Tag: communication

The Attributes and Skills of a Critical Conversation

Improvement No Comments

On my shelves I have a number of books with similar sounding titles;
Difficult conversations
Fierce conversations
Changing conversations

You hear, and can easily find references to, Vital Conversations, Tough Conversations, Crucial conversations.

My take on all?

There are two key – and difficult – skills that are important in any enterprise, be it business, home, hobby, voluntary…

These are the two key attributes in a ‘critical’ conversation, see this.

Firstly, are you able to identify – and agree to discuss – the critical issues. Here structured thinking methods help identify the important topics: analytical tools that can be worked through individually or interactively – question fanning, logic modelling, issue mapping, iceberg deep think etc.

In the first take on ‘critical conversations’ it is essential to get the focus right: Critical, as in focusing on what is the most important topic or issue. Discussion themes that are the IMPORTANT ones to get right. This is about NOT avoiding the tough, challenging issues. NOT getting sidetracked by the minutiae: as in the example of a senior team being diverted by endless discussions of seating plans in a new office location, and not achieving the fundamental purpose of significant change. About NOT ignoring the ‘elephant in the corner’.

Secondly, are you able to engage in a critical debate – where you and others are able to disagree, but in a way where you differ well as you explore differing perspectives (with a stronger relationship at the end, and not – as often happens – a weaker one). Methods here that can help include: the six thinking hats, balancing inquiry with advocacy, starting with appreciation, getting to know each other to develop trust, developing skills in the 3 levels of feedback, working on perspective management. Personal qualities are important too – have you some insight into personal hot (or blind) spots? How do you increase that awareness and develop the ability to delay your hard wired response?

In this sense ‘critical’ involves putting a different (and you probably believe better) perspective forward: this leads to discussions that are HARD or CHALLENGING to get right and that might come over as pretty hard hitting too. Here we need to know how best to explore different opinions: mining conflict (managing diverse views in a way that is productive), disagreeing well (so trust is preserved, or even increased). Being able to challenge others – and being open to it ourselves.

I am going to risk a mechanical metaphor to illustrate this! I believe that the engine of innovation in any institution is curiosity, and the ‘oil’ for the behaviours that turns good ideas into action is how we talk with others. The two skills in ‘crucial conversations’ are at the heart of the motor of improvement.

Critical Conversations are discussions that are both hard to focus and challenging to get right. They ‘cut to the chase’.

In a way they focus on the top right grid in a 2×2 matrix made with the dimensions of importance and challenge – they are important and hard to get right. A difficult place to get to and stay. It is the zone of productive conflict.

However, it is easy to be avoiding by choosing to be focused on the irrelevant and un-stretching topics. However, eventually, I believe this maxim is often a truism (in terms of conversations, if not flight safety!): “what seems safe is risky, and what is risky is safe”.

Important and non challenging topics achieve a chorus of agreement. Get those under your belt and move on. It is easy to dwell here.

The worst place to be is arguing over minutiae – a common ‘defence against the anxiety’ when facing the spectre of the critical conversation.

Finally, remember…

The Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music, when asked to admonish two quarrelling nuns:
“No, they are helping me to think by expressing two points of view”.

And an ancient encouragement from a (translated) latin motto: “The will to succeed – and the grace to compromise”.


‘On-Trend’ is on-trend

Engagement No Comments


Phrases: put it out there, reach out, super, on-trend

Foods et al: from sourdough to the, now, ubiquitous flat white (remember this from 2011) – though some in California are still struggling…the Antipodean approach to beer is pretty big in the UK craft scene too.

Fads at work: Alignment, Momentum, Pecha Kucha, unconference, compassion, stories, conversations  etc. (I hold my hands up).

And do you recall the speed of some fads, for example.

Thoughts on what next?


NPO, TLA and s=fx

Noble Purpose, Teams No Comments



Two TLA  so far in this series. And this is only the second post.

