Structuring Transformative Conversations
(An excerpt from my new book, What Matters at Work)
Over many years, Peter Block has offered us numerous tools, stories, and pathways to discover What Matters at Work. Among his books is one especially useful at this juncture in our learning: Community: The Structure of Belonging (2009, revised 2018) offers personal insights from Block’s experiences in Cincinnati, as well as a conceptual model that helps us understand crucial distinctions in approaches to groups and community-building. Earlier, we quoted Block’s ideas regarding the role of physical space in building community (Lesson 11). For now, I offer the “Six Conversations” that Block identifies for groups to explore if they seek meaningful change in their organizations or communities:
Invitation: This is the First Conversation. Invitation is required to capture potential participants’ attention in the midst of busy, distracted lives, the “subject line” that engages our interest. It is the foundation of hospitality from which other conversations are possible.
Possibility: This is an aspirational conversation, one that challenges us to engage our imaginations to contemplate the unreachable. For example, “If we were to build an organization that fully expresses our values, what would that look like, sound like, feel like?”
Ownership: This is a conversation about personal accountability and “skin in the game.” “What are you prepared to contribute in order to fulfill our Possibility?”
Dissent: Building community requires more than being nice with one another. It involves speaking truthfully and hearing honest areas of difference and dissent. This conversation embraces dissent as an essential stepping stone in that process. “What are areas of concern and disagreement? What might be alternative approaches that have not been fully considered?”
Commitment: This conversation asks us how we wish to translate our Ownership into action… “What are you prepared to do in order to demonstrate your commitment to the project? How are you prepared to respond to obstacles and challenges along the way that sap your energy and question your resolve?”
Gifts: This is a conversation in which we take stock of our assets, acknowledge what we bring individually and collectively to the enterprise, and consider any “strings” that may be attached to engaging any of those assets. It also helps us notice gaps or areas where other gifts may be required. “What gifts, strengths, talents, or assets do we each bring to this effort? Collectively, what does this say about our capacity to achieve our Possibility?”
In practice, each of these conversations can be sequenced in order to facilitate an effective result. For example, if I have a troubled group that has lost energy and momentum, I may follow this approach:
- Offer a compelling Invitation that names the importance of the issue and invites everyone to discuss it openly and honestly. Then,
- Facilitate an Ownership conversation that explores what levels of energy and commitment truly exist, without judgment, for continuing to engage in the work of the group.
- The group should take stock of its assets and Gifts, so we could appreciate the capacities of its members. From there, we could…
- Examine the Possibility and promise offered by this group, transcending the energy-draining nature of the current state of the group.
- I’d also want to be sure Dissenting opinions were explored and respected, before seeking a Commitment regarding future actions.
This sequence makes sense to me in light of my own experience with such groups… you might find another pathway nourishes the conversation and helps the group determine its future.36
Several years ago, I convened a ten-week study group that sprang from this excellent text – that could be a great bonus activity for this lesson!
Exercise: Six Conversations
WHY: To explore the potential value of the various types of conversations described, and how each is a valuable approach in learning What Matters.
Step 1: Bring these questions to a meeting of a group in which you are exploring meaningful change to a project, considering a proposed innovation, or addressing a community matter.
Step 2: Offer these questions as a way to structure the group’s inquiry; engage in whichever of the “Six Conversations” appear to be relevant to the group at this time.
Step 3: After the meeting:
- What did you notice about these questions?
- How did each make a unique contribution to the discussion?
- As a result, how would you now describe the group in terms of its efforts to get to What Matters in their context?