People associate speed with efficiency and mistake it for effectiveness. It’s often those who are quickest on the draw that can seem the most impressive, but what happens when we slow our conversations down and make space to connect in the present moment?
It started with frustration.
I kept going to networking events where it felt like everyone was making a lot of noise but no one was really being heard. I suspect we were all trying to sound confident, which meant that there were no opportunities for us to share our struggles, or the ideas that would set the work in motion.
One day I decided to offer something different. I called it an Unhurried Conversation. My friend Antony and I started running them in a café in Cambridge, where we both live. To begin with, it was sometimes just the two of us, but gradually word got around and more people started coming.
An unhurried conversation uses a simple process to allow people to take turns to speak without being interrupted. Everyone agrees at the start that only the person holding a chosen object (often a sugar bowl) is allowed to talk. Once the speaker has finished, they put the object down, signalling that they have said what they want to say. Someone else then picks up the object and takes their turn. Each speaker can respond to some or all of what the previous speaker said, or they can take the conversation in an entirely new direction.
I sometimes use the process in my work with organizations, but it’s a fine judgement as to whether to do so and when. In work meetings, people haven’t volunteered so it’s not quite the same. If the process feels too much like an uncomfortable imposition, then it won’t work in a satisfying way. That said, some of the most amazing things have happened when I’ve used the process in a work context.
I have vivid memories of running a strategy day for a diverse group of businesspeople from different countries, struggling to work out how to create a new sustainable partnership between their companies.
After a morning spent briefing each other, I chose to start the afternoon with an unhurried conversation–this time with a topic, the self-evident one of “how are we going to make this happen?” People were comfortable with the format so the conversation went on for quite a long time.
Then, just before we were due to take a tea break, one of the participants took his turn. We’ll call him Sven. He was one of two representatives of a Scandinavian business with a big stake in the project. Very carefully and very politely, he said something like this:
“When I came to England this morning, I had very high hopes for this meeting. I greatly respect Frank (the chairman of this group) and this is clearly a very talented and committed group of people.”
This sounded promising. What came next was more of a surprise. He continued in the same reasonable tone:
“But I have to admit, I am now disappointed. It does not sound as if we are really committed to making this happen, nor have we agreed on any realistic goals. I am not sure what we should do about this.”
At which point he stopped, and I observed it was time to take a break.
I admit I was a bit concerned about what Sven had said, and several people approached me anxiously during the break hoping I would have a way to make things better. The break was quite short and as everyone sat down, I thought the best thing would be to not try to do anything clever. So I just continued the unhurried process to see what would happen.
The next thing, as it turned out, was that Sven’s business partner grabbed the talking object and said something that was quite unexpected.
“Sven and I have decided to commit to investing 200,000 euros in the prototype of this product.”
I don’t know what had happened, but I’m guessing the two partners had chatted during the break and decided to take the initiative in addressing the concern they had raised. What might have been treated as a problem for me to solve with some clever process, had instead solved itself within this very simple one.
What followed were a series of offers from other participants to move the project on in a variety of unexpected ways.
In business environments, it’s tempting to obsess about the future. There are targets to be hit, growth levels to be reached, results to be achieved. But when we get too tangled up with what might happen, or what we want to happen, we can lose sight of the fact that the people we interact with are where they are now. The only way we can connect meaningfully is by understanding that our interactions take place in this moment.
The people we interact with don’t appear out of thin air as blank slates, ready to be sculpted and created afresh. They aren’t generic “human units” who respond in identical ways. Instead, they arrive with rich and complex life experiences that shape how they react to what others say and do. If we see them simply as resources in need of direction, we can miss much of the experience they can contribute.
Each conversation I’ve hosted has led to subtly different results, but they have all helped me understand how people connect when they are given the time and space to say what they want.
Excerpt from author Johnnie Moore’s Unhurried At Work, a book about how we can work in a way that makes the most of our human qualities, at a speed that works for us. Moore is a creative facilitator, and when he’s not designing meetings that people want to go to, he’s hosting Unhurried Conversations that are free and open to anyone.