So here is another, sort-of, three letter acronym – and I think the most important.

s = fx

Actually this is a bit of a formula.

It should probably be: s= f(x)

That is, satisfaction is a function of expectation.

I believe that when looked at in a variety of ways (be it a theory, framework or assessment), noble purpose organisations perform much like any other institution or outfit. Neither better or worse. Leadership, team and individual performance is on a spectrum from the stellar to the spectacularly disappointing. Much like other places. From heart-warming and hopeful to a real headache and source of ‘heart sink’ feelings.

I have run many assessments with groups from Noble Purpose Organisations. The pattern of results is similar to those from other sectors and places: for example, in one assessment based on Lencioni’s work there is often an avoidance of conflict and accountability. I have found familiar findings with the idenk wheel assessment I have been using since 2006: the scores with this regularly show meetings are far from productive, whilst poor performance and behaviours are not tackled.

So if NPOs are similar to other types of workplace, what is the problem?

This is where the ‘x’ comes in. s=f(x). Satisfaction is a function of expectation. If we go to a see a film or eat in a restaurant others have raved about, our threshold for disappointment gets lower – we are more easily frustrated and more easily dismayed.

When people enrol with a NPO they expect something better, much better. In joining a charity or part of the public services youngsters fresh into the workforce, or mid-career staff looking for a change, or volunteers looking to be helpful, all expect one thing: that is the organisation is deserving of their commitment; ways of working are worthy of the purpose; there is agreement about what needs to be done and how it should be achieved.

When these features are not there to any greater degree (and possibly co-exist in equal measure with politics, jobsworth-ishness, personal ambition etc), then hearts get broken. Ideals are shattered. Stress increases. Cynicisms spreads. Burnout brews.

The NPO Paradox (see the previous blog) is encountered.

So, what can we do about it?

I argue a first step is to acknowledge this problem: that we are expecting so much of our peers and places of work. Only then is it possible to do something about it. And that something might lead to expectations being surpassed, in quite dazzling ways.

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3 of the best?

Feedback No Comments

After the October facilitation series of blogs (please let me know if you would like the compilation), I have been tweeting a bit more recently.

These are three very recent ones…

A tweet about a blog!

Hi-foresight with BT

A fascinating talk from a Cambridge college, that links to noble vrs financial purpose:

What do you reckon?


Engaging with the shadows

Facillitation No Comments

When planning a survey or a meeting, I tend to find starting positively works the best. Asking “what is going well, what gives you hope, what should we build on” frames the day in a way that is both pro-active and focused on possibility. The spirit of appreciative inquiry, positive deviance and solutions based therapy lives in our work.

But I also engage with difficultly and problems and pathology too – see the yin yang on page 7 of this older article of ours.

Oliver Burkeman describes the power of negative thinking in The Antidote. Whilst I think he over argues his case (more on that another time), I like the general principle that negative ideas, feelings and outcomes might be ok in our personal lives.  And generally I believe that there is some wisdom in resistance, correction through opposition and that conflict is good. I am with Lencioni in being ok to talk about ‘problems’, not just ‘challenges’; dysfunctions, not just strengths.

A key application of all this for a facilitator is the trying to strike a good balance in designing a conversation – so the focus isn’t just on the potential but also the difficultly too, and vice versa.

A key skill for any group facilitator, is judging when a ‘negative’ response is productive and when it is likely to derail. In helping make this judgement it is worth thinking through the possible sources of the negativity. And here the psychodynamic literature on group dynamics is especially helpful.

Do you think that what someone said was a helpful correction – or motivated from something not related to the stated comment? Was it from something going on under the surface?

Two key concepts come up time and time again from this school of thought – power and anxiety. These lenses are regularly used to explain and help understand what goes on in groups, from jealous attacks to scapegoating by others; from feeling dumb to believing you are on a creative roll individually.

