“Te kai a te rangatira, he kōrero”
“Conversation is the food of chiefs”
- Māori Proverb.
Powerful conversations are where new worlds begin.
Groups of people sitting around tables in cafes, living rooms, conferences and meetups are the start of new relationships. Each new connection births new initiatives or ideas. In a world where we need to question everything: the validity of the news, the motivations of our leaders, the trustworthiness of our banks, the health of our food, the stories in our head about how things should work — conversations conducted well are an important frontier to make sense of the chaos. In meeting rooms, where we get our daily work recognised and make progress together — these spaces are hosting conversations which build the world around us. In our homes we speak to each other in our most intimate settings and it influences who we become.
You are a moment away from a new form of leadership.
I pay attention to the power and usefulness of good conversations. How they build us, break us, and change things. In this piece I explore an experience where a man is speaking over other people in a group. I unpack what an empowered response can be, and encourage you to zoom out. These moments define patterns of our cultural world. This isn’t about men and women, this is about the yin and yang, the Apollonian and Dionysian, the Eagle and the Condor. This is about the prevalence of dominance and individualistic behaviour in a world where we desperately need collaborative interactions which can contain multiple truths. This is a reminder — whether you’re the talker or the confused person who doesn’t know how to respond — you are able to shift culture in micro moments.
Recently, I sat at a table facilitating a seminar. Our group helped a woman working on an ambitious early stage project. She aimed to offer bridging services linking social impact investment opportunities into China from the US and vice versa. She had a huge number of unique skills to match the uniqueness of the opportunity.
We were helping her based on the framework of the workshop. During the conversation, an older white man consistently interrupted either her, another participant or I to say something on his mind. It was clear he wasn’t always listening, as he repeated topics we had already discussed. The conversation framework was clear to everyone, but his contributions were completely divergent and unrelated. He would launch into a comment about the value of having a website, at a time when we were discussing the trade off between gaining revenue or investment, and then he would hold the conversation on his topic, punctuating his own comments with “got that?” to the woman. Even in a group context where we were invited to give her advice, his advice felt unsolicited. She brokers inter-cultural, international investment deals, but he took at least half of our time together to outline the 101 differences between charities and LLCs and why she might incorporate as one or the other.
This may seem benign to read, or somehow unfortunate but well intentioned. In the room however, it was completely off the tone of the group. They made that very clear to me as the facilitator —I received hard cold looks each time he opened his mouth. I was the group’s facilitator, responsible for dealing with this person’s communication style. I’ve been in plenty of situations like this. I used all the normal tactics (in bold).
- I would give the group a time-check to say how many minutes we had left and how I wanted to hear people’s voices who hadn’t shared yet.
- I would repeat back to him what he had said in summary, to help him see he had already gotten his point across and we could move on.
- I solicited input directly from people who hadn’t spoken, and cued them in by name to ask them their thoughts (even when it mean interrupting the beginning of another of his sentences). They had plenty to offer. They would begin a thoughtful comment and he would push his chair 2 feet back, fold his arms and tune out. Until he thought of something else and would launch in again. At the end of our group time he gave out business cards to each person and left the day-long workshop early.
- I made a mental note about how to give him feedback after the session. I played it out in my mind — naming his behaviours and inviting him to see how he took up a lot of space. But he left! I was frustrated on behalf of the woman I wanted to support that I couldn’t follow up with him to help him learn.
The experience helped me feel urgency to confront these dynamics more broadly. We can’t just leave it up to women running processes to work on this — we all need to be conscious of how we play into patterns we don’t want. It’s time to pull them in better directions.
The possibility of facilitated conversation is to help people think together
Facilitation is, in essence, supporting a group to adhere to a process in order to help them move forward on something together. The point of the process is to create enough alignment in the way people are thinking in order to get mutual understanding, and get creative sparks to fly. This can open up genuinely valuable, new and unique outcomes. It is always possible to sit around talk. It is completely different to sit together and talk with mindful awareness of, not only what you try to get out of each conversation, but of the journey of that conversation. To sit in a group with an awareness of how the conversation has chronology. And to speak and listen in a way which enables all parties to access and contribute at each stage, therefore enabling a conversation where the group can mature it’s thinking together. This is the possibility of facilitation.
These situations need to be addressed head-on
In this situation I described, and many many others, someone who often has a white body will talk disproportionately compared to other people in the group. This puts a strong onus on the facilitator to course-correct as the group is taken down the rabbit holes of one person’s thoughts which we may not want to go down. This is necessary to address, especially if a participant violates the agreements of group conduct for the specific conference. There are some great tactics to use (above), and it takes confidence to use them, but you need to. You don’t have to be the official facilitator to do so, and people will thank you afterwards.
Can we also question the deeper reasons why these habits exist?
Because this is so normal for me to see, I thought to myself “WHY?”. What is his motivation? How does this happen? Is this just a complete lack of self awareness? What kind of dinner conversations does he have with his family? How does he communicate with his employees? And how does this behaviour get rewarded and grow from an impulse into a grandiose habit?
If someone is not tied into a process, then they don’t have to be as accountable. Perhaps this is the desired dynamic.
