapable on the related topic of Knowledge Cafes.  Note that Gurteen recommends knowledge cafes be scheduled for 90 minutes.  I wonder if that's a limit on cognitive loads for optimizing conversations. In my own experience, if the conversation is still going after 90 minutes, people are either repeating themselves or they've drifted into action planning.

This is all quite difficult for an introvert, by the way.  I find it difficult to facilitate these types of conversations for more than 90 minutes.  It's extremely energy draining because of the focus it requires and the need to be very quick on your feet in analyzing the conversation that is ongoing and acting quickly to manage it. It requires being "in the moment" as much as possible rather than in your own head.  I can analyze a conversation to no end after the fact, but with experience, I've learned to do it much better on the spot.  It's still extremely draining.  I come out of these sessions both hyper and exhausted, as if I had finished a half-marathon.

  • There are 7 general types of conversations highlighted in the book.  Pick one in each category, study it and find an opportunity to APPLY it.  If any useful insights emerge, blog about them.
  • Develop a presentation on group conversations from two perspectives: 1) How to facilitate effectively; 2) How to participate effectively (individual perspective/PKM).
Related Topics/Resources
  • Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, by Michael Marquardt
  • Storytelling - see The Springboard (Book 6 of 30).

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