There are lots of ideas to investigate and some are a bit complicated, but they are worth persevering with and drawing on. However, remember this health warning when ‘diagnosing’ a group behaviour: First we can never really know what is going on – we can merely hypothesise. Secondly, what we notice happening might be just what it seems to be, and not some mysterious embedded current. For example, you might be criticised because you are not doing a very good job and not because someone doesn’t like the colour of your shoes! In the (misattributed) words of the father of group dynamics “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.

In a nutshell, projection can lead to being dumped on, blamed…and you risk projective identification if you take it in and take that persona on.

Transference is where you remind someone of another person (good or bad), with the associated risk of countertransference, when you take it heart. This can work both ways – you can also be told you were brilliant, when really it was the memory of someone else that was.

So the key insight is that when stuff happens (good or bad), it isn’t always about you.  However, it can be hard to put on a protective shield from the flattering or threatening dynamics of a group.

Large groups can be especially tricky for a facilitator and bring out the worst in participants due to feelings of abandonment plus anxiety about significance, trust or control. This can lead to a powerful flight or fright response (down to leaving early, tricky questioning and passive aggressive responses from people who seem fine one minute and not the next.

I have an interesting article from the Huffington Post critical of the dynamics of a famous self-improvement course if you are interested…let me know.

How can you cope in large groups specifically?
a. Be human – the ‘blanker’ you are the more likely you are to receive projection. Actually, in group relations training it is common for the consultants to choose to be inscrutable to provoke this! So, being ‘professional’ might increase the risk of a hard time. Quirky authenticity might not be a bad thing.
b. Look calm – do not seem anxious, don’t stoke the feelings others will certainly have. Your tone of voice, facial expressions and way you walk even really do matter. Try to turn up calm, even before you are on stage. Don’t start your (and the venue staff) off on a bad footing by letting it out on them. I have, and really try hard to contain my anxiety now!
c. Avoid recommending some of the common ‘defences against anxiety’ such as working groups to delay a difficult conversation – think how you can seize the initiative and get stuck in. Even in large groups methods, such as fishbowls or careful plenary questioning, can be very powerful. Try to avoid nurturing a dependence on you – dependence is a form of collusion based on low responsibility, and one that might feel comfortable to you and them.
d. Working in a facilitation pair is powerful, and limits any projection to one of the pair usually, which leaves at least one of the two free to carry on working (though that isn’t much fun for the person who is scapegoated, and that needs careful debriefing, see below). A shadow consultant role (where one facilitator doesn’t do much up front) is another option. Think how you prepare in a new pair with this checklist.
e. Finally, there are some top notch methods and ideas for agendas  in large meetings.

Other ways to prepare so you increase your insight and options for informed, resilience action include:
a. A key step is to acknowledge and try to reduce any group anxiety – maybe even by naming it.
b. Be aware of the possible power battles that may occur with you or others – maybe ‘irrational’ ones (eg transference, as you remind them of someone else).
c. Read around the topic such as this paper I commissioned in a role I did a few years back and this from a good book. There is lots online about large group dynamics too.
d. Do a course – there are lots, and I am happy to advise.
e. At the meeting, if things are tough, imagine you are in a glass chamber where the dynamics can’t reach you, but you and the group can see and hear everything.
f. Practice thinking under the surface, with various iceberg (and onion!) reflection techniques! Get into the discipline of thinking what might be going on that you can’t see – or that others won’t discuss (the proverbial ‘elephant’)
g. Rehearse Heron based tactics – what options do you see, for example .
h. Get into the best shape for the day – intellectually, emotionally, physically – taking care of your energy.
i. Use techniques that promote engagement and responsibility – open space methods for self-suggested sessions for example.
j. Never work with a group that has had a drink!
k. Maybe think of ground rules that are authentic to you and helpful to the group – eg “I have designed today to appeal to as many as possible, if things are not right for you at a particular moment try a bit of discomfort for a while, but tell me if you are close to panic”, “no side conversation please unless you are helping a non-English speaker” and “we are working to be balanced – between structure and freedom, chaos and control, big and detailed picture thinking, logic and emotion, positive and negative reactions – please say if that balance isn’t working for you”.  You can then use SPOG (see two blogs ago) to guide your response to any challenges
l. Maybe try to be a bit playful – really! Play involves transitional objects, or toys. Children play to handle their anxieties, as adults humour, games, getting outside, being kinaesthetic can help too!
m. Journal your thoughts and feelings before, in breaks and after meetings. Try meditation too.
n. Undertake supervision as well – with an expert coach.

