The leader, very facilitative by nature, welcomes everyone to the conference room. She reminds everyone how this meeting was proposed and that the topic at hand is to understand the “goods” and “bads” of something that has happened in order to learn. She then explains … “What we can talk about is what happened on project X. What we’re not going to talk about is Y and we’re also not going to do is critique the individual who has left the organization that was on project X. This isn’t about Mr. A.”
Quizzical looks, a few tentatively raised hands. She calls on one. “So just to be clear what can we talk about again?”
“In general terms we can talk about X”, was the response.
Another raised hand, “So we can’t talk directly about B then?”
“Well yes if that applies we can talk about B, we just don’t want to bash A”, was the response.
Another raised hand, “So I’m not sure what I’m supposed to talk about now.”
Another comment, “I think we might need to talk about things more broadly than just X”.
This strikes me as familiar. Heck I know I’ve done it, both as a leader and as a group facilitator, trying to be efficient in setting theconversation “boundaries”. Holding onto my plan for what the conversation should and should not be, controlling by stating what it isn’t going to be even though that may be exactly what people wanted to talk about in the first place. They wanted to go there, but I didn’t want it to go there. It’s like I’m saying “Don’t think about pink flamingos” and now I’ve just created a flock of them in the room — they’re everywhere.
And what does this attempt to control create, really? Well in this case it created confusion and a stuttering stop-and-go to the conversation rather than an invitation to walk together. No one could really get moving, instead it felt like people were in the starting gate of a conversation about to begin with the bell never quite ringing to let them loose. A fluid conversation was blocked by an artificial rule.
Why do we attempt to control conversations?
Perhaps we’ve been taught that it is the thing to do. Control is good right? The terms “no rabbit trails” or “no beating a dead horse” come to mind. (What is it with the animal metaphors?) Perhaps we think talk is not work and if we have “that” conversation it isn’t work. Or maybe we think we won’t be “productive” if we don’t have enough “focus” to the meeting.
Perhaps there is something about us in that conversation scares us. Maybe we won’t look smart, maybe we will need to admit we don’t know, maybe we need to admit we could have made a better choice somewhere along the way. Maybe someone will show emotion and we will have to deal with it and we are not equipped to deal with emotion here at work. To borrow from Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) in the movie A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying at work!”
So now I take a moment and ask myself, What is it that I wish to create, together, with those in the room? What do I need to let go of in order for that to emerge? And probably the most difficult — Wouldn’t it be grand to have something completely different emerge that I couldn’t have imagined?
What needs to be different in a learning conversation?
In this particular situation, the stated intent was a to have learning conversation. My experience of learning conversations is that they can become rich and generate energy to go on and go through. That happens most when I let go of the outcome. Instead of controlling, I attend to the turns in the conversation. Instead of me looking for an opening to state a premeditated point, I genuinely respond to what someone has just shared. I remain curious to what is said next and to what is being created between those of us in the conversation. I remain aware of what is happening with me and through me with others. And yes, it can get messy and it won’t be neat and that’s okay.
The conversation did eventually get started. In a way, someone bolted from the gate by sharing how he experienced the recent event and that let the rest loose to join in. The conversation shifted about half way through, to something fluid, generative, less like a race and more like a dance. Perhaps for only a song or two, but it happened. And it will happen more with practice.