Real change requires real conversations.
We build our lives one conversation at a time. Great conversations become once-in-a-lifetime interactions that lift us up, shift our trajectory and motivate us to take action. We often rely on conversations to help us get what we want or need from others, and we make great efforts to ensure a positive outcome.
But what if we could codify and replicate the concept of a great, impactful conversation that is both inclusive and inspiring? What if we could design and structure conversations around the goal of achieving the best outcomes?
Conversation design—a fairly recent design principle—is a language based on human conversation. Its popularity has increased due to the global explosion of voice technology and engagement platforms. Conversation designers facilitate a natural conversational flow in these platforms while also meeting the needs of the customer and businesses who’ve requested their services.
When we think of those who make hard conversations happen, we often think of professionals like facilitators, mediators, or psychologists using sophisticated tools. But approaching dialogue as a designer requires us to treat dialogue as something we create, structure, and design—not facilitate.
Regardless of how we communicate we’ve all experienced awkward conversations about difficult topics that didn’t go well. We’ve all contributed to conversations that derailed, perhaps ending in a doomsday downer until someone changed the subject or in a passionate “war of words” between two opposing viewpoints creating irreconcilably broken relationships. These all-too-common scenarios have conditioned us to shy away from real, meaningful conversations for fear of losing relationships with loved ones.
Successful conversation design is both an art and a science. We must test and practice it, especially when those conversations focus on topics like racial equity, social injustice, climate change, and mental health. When you want to foster a workplace environment that encourages conversations on those critical issues, the following tips can help you design engaging, impactful conversations for everyone.
Why have conversations that matter in the workplace?
Approaching conversations about racial bias, gender and social issues presents other challenges. What do we say? When and how do we say it? We feel uncomfortable and awkward initiating conversations about those issues at work where most of us maintain a level of reserve we consider professional. Yet studies show a lack of open communication and the absence of employer/manager support to facilitate honest dialogue can foster a toxic culture, causing employees to seek work elsewhere. A different study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation found that professionals who felt comfortable discussing race relations at work also felt more:
- Free to express their views and opinions.
- Welcomed and included on their teams.
- Recognized by the leadership team/executives.
Remember, it’s a journey.
Impactful conversations about race, gender, and social issues can’t just happen overnight. Success doesn’t always come after one single effort or discussion either. These types of conversations should be seen as a process and/or a journey demanding personal reflection and perpetual listening. Staying on course requires work and effort, and that’s where many of us get stuck.
Engagement platforms designed for both in-person and online conversations empower participants to embark on a journey of self-discovery through questions on inclusive leadership, allyship and bridging the racial divide. This approach allows people to follow Marshall Ganz’s community organizing principles:
Story of Self: A question that evokes a personal story perhaps in the past. This question establishes shared empathy and the basis of trust before the conversation moves to deeper communal challenges.
Story of Us: A question that allows the common shared struggle to emerge. This question puts all cards on the table, pointing out the tension, the “unspoken” and inviting participants to connect the issue to deeper systemic challenges.
Story of Now: A question that sparks a sense of urgency or action. This question lifts participants from the depths of doom and cultivated empowerment and hopefulness by encouraging personal responsibility.
Following this structure encourages people to delve below the surface and creates an environment where people really feel heard.
The process of designing impactful conversations
Endless possibilities exist for individuals to create and construct (build?) meaningful conversations. This approach encourages you to take a chance to influence the structure and feel of a conversation by design rather than force of will. Creating conversations relies not on your interpersonal skills but on a different skillset: the ability to spot opportunity and design to shape outcome and impact.
Focus on the beauty of not driving the entire conversation. Your participants will influence its direction. Developing the right questions opens other doors to provocative and/or emotional discussions. The magic occurs because we willingly release complete control over the conversation’s direction.
Engagement platforms can create conversations that feel more equitable without requiring you to police the language or the room when you:
- Set the ground rules.
- Encourage everyone to participate.
- Keep numbers small enough to feel heard but large enough to gather diverse perspectives.
Additional tips for designing impactful conversations:
Even though conversation design itself might be a newer concept, it’s a combination of skills that have been around for much longer. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Know your audience
- Who will you invite to the table?
- What assumptions do people have about the topic?
- What voices and perspectives must you include?
- What central tension does the issue hold?
- What topics need discussion, even if—or perhaps because—they make people uncomfortable?
- What shared truth do you want others to take from the conversation?
Bridge the gap between your own expectations and those of the other participants
- Don’t make people feel that their expertise on a topic is required.
- Use words and phrases that speak to the heart and foster emotion.
- Use questions encouraging people to speak from their lived experiences.
- Write a prompt for each question to help educate or guide the conversation.
- Use facts sparingly, because they shift the vibe from the heart to the mind.
Remember that people want to feel heard. When you consciously make spaces for people to share their stories, you’ve helped create a more inclusive culture.
Jenn Graham is an activist, designer, and civic tech entrepreneur. She is the founder and CEO of Inclusivv, bringing diverse voices together for conversations that matter.