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Over the years, I found that many words, laden with connotative meanings, are often used without any effort to clarity whether we are defining the concepts in the same way. Diversity work especially creates these definitional misses when such terms as race, gender, privilege, and other highly connotative words are brought into the conversation.
The process involves looking at the topic through four definitional dimensions or lens: (1) descriptive, (2) reflective, (3) Interpretational, and (4) decisional. In having a conversation, a focused conversation, we examine the various aspects of the topic that ensures we are talking about the same subject and that we will come to some sense of direction.
I find it useful during the start-up conversation with new clients, where I make sure we are on the same page, with teams to ensure each member is on the same page, and groups in conflict as a means to unravel the misunderstanding and opposing views.
At the end of this article is an example of how I structured a focused conversation on conflict.
I hope you enjoy focused conversations.
Focused conversation assumes that we find the reality of life in the palpable, observable, sensory world (descriptive). We discover it is empirical experience. It assumes that authentic feelings and emotions derive from the direct experiences we encounter. This internal data from feelings, emotions, and associations is just as real as the externally observable data, and must be seriously considered in our decision-making (reflective). Focused conversation assumes that meaning is not something that is found in some mountain top experience or esoteric text. Rather, meaning is something that is created out of the mundane encounters in the midst of life. Meaning is something that we have to constantly work at, through processing the life we have (interpretive). It assumes that processing insight about life involves projecting that insight out into the future. If we do not decide future implications for action, our reflection is stuck on viewing internal responses, which never connect back to the world (decisional).
|The Descriptive/Objective Level|
|Focus of the questions||Data, the facts about the topic, external reality, directly observable events.|
|What it does for the group||Ensures that everyone deals with the same body of data and all the aspects.|
|Questions are in relation to||The senses: what is seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted, etc.|
|Key Questions||What objects do you see? What words or phrases stand out? What happened? What is?|
|Traps and pitfalls||Asking closed questions, or questions not specific enough; no clear focus, Ignoring objective questions because they are "too trivial".|
|If this level is omitted||There will be no shared image of what the group is discussing. The various comments will seem unrelated.|
Once the facts have been established and agreed upon, the impact of those facts is surfaced. Questions concerning feelings, emotions, moods, memories, or associations are brought forth to fatten the picture of "what is" for each member of the group. The "what is" reveals the internal data that can lead to creative thinking, intuition, and insight. Moreover, until the internal data is surfaced and owned, individually and severally, the group will be distracted from the task at hand and/or will not be able to develop as clear or in-depth of a decision.
|The Reflective Level|
|Focus of the questions||Internal relationship to the data. How does this information/situation impact me.|
|What it does for the group||Reveals the initial responses and reactions to the issue, situation, discussion.|
|Questions are in relation to||Feelings, moods, emotional tones, memories or associations that have been triggered.|
|Key Questions||What does it remind you of? How does it make you feel? Where were you surprised? Where were you delighted" Where did you struggle?|
|Traps and pitfalls||Limiting the discussion to an either/or survey of likes and dislikes.|
|If this level is omitted||Intuition, memory, emotion, and imagination are ignored.|
The interpretive questions seek to deepen the level of awareness and/or understanding of the task, issue, concern, developments, and/or situation at hand. The interpretive questions build on the prior levels of questions to surface the layers of meaning and purpose that the individuals and group associate with different situations and responses. Typically, questions often include the word "why" as the focus is on the story of what is happening.
|The Interpretive Level|
|Focus of the questions||The life meaning of the topic.|
|What it does for the group||Draws out the significance of/from the data for the group.|
|Questions are in relation to||Layers of meaning, purpose, significance, implications, "story" and values. Considering alternatives, options.|
|Key Questions||What is happening here? What is this all about? What does all this mean for us? How will this affect our work? What are we learning from this? What is the insight?|
|Traps and pitfalls||Abusing the data by inserting pre-cooked meaning, intellectualizing, abstracting, judging responses as right or wrong instead of "what is".|
|If this level is omitted||The group gets no chance to make sense out of the descriptive and reflective levels. No higher order thinking goes into decision-making.|
The decisional level of question moves the discussion towards the implications, next steps, new directions, and possible actions that exist. Individually and as a group, conscious choices begin to surface. For each person and as a group, decisions are made about what needs to be done today and tomorrow. The focus is to create a new "what is" for the group as shared by each individual.
|The Decisional Level|
|Focus of the questions||Resolution, implications, new directions.|
|What it does for the group||Makes the conversation relevant for the future.|
|Questions are in relation to||Consensus, implementation, action.|
|Key Questions||What is our next step or direct response? What decision is required? What action is needed?|
|Traps and pitfalls||Forcing a decision when the group is not ready or avoiding pushing the group for decision.|
|If this level is omitted||The descriptive, reflective, and interpretive responses are not applied or tested in real life.|
There are some critical preparatory steps prior to the actual focused conversation. Each of these will support the facilitator so that the actual conversation accomplishes what was intended.
A brief description of the reason or basis for holding the focused conversation helps to narrow and clarify why the conversation needs to occur. Hence, the subject matter and the group coming together to engage in the focused conversation needs to be acknowledged. This acknowledgment includes a description of what is the subject and how it applies to this group of people.
The rational objective is the focused intent of the meeting, which is generally presented as a practical goal for the conversation. The rational objective provides a center from which the conversation can evolve. It is the focus to keep the group from becoming too vague and off-topic.
The experiential aim refers to the intended impact of the conversation. If the conversation is focused on rumors, then the experiential aim could be to surface rumors and to learn how to more directly get "straight answers".
Hints are reminders of things to watch for and/or to avoid. These are simply notes that can support the facilitator.
As the focused conversation is developed, it may become clear that the process could be applied to other situations. Making notes of these insights can save time and energy in the future.
Concrete Beginning Point
The initial set of questions will set the tone for the rest of the focused conversation. The first question should not jump ahead to the desired result. Rather, it should be focused on surfacing the directly observable facts that led to the perceived desired result.
After moving through the preparatory steps, it is time to use this focused energy on developing the four levels of questions. The simplest process is to brainstorn questions for each level. Once a list has been created, sorting, reordering and deleting can result in a complete list. Be parsimonious.
Opening comments serve to set the frame of reference for the meeting. It is helpful to invite the attendees to participate in the conversation. The focus or intent of the conversation should be shared so that everyone is on the same page. If the group agreed to hold the discussion at some prior time, then this should be stated. If there is a compelling reason to hold the meeting now, then this reason should be shared with the group. Finally, a statement should be made to forestall objections to holding the meeting, such as acknowledging everyone's busy schedule.
Similar to the opening process, some sense of closure needs to be prepared for the group. A brief recapitulation of what happened along with a statement from each person reflecting what each of them is "taking home" from this meeting is very effective.
After the group as left, it is helpful for the facilitator to reflect on the conversation, the group, and yourself. A few moments of reflection on these subjects enables the facilitator to acknowledge the experience, to surface any insights, and to bring personal closure to the entire process.
Source: R. Brian Stanfield, The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace. (2000) Gabriola Island, B.B. Canada: New Society Publishers. 22-29; 38-48.
|Descriptive||What is Conflict?
What does Conflict mean?
|Reflective||What is it like to have Conflict?
How is Conflict exercised in this organization?
|Integrative||How has having Conflict been beneficial/ pleasurable for you?
How has having Conflict been detrimental/ difficult for you?
|Decisional||What name or title would you put on your experience of Conflict?
What advice would you give yourself about conflict?
What do you want to do differently for yourself around conflict?
|Closing||What are you taking home from the exercise?|
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