Were we hijacked by his fragility?
It is possible to hijack the process itself to put an individual in the center rather than a topic, simply by the way somebody speaks. He could change the conversation and create a certain moment where we would feel like he was in the center. This makes it hard for others to participate. It’s no longer about the flow of reflections, or about the “us”, it’s about a person. This very small gesture is a micro example of a much bigger set of contextual patterns. In the United States professional and political decision making spaces are male-dominated, and white men are conditioned their whole lives into caricatures of authority (intentionally not using the word leadership). In this context, dominating conversation is likely acceptable and even revered. If your norm is to bark orders, or ask someone to jump and they always jump, then it may be deeply uncomfortable to participate fully in a process where that’s unacceptable. You’re losing your ability to be authoritative. In an interaction less than 30 seconds long, this bigger vie for power plays out. If I was in his position I would be ceding some of my power. As the facilitator, I was explicitly responsible for directing the group— I had mandate and consent from the group to lead us and he didn’t. And he undermined me and the work we tried to do. It made me wonder if someone dominating a conversation is a sign of their sore spot. Is conversational dominance just a stab of effort to regain control and authority in a context where the process itself has more authority than the person who is accustomed to having it? Does seeing it this way change how you feel about dominant talkers?
Fear of accountability
It seems the kinds of structure and process which enable accountability are the antithesis of the celebrated cultural story of dominant, rational, self-made heroes. Themes of drive, relentlessness, and visionary-ness colour the stories about how “successful” people become successful. This may lead individuals to want their group experiences to revolve freely around their personalities. Like a startup founder who rejects agile project management in place of his team responding to his every whim. (Unfortunately this is ridiculously common.) Going back to asking myself “why? Why is this happening? Is it a complete lack of self awareness?” perhaps it’s actually a fear of accountability, and a fear of loss of power, and a fear of losing all rank. A fear of falling off the story of success.
There are alternatives — new forms of leadership
I assume fear of losing authority structures is associated with fear of the unknown alternative. If I don’t have my status, where am I— who am I? Or a complete distrust of an alternative mode of operating. Can we normalise and build confidence in less authoritative group organising methods?
A friend recently said to me — “oh my group-house doesn’t function very well, people never follow through on their word. We need a project manager, boy the corporate world sure knows how to get people to do things. Without a hierarchy where a manager chases people up, I don’t know what we will do.” I was blown away by this. Blown away by our human capacity to default to familiar formats, rather than create formats that serve us. It seems obvious to me. You don’t dissolve from structure into soup when you want to be inclusive and egalitarian. You re-invent structure that aligns with your inclusiveness and egalitarianism. You turn a manager’s role description into the agenda of a regular dinner discussion, or an executive role into a rotating responsibility.
Flat, structureless soup is not the alternative to hierarchical authority structures. Process-driven structures are the best replacement. A group put through a clear process can answer all the questions normally placed on the desk of a single individual, even the toughest question: “who decides who decides?”. AND these processes can be efficient.
These are acts of facilitative leadership — this is the type of power the leadership the 21st century needs most. And we need to celebrate this as a new story of successful leadership. Leadership which is directive on behalf of, rather than over the top of, and be directive as to how to use our collective potential to address challenges rather than become an individual saviour throwing silver bullets while the audience applause. Facilitative leadership does not vie for the power on the pedestal. Facilitative leadership invites everyone off pedestals and reminds them they are valued people, regardless of rank and status. Facilitative leadership is not a role — it’s an act.
Facilitation as Activism
What does it mean to live in a society where most decision makers work within white male cultural spaces? Perhaps dominating conversation is a response to a loss of power when a process has more authority than a person. Perhaps the freedom to have others cater to your personality is subconsciously desired over fitting into a shared set of structures which can hold everyone, including you, accountable. If so, we have revealed the heroic ego culture has a fear of collective process. Whether it’s a small scale team meeting, a conference workshop session, an organisational structure, a family structure, political halls of power or any other context — this tension of individualism culture trumping collective intelligence is playing out.
Facilitation is the work of creating and holding shared process. It creates a type of accountability which is peer based where no one exerts power over, (especially when the facilitator has consensus about what the group wants them to help with). Facilitation skills are a form of activism. Facilitation is a reclamation of shared ground, shared power. Facilitation is hosting spaces where collaborative conversations are not being hijacked, but are generating collective insight. The work of facilitation is the work of creating microcosms of what we need to be seeing more of in our decision making space and culture around the world.
You are a moment away from a new form of leadership.
One man dominating a conversation is sadly normal. But this is the tip of the iceberg attached to much deeper issues than we might not be thinking about around a seminar room table. Next time you’re in this situation, be more forward than you might normally to create shared space rather than allow someone to claim it all. Remember to call in (rather than just calling out) that talker — invite them to be in this new practice with you. Paradoxically, they tend to feel unheard. You’re not only protecting one individual who is being talked over, you create new ground for everybody in the room. You create new ground by showing that there is a new way to work right in front of us. The opportunity for us is to step into the collective genius of being empowered citizens as peers, rather than slipping back into the old story where authority figures save the plebs.
All images from pexels.com