Reflecting on four years of unhurried conversations

Since 2014 I have run over a hundred Unhurried Conversations. These use a simple talking-piece process to allow participants to take turns to speak without being interrupted. I run them most often in a cafe, where any member of the public can join in (organised on meetup.com). Viv and I also use the process in some of the organisations we work with.

I described the process in more detail in this post. There’s also a website about Unhurried as an approach.

What started as an experiment has become a practice – although the method is routine, each time it leads to subtly differing results. What I’ve experienced has had an impact on all the work I do. Here are some of the things the conversations have reinforced about working with people.

People are not blank slates

The conversations are a constant reminder of the richness and variety of human experience. I’ve heard an incredible range of people’s stories. The retired serviceman managing his relationships with multiple girlfriends, parents dealing with the crises facing their adolescent children, hilarious stories of dating triumphs and disasters, shared experiences of triumph and loss.

People don’t come to meetings as blank slates but with rich and complex life experiences. If we see them simply as people in need of training or direction, we may miss much of the experience they can contribute, and the place where they are starting from.

People connect from where they already are

Whether people share moments of joy from their lives, or talk about things that cause them despair, both create connection. Life’s struggles and adventures honestly shared allow us to build connection. Equally, we sometimes connect through the apparently mundane shared experiences as well as the more dramatic moments.

Organisations often act as if we connect through a vision of the future, which may be possible. But perhaps we can begin with the connections that are possible from where we are now?

Listening isn’t necessarily hard

Many participants are surprised at their capacity for listening, and some find they can connect without speaking.

As there are several listeners for each speaker, we can all relax as the work of listening is shared. Instead of having to hang on every word we’re allowed to let our minds wander if we want to. In other words we’re free to respond imaginatively as we wish, rather than as we should.

Some organisations teach active listening as if this is some special skill we have to learn. But what if the capacity is innate, and comes through easily if the context allows it? In some cases, “training people to listen” may distract us from a more interesting question about the circumstances in which they’re expected to do it?

Keeping it simple

Lots of people are puzzled, even slightly alarmed, when I say most of the cafe conversations are run without a theme. People are simply asked to share whatever is on their mind. And people are pretty satisfied by what happens.

We assume meetings will somehow end in disaster or despair if we don’t constrain the topic and “stick to the agenda”. But with patient listening, we may realise that contributions that may seem “off topic” are, in fact, at least tangentially connected.

When we try to constrain a meeting to a predetermined outcome, we believe we are promoting efficiency. And sometimes we are. But without noticing, our agenda blinds us to a lot of what is going on in the space, and this means we miss out on a lot of the experience and ideas there.

In opening, I keep things short and simple. I don’t usually mention some of the principles many people articulate for this kind of turn-taking process. I tend not to mention the idea of sharing from the heart, or talking to the whole group. These things usually seem to take care of themselves. I often don’t talk about confidentiality, it seems to me that people implicitly understand how to keep themselves safe in the space.

How often, when facilitating, do we overdo the instructions? When we use simple structures, we may be allowing people to do more complex things.

Deeper structures beneath the surface

There’s a lot more going on when we talk to each other than an exchange of information. There’s a dance of conversation, where we viscerally respond and reflect to each other. There’s more happening than any transcript could convey.

Many familiar facilitation processes focus on generating explicit results – we want answers on post it notes, ratings on evaluation forms, documented action plans. It’s possible that these keep us at that surface level, not recognising the subtler connections that are possible with a group.

Facilitators often focus on explicit structures – we love sharing new processes. And clients often panic if they don’t see detailed structures for meetings. But this can often mean we never slow down enough to experience the deeper, more organic, less linear structures that we start to sense when conversations are unhurried

Waiting with anticipation

Hosting so many of these meetings has built up my expectation that people have great capacity to share deeply without the need for clever probing questions from the facilitator. My willingness to wait, sitting with silence, is greater. I still have anxiety in these moments, and as a facilitator worry about people expecting me to do something to keep things moving. But I can suspend the urge to nudge people along. I can wait for them to generate ideas and insights themselves, often much more interesting and useful than might result from my clever interventions.

In briefings and projects, I say less and wait more. Silence and pauses often do the work for me, and bring richer results.

Sustainability

Although every conversation is different, one common theme is that people share many concerns about the fast pace of life and how much frustration and waste we experience and see in others. On the other hand, there’s a lot of satisfaction found in the simple experience of talking together. The process invites us to work with who we already are, and doesn’t involve a lot of consumption beyond a cup of coffee.

Perhaps an unhurried approach will help us to live together more sustainably?

(I’m offering a webinar about unhurried facilitation – details here.)

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