So, don’t fear the dark side – and as with de Bonos six thinking hats, the black hat can be the most useful.

It is all about balance. Try positivity first, but be prepared…

When you feel dumped on – think, what might be going on here?

May the force be with you!  Do work to bring your hope and light and wisdom to bear.

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My Moderation Checklist

Facillitation, Meetings No Comments

I was speaking with a friend and client earlier. We were chatting through our respective approaches to moderation.

After some syntactical knowledge exchange we came up with the checklist – which regular readers know will have made me very happy.

If you are booked to ‘moderate’ are you clear what you being asked to do?  Do they want you to facilitate, for example, see this tweet – the big difference being how far you suggest the agenda and lead pre-work such as surveys and speaker coaching…and maybe the propensity to split a large group into smaller conversations too.

And are you clear what sort of moderator the client is expecting – a sage, joker or host? And can you do what they are asking – best to say no at the start than be found out as not very funny or wise!

1) Prepare well
– Do you know how the speakers have been briefed (what have they been asked to do, for how long, is there breathing space between them for you to use for a comment, humorous aside, summary etc?). The bigger and more formal the meeting the more important it is for all speakers to have been rehearsed…by the event company probably, though you might want to get involved too, which can cause tensions with others who don’t see the importance of this (both speakers and conference organisers).
– What is your pre event routine…depending where you are on our reactions assessment, things like making sure you sleep well or do not arrive with a coffee OD after a party the night before, really matter. Personally I like to try and get 8 hours sleep, go for a run, do a short meditation and visualise the day – all before getting on site 2 hours before it is due to kick off.  You can see I try to get to bed early the night before!
– Know your contingencies – for example if the day is flat or you go over time…use a buzz group or shorten a Q&A.

2) Know how you will set the tone for the whole meeting.
– First things are fateful and what you say and do in the first 10 minutes really, really matters. If you run through housekeeping and just introduce the first speaker the die is cast, the day is lost – the meeting is almost certain to be passive and dull unless you are lucky to have totally brilliant speakers.
– As an expert moderator you might want to include your SCQ early on. In our Brilliant Thinking Made Easy course Ross shares the Minto Pyramid. This starts with Situation, Complication and Question. You might wish to outline what you’re hoping to discover as you listen to the days proceedings – you can then keep referring back to what is emerging for you and keep asking the group about it too.
– As a performer you might want to tell some jokes – and even other types of moderator might want to find some smirkful segue
– As a community builder finding out a few things with a show of hands can make a huge difference even when you don’t have time for any sort of small group discussion that would meet the facilitation principle of “all use their own voices in the first 10 minutes”. For example, my ‘human pie chart process’ asks who has travelled the furthest, what first languages are spoken, who knows less than 10 people and who over half, what job roles and organisation types are represented etc.

3) Keep track
– Keep an eye on time – are you on schedule for breaks, key time points?  Do you know where you have flexibility to catch up? (eg Q&A sessions, long breaks etc)
– Do track speakers as they work through any slides – reminding a speaker who looks like they are going very slow at around half way through their allotted time.
– Do notice and use in real time what is happening in social media about the event, for example hashtag comments on Twitter. These sort of illustrations make great segue!

