Nowadays, everyone I meet—friends and colleagues, even strangers at dinner parties—keeps asking me some variation of the same question: “I had this conversation today and it just didn’t work. What do you think I did wrong?”
The headmaster of a school wondering how she could better handle hard conversations with the powerful and wealthy parents of her students. A CEO trying to navigate decisiveness with prudence. A mother in anguish because her daughter’s anorexia has turned the family dinner table into a war zone. A board meeting that went wrong over a single word. A senior member of a police force struggling to talk with her officers about ethics.
Constructive conversation is one of humanity’s first and most powerful tools. Conversations built our first communities and helped emerging civilization progress. Public discourse was the foundation of democracy and has been the underpinning of all aspects of government and governance throughout history. And whatever we may feel about our handheld devices and pinging social media accounts, technological “progress” arose from constructive conversations. Creative collaboration was what put humans on the moon and what still keeps us in the digital ether.
Without intending to, I’ve become a kind of expert in the design of conversations. At the design firm Ideo, where I built an architecture practice, I tackled large-scale, systemic issues, such as income inequality, gun violence, and healthcare, by bringing together diverse stakeholders in conversations that could be incredibly fraught. I’ve learned that when conversations are well designed, they can be more meaningful and effect real change. Here’s how.
Why You Want to Design a Conversation
When we think of those who can make hard conversations happen, we tend to think of professionals with sophisticated, even extreme, tools: facilitators, mediators, psychologists, hostage negotiators. But approaching dialogue as a designer means that you treat dialogue as something that you create, something that you design, not something that you facilitate. It’s tremendously liberating. There are new possibilities, if you can begin to think about how you influence the structure and feel of a conversation by design rather than by pure force of will. It relies not on your interpersonal skills but a different skill set: the ability to spot opportunity and design for it in order to shape outcome and impact.
More important, for many of us these tools allow us to assert creative control over a conversation. Think of creativity as a benevolent power you can exert when conversations start to go astray. The most powerful thing about applying creative constructs to the conversations that you make is that they can help balance power, protect from inequities, and do it in a way that’s built into the very structures that govern the conversations. We can make conversations that feel more equitable without requiring us to police the language or the room.
The Conversations That Matter
The first step is to ask: What are the conversations that matter most? And how do we recognize conversations that really require and can benefit from a creative approach?
The conversations that matter, the ones we want to center on, are a substantive and intentional form of engagement. They typically have three things in common.
First, there is difference. For many of our hardest conversations to make change, there needs to be difference in the room. The people there can’t be all alike or in agreement.
Be careful, though, about what you consider difference to be. Sometimes it’s obvious: It will look like a different generation, a different gender, race, or ethnicity.
But often it will be the people who appear similar that end up having very different perspectives and agendas, and the most disruptive points of difference can be disguised. I’ve been in powerful rooms of all white, affluent European men and women where the difference in politics feels insurmountable. Likewise, I’ve been in the dining room of a self-described ideal family, where the family dinner, every family dinner, becomes a battleground.
Second, it feels difficult. You can gather all kinds of people in a room and have a discussion about what movie they want to see, but that’s not what this kind of conversation is about. If it feels like it’s simple and easy, then it’s probably not the conversation that needs to be designed. Conversations that matter are about grappling with hard issues. These conversations will often be about strategy, political issues, or emotionally charged topics.
Third, something is made, besides conversation. Too often, we experience a kind of “conversation fatigue,” which emerges from the fact that so little seems to come of it. More often than not I hear things like: “We had a great conversation, there was so much agreement and good ideas, but then nothing happened.” This is the greatest risk: that little comes of it. A creative conversation must move us forward. It must help us shift from thinking and talking into the act of doing. Agreement cannot be enough; action is required.
So the purposeful burden that I place on the term conversation is that it must work to resolve differences, explore hard issues, and be aimed toward a positive outcome.
When Conversations Go Bad
We all know that feeling when a conversation is starting to founder. Three of the most common symptoms are:
There’s an evident imbalance in the power dynamics. These may be explicit based on hierarchy or inequality among the people in the room, or implicit where the expertise of a few individuals far exceeds that of the collective. It can be evidenced by a few overpowering voices or the silence of others.
