Open Space Conversations

The Idea: Some suggestions for making conversations more graceful, polite and productive, drawing on Open Space protocols.

Over the past week, I’ve spent at least twenty hours in conversations, and had lots of opportunity to practice what I preached in my recent article on Better Conversation. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m coming along very slowly. Move me from written language, which can be composed carefully, and where no one needs to see your horrific first drafts, to oral language, where you can’t take anything back, and where every silence hangs like an accusation of inarticulateness, and I’m way out of my element. I’m really struck at how apt the ‘dance’ analogy is:

  • Practice it badly and you get worse, not better, just entrenching bad habits you will have to unlearn.
  • It takes two to tango — if one person is inept, the collective product will be inept, no matter how competent the other partner.
  • It takes a lot of conscious, skillful practice to be competent at it.
  • Much depends on the quality of the tacit signals and permissions granted between the partners, and on their passion for the material they’re working with.
  • Some people are inherently more coordinated and capable at it, but even if it isn’t a natural talent you can still become very good at it.
  • Studying books, tapes and video, or doing any work on it alone, is not nearly as productive as practicing diligently with someone who’s better at it than you are.

Since most of my conversations are on Skype, I’ve posted some practice reminders on my laptop, to work on during conversations:

  • Don’t try to formulate what you’re going to say instead of paying attention to the other participants in the conversation (why is there no noun in English for ‘participants in a conversation’?) — you’ll lose the thread and miss too much. Instead, formulate what you’re going to say as you say it (yikes, this is scary, it requires you to learn the humbling skill of listening to yourself).
  • Don’t interrupt — if necessary ask for the floor.
  • Don’t anticipate (complete others’ sentences) or prejudge (keep an open mind).
  • Invite others to speak.
  • Talk less, listen more.
  • If you don’t understand, say so.
  • Be respectful — lots of thanks, apologies whenever appropriate, don’t criticize or gossip about those not present.
  • If you don’t have passion about a topic, don’t waste everyone’s time talking about it.

This last one is tough — what if there’s something else you want to talk about (or worse, nothing else you want to talk to this person about. How do you gracefully change the topic or end a conversation?

This got me thinking about Open Space, and the protocols for that process, which is substantially a process for conversation. Could these protocols be applied to informal conversations (and even to various types of meetings)? Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Invitations Matter: The crafting of the invitation is critical — a personal, engaging, optional invitation — with the time, place, medium, duration, and theme/topic stated. What shouldn’t we invest that kind of energy into every conversation, to get the most from it? And a theme/topic is different from an objective — conversations are all about learning, exploration, discovery, not about getting things done (there are usually better ways to ‘achieve objectives’ than conversations). If the objective isn’t obvious, it’s presumptuous to set one objective for all participants, so whether it’s obvious or not, there’s no need to state it in the invitation.
  2. Impromptu Invitations: If the conversation is impromptu (e.g. meeting someone new at a cocktail party), you still need to craft an invitation — but it’s much tougher and takes good improv skills and courage: “Our host tells me you’ve written a book about X; would you be interested in talking with me for a few minutes about the message of the book and hearing some of my ideas on the subject?” If the answer is ‘no’, wouldn’t you rather hear that up front instead of fumbling around with small talk before it becomes obvious?
  3. The Acceptance Commitment: The acceptance of the invitation is also critical — it imposes a commitment on you to be there on time, end on time, give the conversation your undivided attention and stick to the topic you were invited to talk about. “Yes, I’d be delighted to dance.”
  4. The Opening: Open Space allows time at the beginning for participants to toss out what topics they want (and don’t want) to explore, and in what order. There’s no reason not to do this at the start of any conversation. It may sound a bit formal, but it could save a lot of wasted time, and avoid getting you into conversations and topics you’re not interested in.
  5. When Not to Have a Conversation: A conversation is more than just the exchange of information and opinions — if that’s all you’re having a conversation about, you might want to consider whether there are more effective and economical ways to convey information and opinions (probably asynchronously) than with a conversation (or a meeting!)
  6. The Law of Two Feet says “If during the course of any gathering, persons find themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet and go to some more productive space.” This is hard enough in a large Open Space gathering, but how do you do it in a two-person conversation, especially if you realize you shouldn’t have accepted the invitation in the first place? The Law says it is personally irresponsible to just hang in there. If it was your misunderstanding that led to the situation, you owe it to both of you to ‘fess up, apologize and end the conversation. In any other situation it’s irresponsible to pretend to be engaged in a conversation when you’re not, and to let the other person drone on. Use discretion whether to be blunt or tactful (each is sometimes appropriate) in announcing your departure, but do it.
  7. Taking Notes: Open Space conversations are generally recorded or at least someone is taking notes. In conversations I like the idea of having one participant draw a MindMap of the conversation so that every participant can see it (either display it on a large screen using a projector, or for virtual conversations use a white-boarding tool) as it evolves, and so that misunderstandings can be corrected and omissions captured in real time. It’s a great way to add clarity and discipline to a conversation, and free mindmapping and whiteboarding tools are available. I’ve even used legal-size paper and pencil to ‘document’ two-person conversations when I’m sitting side by side with them.
  8. When It’s Over, It’s Over: I’m ambivalent about conversation ‘recaps’. If you’ve used a mindmap or equivalent, there’s no need to restate what’s been said and agreed to at the end of the conversation. I’m really excited about the trust the individual to act principle of Open Space, an extension of the personal responsibility principle. If you really need to recap “next steps” it suggests people weren’t really paying attention, in which case the cited next steps are unlikely to get done anyway. And deciding on the timing of the “next conversation/meeting” also seems presumptuous to me. If more needs to be done, someone who cares enough about it should craft a new invitation. So I prefer conversations and meetings that end (on time) spontaneously when the participants agree that it’s over. Then it ends with thanks and expressions of delight, not with allotment of “who’s going to do what by when” duties.

