Setting the Right Tone in Design Conversations
Keeping Participants Engaged, Listening, and On Track
There are three hallmarks of conversations during the design process:
- People think they have better things to do, and yet…
- Everybody has an opinion, and so…
- Meetings likely end without clear direction
Sure, there are other challenges. Maybe you’ve had a meeting this week where someone showed up completely unprepared. Or maybe you’re dealing with the team member who still thinks design is just applying colors. Or maybe you can’t get this particular stakeholder to care about the content. But whatever else you’re dealing with, the main challenges for running a design meeting come down to a lack of participation, a lack of listening, and a lack of direction.
Overcoming these challenges requires a careful balance of thinking on your feet and guiding the participants toward an outcome. No doubt, these are difficult skills to cultivate. Both strategies depend on setting the right tone at the outset, as well as throughout the conversation. As facilitator, you can employ techniques to engage participants, encourage listening, and drive toward a useful outcome. Here’s what I do:
Before the meeting
- Know your purpose: Be clear with yourself about what you want to get out of the meeting. A purpose is different from an outcome. The outcome is determined by the participants. You determine the purpose, and ensure that the outcome achieves that purpose.
- Communicate the purpose: Tell everyone why you want to meet. Don’t be shy or vague or oblique.
- Invite others to contribute agenda items: Ask others what they would like to talk about to achieve the purpose.
At the beginning of the meeting
- Remind everyone why they’re there: Say the purpose out loud, so you’ve clearly stated what you hope to get out of the meeting.
- Describe the intended arc of the conversation: Outline the timing of the conversation at a high level, setting expectations about the activities.
- Ask about expectations: Go around the table and ask everyone else what they want to get out of the conversation. Be frank about whether their expectation is reasonable or whether a separate venue would be more appropriate.
During the meeting
- Repeat what you heard: Say, “Let me make sure I understand what you’re getting at.” Repeating what someone said ensures that I actually understand their intent and ensures they feel heard.
- Point out distractions: When the conversations spends more than a minute or two on an unrelated topic, say, “That’s a deep rabbit hole. Let’s hold on that for now.”
- Keep things moving: Be mindful of the time, and constantly evaluate the progress of the conversation against the purpose. You’re not interested in adhering to the agenda so much as achieving a meaningful outcome.
At the end of the meeting
- Take time to reflect: Go around the table and ask everyone to say one thing that they found surprising, inspiring, or insightful. Use these responses to help prioritize your work and validate that everyone is aligned.
- Ask what we missed: Go around the table and ask everyone to indicate whether the conversation met their expectations. Use these responses to trigger additional conversations if needed.
- Ensure everyone has what they need: Go around the table and ask everyone to describe their next steps. Don’t ask this as a yes-no question, otherwise, you won’t get a meaningful commitment.
These techniques directly tie to the three challenges: lack of engagement, lack of listening, and lack of direction.
The engaging techniques draw participants in:
- Invite others to contribute agenda items
- Remind everyone why they’re there
- Keep things moving
- Take time to reflect
The listening techniques demonstrate not only that you heard what a participant said, but that you value their contributions:
- Ask about expectations
- Repeat what you heard
- Ask what we missed
At the risk of being a bit too neat with these categories, I’m going to throw “Know your purpose” in this group as well. There’s something to be said for listening to yourself, and knowing what’s important to you, to avoid being swayed off course by distractions and strong personalities.
The directing techniques keep the conversation directed toward the meeting’s goals:
- Communicate the purpose
- Describe the intended arc of the conversation
- Point out distractions
- Ensure everyone has what they need
Recently someone asked me about “meeting ground rules.” These are guidelines established at the beginning of a meeting to ensure mutual respect and productivity, like “no laptops” or “cellphones off.” In this person’s meeting, however, the facilitator neglected to enforce the rules. This is the main reason I’m not a fan of ground rules: rules need to be enforced and nobody likes being the bad guy.
Instead, setting the tone means modeling behavior you want to see. Ground rules tell people what they should not do. Employing techniques that draw people in, that show you’re listening, and that make outcomes actionable encourage the kinds of participation you’d like to see. Moreover, they teach other the kinds of behaviors to adopt during design conversations.
You can download a sample chapter from A Book Apart. The book puts techniques like design conversations into context, explaining how an entire discovery phase comes together. If you pick up a copy, all my dreams will come true!