There’s a lack of certainty about purpose. Gathering people to discuss a topic is not the same as making sure people understand what the goals are for that gathering. Without purpose there’s no way to guide a conversation forward. Some may be trying to solve while some are trying to explore, and neither may be the right stance for the conversation.
There’s a collapse into critique. Often this arises from the conditions listed above, where a small subset of participants in a conversation turn from the topic of the conversation to the critique of the conversation itself. It’s the most common and most dispiriting end of a conversation, invalidating it altogether.
There are seven essential components, what I think of as the Seven Cs, of a creative conversation: Commitment, Creative Listening, Clarity, Context, Constraints, Change, and, ultimately, Creation.
Commitment: Most of us go into conversations with only one goal: convincing everyone else we’re right and they’re wrong. And why shouldn’t we? Sticking to our beliefs makes us feel safe and powerful. But creative conversations are very different. They’re about open-ended exploration. Letting go of our own ideas, or at least not holding on to them so tightly. Committing to the conversation itself. Committing to the people we’re in conversation with. It’s always an act of courage and optimism, and it’s just about the hardest thing in the world. So, ask yourself: Am I committed?
Creative listening: Most people aren’t good listeners, and few of us actually enjoy it. We treat it like a chore, nodding along, keeping dutifully silent, waiting for our turn to talk. Truly, listening can be a creative act—generative, satisfying, and pleasurable. With creative listening, we can learn to help people tell us better stories; to test perspectives other than our own; to embrace our own reactions and judgment. When we listen in this way, we are actively searching for the clues for creation.
Clarity: Conversations rely on their most basic element: words. But words are fraught with misunderstanding. There is complex or technical jargon not everyone understands. There are words we use every day that we believe have shared meaning but do not. As a result, so many conversations get lost in the gap between the words we hear and the meaning behind the words someone else is using. But if we begin a conversation by seeking clarity and definition of the words and terms we use, we can build a common language and even uncover common values. The right words unite us and show us our way forward together.
Context: Where you have a conversation has a huge influence on how the conversation goes. The space, literally, sets the script: Some rooms give conversations extra energy and life, some turn dialogue inert. We’ll learn how to choose the spaces for the conversations you want to have. Sometimes this means rearranging an available space or moving to another. Sometimes just a subtle shift in position can have a huge impact on the kinds of conversations that are possible.
Constraints: Every conversation has rules. But too often the rules are unstated, arbitrary, or unfair. As a result, everyone gets frustrated, nothing feels equitable or productive, and the loudest voice ends up dominating, reducing the dialogue to their own monologue. But constraints, as any designer will tell you, can fuel creativity. Rules can set us free. First, we have to reject someone else’s rule book and start designing better constraints for the conversations we want to have and the communities we want to build.
Change: All creative conversations require a moment of change—when a group of individuals becomes a community intent on creation. This moment of collective change is what allows us to imagine moving a conversation forward and inspires the potential for action. The best tools for this can actually be found in some of our oldest and most sacred practices. Familiar and sacred texts, vows and promises that allow us to forge community and authentic connection have always been central to the human experience. They can provide rhythm and thoughtful interruption; they can offer intuitive—if not obvious—paths forward.
Creation: When do we stop talking and just start doing? So many impactful conversations yield remarkable ideas and so many of those ideas never leave that room. Creation is about moving from actionable ideas to just plain action. Creation means getting real about whether the people in the conversation are the ones who can make the ideas real. Creation is about finding the courage to recommit. Creation is about taking that conversation out into the world.
When a conversation seems hard, when it makes you nervous, when you feel at risk or on edge, remember this core lesson: Conversation is always an act of creativity. We don’t have to just be participants in, or victims of, conversations. We can be the makers of the conversations that matter most.
Fred Dust was a senior partner and global managing director at Ideo. This article was adapted with permission from his new book, Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication (Harper Business, 2020). Buy it here.