If you want to make a tasty soup, you don’t throw your ingredients onto the stove and hope they somehow transform themselves into a soup.
Instead, you choose the right container that will hold all of the ingredients and allow room for the soup to boil without bubbling over onto the stove. Then you begin to add the ingredients in the right order. First you might fry onions and garlic to bring out their best flavour. Then you add the right amount of soup stock. And finally the vegetables and/or meat are added according to how long each ingredient takes to cook. If you want to make a creamy or cheesy soup, you add the dairy only after everything else has cooked and the soup is no longer at a full boil.
Through this intentional and careful act of creation, you allow the flavours to blend and layer into a meal that has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The same is true for a meaningful conversation.
If you want to gather people to talk about something important, you don’t simply throw them together and hope what shows up is good and meaningful. Sure, sometimes serendipity happens and a magical conversation unfolds in the most unexpected and unplanned places, but more often than not, it requires some intention to take the conversation to a deeper, more meaningful level.
Take, for example, the recent community conversation on race relations that Rosanna Deerchild initiated and I facilitated. If we had simply invited people into a common space for a meal without giving some thought to how the conversation would flow, people would have stayed at the tables where their friends or family had gathered, conversations would have stayed at a fairly shallow level, and we wouldn’t have gotten very far in imagining a city free of racism. Instead, we moved people around the room, mixed them with people they’d never spoken with before, and then asked a series of questions that encouraged storytelling and the generation of ideas. Through a process called World Cafe, we arranged it so that everyone in the room would end up in small, intimate conversations with three different groups of people. We followed that up with a closing circle. (Stay tuned for more idea-generating conversations such as this one in the future.)
Especially when the subject matter is as challenging as race relations, the quality of the conversation is only as good as the container that holds it.
If you try to cook soup in a plastic bowl, you’ll end up with a melted bowl and a mess all over your kitchen. Similarly, if you try to have a heated conversation in a container not designed for that purpose, you run the risk of doing more harm than good.
The same is true for our Thursday evening women’s circle. We could have a perfectly lovely time gathering informally to talk about our families, our jobs, and our latest shopping trips, but if we want to have the kind of intimate, open-hearted conversations we always have, we have to create the right container that can hold that level of depth. In this case, the container is the circle, where we pass a talking piece and listen deeply to each person’s stories without interrupting or redirecting the conversation.
Recently, a few people have asked whether the principles that I teach (that emerge out of The Circle Way and The Art of Hosting) might be transferable to other, less formal conversations. What if I have to have a difficult conversation with my parents or siblings, for example? Or with my co-workers? Or my kids? What can I do to make sure everyone is heard in an environment where I’m certain they’d all laugh at the idea of a talking piece?
In many of our day-to-day conversations, it may not be practical or even desirable to set the chairs in a circle or bring in a facilitator to help you navigate difficult terrain. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be intentional about creating the right container for your conversations.
Here are some tips for creating containers for meaningful everyday conversations:
1. Consider the way the physical environment fits the conversation. If you want to have a potentially contentious conversation with your staff, for example, you might find that a meeting space away from your office provides a more neutral environment. If you want to talk to a friend about something that will invite vulnerability and deep emotion, you might not want to do it in a coffee shop where you run the risk of overexposure. Or if you need to talk to your parents about their declining health, it’s probably best to do that in an environment that feels safe for them.
2. Find ways to make the physical environment more conducive for intimate and intentional conversation. If you wish to invoke the essence of circle, for example, you could place a candle on the table between you. Or move the table out of the way entirely to remove the boundaries. If you want to invite creative thinking into the room, set out blank paper and coloured markers for doodling. (This would be a great way of planning your vacation with your family, for example.) Consider how the space can help you create conditions for success. Even if you are meeting online, you can still evoke safe physical space by inviting participants to imagine the common elements they would place in a room if they were all together.
3. Host yourself first. If you know that a conversation will be difficult for you and/or anyone else involved, be intentional about preparing for it well. Take some time for self-care and personal reflection. Go for a walk, write in your journal, meditate, or have a hot bath. You’ll be much more prepared to bring your best to a conversation if you enter it feeling relaxed and strong. If you plan to ask some hard questions in the conversation that might trigger others in the room, ask yourself those questions first and write whatever comes up for you in your journal. Don’t ask of anyone else what you’re not prepared to first ask of yourself.
4. Ask generative questions. Questions have the power to shut down the conversation if they come across as judgmental or closed-minded, or they have the power to help people dive more deeply into their stories and imagine a new reality together. Consider how your questions make the people you’re in conversation with feel heard and respected, and consider how a question might invite everyone present to generate fresh perspectives and deeper relationships.
5. Model vulnerability and authenticity. In order to engage in deep and meaningful relationships, participants need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic. If you want to invite others into that space of openness and vulnerability, you need to be prepared to go there yourself. Consider starting the conversation with a personal story that will invite similar storytelling from others. Storytelling opens hearts and brings down defenses, and that’s the place where meaningful conversation thrives.
6. Listen well. People are much more inclined to engage when they feel that they are seen and heard and not judged or marginalized. Practice deep listening. As Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer teach in Leading from the Emerging Future, we need to move beyond level 1 (downloading) and level 2 (factual) listening to level 3 (empathic) and level 4 (generative) listening. Empathic listening is about being willing to enter into someone else’s story and be impacted and changed by it. Generative listening is about being fully present in your listening in a way that can generate something new and fresh out of that shared space. If you model effective listening, it will be much easier for others to follow your example. Even if you don’t use a talking piece, imagine that the person you’re listening to is holding a talking piece and give them undivided attention. When they are fully heard, they will be more likely to do the same for you.
7. Guard the space and time carefully. When we gather in The Circle Way, one person serves as the guardian, paying attention to the energy of the room and bringing the conversation back to intention when it wanders off. This person takes responsibility for ensuring that the space is protected, not allowing interruptions or distractions. When you are in a conversation that is important to you, consider how you can guard the space. Eliminate distractions like cell phones or other electronics. Consider what needs attention in order to make everyone feel safe and protected. When vulnerability is called for, for example, take care to create an environment where nobody is allowed to interrupt the storytelling.
8. Co-create future possibilities. If you enter a conversation convinced that you know how it’s supposed to turn out, you will limit what can happen in that conversation. Those you’ve invited into the conversation will sense that their participation is not fully valued and will shut down and not offer their best. Instead, enter a conversation with an open heart, an open mind, and an open will and be prepared to emerge with a new possibility you’ve never considered before. Allow the stories and ideas generated in the conversation to change the future and to change you.
When you begin to pay more attention to the container in which you hold your conversations, you’ll be surprised at how much more depth and meaning will emerge. Sometimes, this will mean difficult things will surface and it won’t always be comfortable, but with the right care and attention, even the difficult things will help you move in a positive direction.
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