Three Tips for Having the ‘Right Conversation’

Last year, I was co-facilitating a group dialogue for about two dozen participants. We were nearing completion and I wanted to invite a final comment from each participant. Rather than putting someone on the spot to speak first, I asked for a volunteer and encouraged them to indicate whether we would proceed to their left or their right. Immediately, the two people sitting on either side of me spoke up: “Clockwise.”

I was surprised at the immediacy and clarity of their assertion, but I took it in stride. “Very good. Clockwise it is.”

During a break, after we’d completed that final round of comments, I sought out one of the people who had been sitting next to me to inquire about why it was important to them to proceed clockwise. Her answer?… “We’re in Treaty 6 territory. We go clockwise, because that’s nature’s direction.” She went on to explain that to speak in a counter-clockwise order would disrupt our flow, inviting challenge.

It was a beautiful glimpse into a view of right conversation to which I had previously been blind. Since then, I have always proceeded clockwise. Sometimes I share this story before starting a group dialogue, as I find it helps people consider how they might place the current conversation in the context of time, space, wisdom and the true nature of things.

How we meet is as important as what we discuss

The most common form for conversation in organizational life is the meeting, but far too frequently, they’re viewed as an interruption in the work, rather than as a means to achieving the work. Not surprisingly, ‘meetings, bloody meetings’ is a familiar quip in most organizations!

In an era when truth has become a plaything and when the loudest of voices seem to dominate dialogues and narratives, it’s imperative that we find the right ways to be in conversation. This is as true in our workplaces and homes as it is in the halls of power. So how do we stay in right conversation at work?

Right Design: Purpose, Outcomes, and Process

Here’s one invaluable tool: practice POPping your meetings. I learned this from Robert Gass, the respected host and facilitator of Art of Leadership. POP is a simple, memorable acronym for purpose, outcomes, and process.

It’s easy to jump to the design of a meeting’s agenda without first clarifying why the meeting is happening at all, or what we hope to take away after it’s done. So start by defining the meeting’s purpose: Why are you meeting? Perhaps it’s to make connections among members of a new team. Maybe it’s to develop ideas for the best next steps on a project. Or to address a challenge you’ve encountered. There are myriad things about which we need to meet, but one thing is clear: If you can’t succinctly state the purpose of your meeting, chances are you shouldn’t be using everyone’s time.

Next, ask ‘What do you hope to accomplish?’ If you’re uniting a new team, perhaps it’s to engender a sense of camaraderie and trust, or to define a clear statement of purpose for the project they’ll be working on together. If you’re developing ideas for next steps in an ongoing project, perhaps it’s to achieve consensus on the next month’s work. It’s helpful here to think in terms of SMART goals—outcomes that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound.

Finally, consider how you will meet. If you’re addressing a challenge mid-project, you may need data and tools close at hand, so the selection of space, pre-circulation of materials, and order of presentations are all important to consider as you design the agenda. If you’re connecting people, the process could be more human: Perhaps you’re in a lounge or someone’s living room; maybe you each tell a story about your past work that helped you build the skills you’ll bring to this te

Whatever the size or purpose of the meeting you’re designing, POP it. You’ll radically increase the chances the meeting will be a success.

Right People: Curate Well

More isn’t always merrier.

Steve Jobs famously dismissed people from meetings if he didn’t know why they were there. Their presence might have been a waste of their time and a distraction for everyone else. In her great book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker suggests that “Sometimes we over-include because we don’t want to deal with the consequences of excluding certain people.” However, ‘more’ is not always ‘merrier.’ Says Parker, “By closing the door, you create the room.”

She suggests three simple questions that complement the POP process and that will help you curate well:

  1. Who not only fits but also helps fulfill the gathering’s purpose?
  2. Who threatens the purpose?
  3. Who, despite being irrelevant to the purpose, do you feel obliged to invite?

The first two questions feel easy, don’t they? Invite the helpers; don’t invite those who will threaten your purpose. But how do you deal with question 3? As Junxion would say, ‘Shift Your Thinking.’ Parker agrees: “Shift your perception so that you understand that people who aren’t fulfilling the purpose of your gathering are detracting from it, even if they do nothing to detract from it.” They’ll draw the attention of other attendees that should be focused on the purpose, eroding the value of the meeting and diluting its potential.

So be rigorous and unapologetic in bringing the right people together. You may set yourself up for some courageous conversations if you have to explain why an invitation is not forthcoming, but the meeting will be better for your care and focus.

Right Context: Extend the Time Horizon

Often in business and other places of work, we see meetings as an end in themselves—a destination on our calendars the passing of which can so easily mean a ticked box on some todo list, or the end of a project. Rarely are meetings actually the destination.

What will be the enduring value of your time together?

More often, they’re like a milestone on a road to some destination far more important than a single meeting. So, while it’s important to get the meeting right, it’s also important to stretch time—to think about the meeting in the context of the greater purpose. What’s the prework? What’s the ‘process?’ What’s the follow-on work—the enduring value and impact of the time you’ll spend together?

By extending the time horizon and thinking about the role your meeting will have in its broader context, you’ll identify outcomes that you might have missed, and you’ll design a better conversation.

Of course, meetings are just one form of conversation, but they’re also a tool for progress in our projects, our organizations, and our careers. They’re also in many ways the petri dish of leadership. Meet well, and you’ll do well.


Mike Rowlands is President & CEO of Junxion Strategy. He’s been called “a constructive force in group meetings” and has helped design conversations that have reshaped projects, reconnected teams, and resuscitated inspiration.

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