I have several more conversations slated for the next few days. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go write some invitations.

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8 Responses to Open Space Conversations

  1. Amy Gahran says:

    Excellent article, Dave. Over in my weblog, CONTENTIOUS, I’ve been exploring how it seems like too many conversations take on an argumentative form and tone. This can be tedious, intimidating, or alienating to many people (especially many women). See: theme was also the topic of sociolinguist Deborah Tannen’s excellent book “The Argument Culture.” I’m trying to find effective, simple techniques for countering attempts to turn a discussion into an adversarial argument. I’m not too successful so far — the argument culture is so ingrained in Western Society (especially in business circles) that a lot of people seem to think that’s the only or best way to explore an issue. It’s hard to have any other kind of discussion with them.Do you have any advice or thoughts on this?- Amy Gahran Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  2. Andrew McGregor says:

    There is an English word for “participants in a conversation”: Conversants.

  3. David Parkinson says:

    Or “interlocutors”.

  4. Amy…David Bohm points out that the root of the word “discussion” is shared with “concussion” and “percussion” It’s the banging, clashin part.By contrast “conversation” means “to turn to one another…” a much subtler art.Great comment and a great post Dave. I love how you are finding Open Space and the practice of conversation. Next stop: hosting!

  5. “why is there no noun in English for ‘participants in a conversation’?”You’re right. I thought maybe “conversants” would work, but it’s listed in the dictionary I checked only as an adjective. Still, I think I would adopt it for this use.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    My, such an erudite group. Conversant as an adopted noun would be ambiguous — it could refer to someone who’d converted rather than someone in a conversation. Interlocutor sounds like a participant in S&M activity, and even though it’s denotatively correct, it carries a connotation of ‘middleman in the conversation’ (and hardly anyone can pronounce it). And ‘conversation’ also shares etymology with ‘conversion’ (not so subtle). Chris: Thanks for the link — gulp, not sure I’m ready for that yet ;-)Amy: I think this ties into my observation that we tend to make up our mind about new subjects quite quickly and easily, and then cling to our views belligerently from that time on. Perhaps the answer is to only allow ‘conversants’ who don’t yet know what they’re talking about…

  7. padawan says:

    “Interlocutor sounds like a participant in S&M activity, and even though it’s denotatively correct, it carries a connotation of ‘middleman in the conversation’ (and hardly anyone can pronounce it).”Interlocutor comes from the latin interloqui: to interrupt. Locutor comes from loqui: to talk (think of eloquence).Funny cultural differences: interlocuteur in French is exactly the word you’re looking for and carries none of the connotations you mention. But I like your comparison with S&M and the fact it’s hard to pronounce (for an English speaker ;-)).

  8. Jon Husband says:

    Dave, for what it’s worth I think that you are intermittently *hostful* as the author and moderator of this blog, more so than you are in 3D life and in verbal dialogue. Have remarked this since the first time I met you …

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