Clear the Space for Meaningful Dialogue

In recent blogs, we discussed ways to turn meetings into collaborative, outcome-focused group experiences by discarding standard meeting props: toss out the agenda and presentation deck and forego the conference table.

When we’re facilitating pivotal meetings where clients must engage in meaningful dialogue to achieve the results they’re after, we do both. We clear the space—mentally and physically—for dynamic interaction and collaboration.

A few years ago at a national conference, we broke with many conference norms in an experiential learning session. We removed all tables, wall hangings, and furnishings from the ballroom to render the space as blank as a clean sheet of paper.

We posted large-print questions on the walls to provoke inquiry. We arranged chairs in small half-circles to foster intimate social connections. We invited the 100 participants to explore the open space and encouraged them to use sticky notes to answer the posted questions. We then invited them to coalesce around the question that interested them most, to organize the sticky notes with whomever else was there, and to talk with each other until some “worthy wisdom” emerged that they might share with the whole room.

Only after participants had wandered, reflected, met strangers, shared, laughed, and learned from each other for 30 minutes did they sit down to receive content from us. We limited our presentation to just a few minutes before putting them back in process, so most of their time was spent discovering and learning with each other. Working in small groups as peer consultants, they explored how they might apply this learning to their own work.

Imagine the energy and volume that 25 to 50 simultaneous conversations generate in a hotel ballroom. The session had a buzz that made passersby in the hallway exclaim “I want to be in there!” As those conversations grew, morphed, coalesced, remixed, and mutated, imagine the quantity, quality, and energy of ideas that emerged. After several rounds of those conversations over 90 minutes, imagine the individual and collective learning generated and carried out of the room.

It would be very tough—perhaps impossible—to achieve that same impact with a traditional format of presenter, presentation, parallel rows of chairs, and a single microphone stand in the aisle for questions. (It makes you yawn just to envision that standard set-up, doesn’t it?)

We’d love to hear about your own experiments turning meetings into engaging group experiences. Feel free to tell us what happened next.

This is a synopsis of our article “Design + Organization Development: Three Steps on the Bridge to the Other Side” published by the Design Management Institute in their Fall 2015 “dmi:Review” To receive a copy of the full article, with more guidance on using inquiry for effective meetings, visit DMI’s publisher Wiley-Blackwell or contact us.