4) Managing conversations
– Are you a fan of Buzz groups – these can work even in large events. But in the wrong hands (or at the wrong event) are a bit naff.
– What about setting a question for the group to take to coffee – and asking for a few responses to it later?
– And what about asking people to hand in questions, comments to you on paper (a sort of conversation with you!) – you can read out some on arrival. You can even get them to try and throw them in as paper planes for a prize if you are feeling playful.
– I am not a fan of stacking Q&A to the end of a whole morning or afternoon…I sometimes suggest what I call the “seminar sandwich” – with Q&A or table work etc every two speakers….
– The degree of ambient light in the room (natural or artificial matters)…the more light the more you are signalling interaction and less a show. Sometimes those working on the AV side of an event don’t get it when you ask for more house lights. Some clients like the theatrical darkness too. By the way, so do I for some things (eg a selection of photos with music before a start, a video after a break etc).

5) Knowing how to manage panel discussions
– This is the hardest thing for most moderators – especially after lunch! However a lively and interesting panel can be THE event highlight.
– Be clear how far this is a broadcast show or really a chance to engage the audience. Panel discussions are more of a “sell and tell” event format, less of an “engage and shape” one – so if you don’t think it is relevant say so and find other uses for the time (NB though, a ‘pure’ moderator doesn’t challenge the client agenda and ‘merely’ seeks to bring it to life).
– I recommend choosing a TV or Radio interviewer (news anchor, chat show host etc) you admire and who you think has a relevant style, and try to imagine what they would do – tone of voice, sort of interactions, how they play guests off each other. Give it a go.
– Do you want to play it nude or natty! Do you want to dive straight into the discussion or start with some witty CV summaries…”And in her last/on twitter job Lisa said…” to kick it off.
– Try to avoid pre prepared reflections to start from each panel member. At the most you might allow some quick, spontaneous comments from each member of what they have learnt if the panel is about the day – or what they are wanting to discover/explore if the panel is a new topic.
– How will you engage others in the audience – will you leave the stage and bound around with a mike, or use runners?

6) Capturing the event
– how far are your comments part of the record?
– who is capturing the meeting and how – video, cartoon, narrative record (idenk style for example) etc.

Once again, be authentic. However, as a rule of thumb, plan to take 1 or 2 risks a day, things that are out of character: what seems safe is often the most risky thing to do, for a dull day is lethal…it won’t be neutral. It will be good – or bad. Try to bet on good.

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Graduation speeches…so what?

Improvement, Personal productivity No Comments

I enjoyed this talk by Tim Minchin earlier this week.

It reminded me of this aspirational graduation speech by Don Berwick last year to a bunch of medics in the US.

And this one by JK Rowling a few years ago, on the benefits of failure.

At one of my daughters graduation ceremonies last year David Downton summed up many of these sentiments quite pithily – arguing for the use of the Andy Warhol mantra of “So what” when things don’t go right.

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Preparing…the text…the sequel

Improvement No Comments

Further to our last blog…

In both surveys and invite letters we are keen to ensure the language is clear. Do you know the fog index? We find that helpful as a formulae and set of principles. We always like to pilot survey questions to check the meaning we have in asking questions is understood by others. The more international or diverse the group the more important simple text and checking it out becomes.

And also how friendly is your language too? How informal are the words you use? This links to the idea of chatty brands …though there is a balance between naff and natural… endearing and downright irritating.

Happy experimenting – and editing!


A brand is…

Measurement, Personal productivity No Comments

A brand is (at its core)…a promise. What is it you or your product commit to doing for, or adding to, someone’s life?

We like this actual stated ‘promise’ on the contact card for our local noodle bar:

“ to serve great tasting noodles, in generous portions, using high quality ingredients and outstandingly fresh produce, giving our customers outstanding value for money each and every time.”

And like the way the manager responds to even critical reviews…all part of the promise…

Makes me want to go back soon.

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New news?

Improvement No Comments

Whilst the repeated themes in the news may seem remarkably familiar (and downbeat), there are a couple of new things going on down-under:

1) The Guardian newspaper has started an Australian edition – some commentary on that move here.

2) And this piece is from one of the first editions, and demonstrates a powerful way of telling the news online.

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