Culture & Competency

Collaborative Discussions

We have frequent occasions during our work and life to discuss ideas, options, and decision possibilities – plus implications and ramifications – with individuals and groups. Having a discussion is one of the fundamental patterns of human interaction that can be approached collaboratively … or not. I have been reflecting on what “taking a collaborative approach” means in the context of discussions; here are five ideas:

1. Specify the outcome properly. To drive understanding, to cultivate greater awareness, or to increase the number of perspectives that have been explored and shared are good outcomes for a discussion. Each removes the performance standard of having to commit to a decision immediately, which can stifle a willingness to participate. Clearly there comes a time in a decision lifecycle when a decision has to be made, but giving people time and space for healthy discussion first is a good approach to demonstrate transparency, openness, and a willingness to explore options. Approaching a discussion with the outcome specified as “getting what I want from the others” is an imposition, not a collaboration.

2. Engage and speak your mind. The ideas of “great minds think alike” and “fools never differ” are unfortunately both true, but the fools element can be mitigated by exploring options and alternatives. This usually requires someone to raise a different idea and take responsibility for talking it through. In any new problem domain we must go into a discussion expecting there will be differences of opinion; if everyone agrees with the single quick answer then you have laziness of thinking, or a culture of non-responsibility showing through. If a group has fully explored options and alternatives, debated through the differences, and come to a common conclusion, however, then you are more likely to have arrived at the “great minds think alike” state. But we shouldn’t expect to start there.

3. Listen deeply to other people. Your right in a collaborative discussion is to engage and speak your mind, but your responsibility is to give other people that same freedom. When they are engaging and speaking their mind, it is essential to listen deeply to what they are saying, otherwise you haven’t fully discharged your responsibility. Some people can listen through their ears only, while others need to take notes, draw a mindmap, or jot down keywords. Whatever practical support tools you need to use to enable your listening process, do it.

4. Provide time to reflect. New information and different insights can lead people to seeing things differently; a position they passionately advocated earlier in a discussion can give way to tentative acceptance of a new viewpoint. Providing opportunities during a discussion for people to reflect on what’s going on for them can help stimulate this process. When I have been facilitating a discussion, I often put a new sheet of paper on the wall, write the word “Reflections” in the middle, pause a moment, and then ask quietly if people have reflections to share. Or I might phrase it as “What do you see in the data?” if the discussion has been an exploration of research data.

5. Be willing to do something different. The real test of a collaborative discussion is that you are willing to do something different to what you had originally anticipated or planned – subject to that making sense based on the discussion. There is nothing so powerful as making a different decision on intent or action as a result of a discussion to show that you were fully involved, participating, and engaged in heart and mind.

What ideas do you put into practice to imbue your discussions with the spirit of collaboration?

Categories: Culture & Competency