Building a Climate for Meaningful Conversation

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We provide space – quiet, relaxed and inviting space – for meetings at Holy Wisdom Monastery. We recognize the value of good planning for these meetings, and so we share the following suggestions from Drew Howick, a former president of our Benedictine Life Foundation board.

The following was adapted with permission from the book “The New Compleat Facilitator: A Handbook for Facilitators,” written by Drew Howick, Stuart Daily, and Abby Sprik, and published in its second edition in 2002 by Howick Associates. Over 20,000 copies have been sold to date.

Here are some helpful tips for building a climate for meaningful conversation:

Survey the Environment

Group work often happens in the context of a larger organization, even if the ‘organization’ is an informal one, such as family members or a group of friends. When you understand the group’s personality and politics, you will be able to choose the most effective tools and techniques for working with the group.

Throughout the process, stay alert to those aspects of the group’s dynamics that will have an impact on members’ willingness and ability to communicate openly and honestly. Keep an open mind – what you thought was true at first glance may prove to be otherwise later on.

Things to look for:

  • Which members seem to have the most/least authority in the outside world?
  • Which members seem to have the most/least influence?
  • Which members seem to have the most/least expertise about the project on which the group will be working?
  • What are the politics of the larger organization?
  • How successful have teams been in the past?
  • How has the larger organization dealt with change in the past?
  • Any land mines or potholes? Skeletons in the closet?

Setting the Stage

To communicate openly and honestly, group members need:

Permission: Group members need to know that it’s all right to bring up an idea or a concern, even if it causes disagreement or tension. Give them permission by:

  • Modeling, with your own behavior, open and honest communication.
  • Clarifying how issues or problems should be brought up for discussion.
  • Allowing time for sharing concerns in each meeting.

Respect: The fear of feeling stupid, silly, or little can make people keep their thoughts to themselves. Build a climate of respect by:

  • Modeling thoughtful listening yourself, reflecting back what people say so that they know they’ve been heard.
  • Acknowledging and valuing all contributions.
  • Keeping the conversation focused on issues, not individuals.
  • Developing ground rules that prohibit attacking, ridiculing, interrupting, and use of disrespectful body language.

Accessibility: People have different ways of processing information and communicating what’s on their mind. Some can speak quickly and off-the-cuff; others need time to reflect. Some people learn through what they hear; others learn through their experiences. Some express themsleves verbally; others feel more articulate when they can write things down. Make it easy for everyone in the group to contribute by:

  • Restating what you hear for people to hear again.
  • Encouraging participants to ask for clarification when they need it.
  • Reading written input out loud for people to hear.
  • Posting items on a flip chart or board for people to read.
  • Providing pads, sticky notes, and pencils for everyone before a meeting.
  • Making sure that meeting decisions are recapped in writing.
  • Encouraging people to get up and walk around during meetings if it helps them think.

Confidence: People need to feel competent to handle the issues on which the group is working. Help group members build confidence in their combined brains, talents, experience, and energy by:

  • Making sure that everyone understands and can articulate the group’s mission.
  • Having the group build an inventory of all the skills and talents present in the group.
  • Providing a variety of opportunities for fact-collecting and idea-generation.
  • Encouraging members to contribute in their areas of expertise.

Meaning: Group members need to feel that speaking up is worth the trouble and will make a difference. Show them how their input contributes to the group’s progress by:

  • Asking for input from the group and from individuals.
  • Recording all input on a flip chart or board.
  • Thanking people for their input.
  • Building follow-through on input, suggestions, and issues into the group’s next steps.

If you are interested in holding a meeting at Holy Wisdom Monastery, please view the Facilities page on our site, or contact Pat at (608) 831-9303.

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