How to have Brave Conversations — in four mutually reinforcing moves

My friend Anni Rowland-Campbell has a large ambition: she is seeking to regenerate our social fabric by weaving the connections between technology and culture together more strongly.

To this end she has initiated a project called Brave Conversations that draws people from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds to a series of gatherings “to address the key socio-technological questions facing modern society through some brave, raw and hopefully honest conversations.”

I see Anni’s work as part of a larger movement to regenerate and strengthen broad-scale public discourse around the world. (Other current examples: Krista Tippet is building a civil conversations project called On Being; Laura O’Connell Rapira has launched a civic dinner conversation initiative called Kai & Kōrero.) As our faith in the established institutions and practices of political life are eroding, new efforts to connect more deeply, to work more strongly in our differences, and to pursue practical outcomes together are starting to appear.

Why “Brave”?

The word brave is striking here. It speaks of a yearning for a different kind of public discourse — one that requires courage to conduct. I think this courage is about two things: firstly, recognising and confronting uncertainty (the ‘not knowing’) and secondly, bringing the whole, vulnerable self to the discussion.

These are behaviours that are acceptable in private but not conventionally in public. In political and corporate life the appearance of certainty and decisiveness is all, whatever the pretence that underlies it. Not to “know” — to be able to demonstrate mastery of the moment — is to be weak. But the word brave here is signalling impatience with this tired convention. Brave suggests that it’s time to leave combative debates and point-scoring behind, and to get below the surface to what is real, honest, difficult and sometimes deeply troubling.

So, how do we do Brave?

I think it’s crucial to acknowledge that brave conversations don’t arise just because we ask them to. Our conventions of public exchange are far too deeply buried to be tossed aside lightly. So increasingly we are beginning to recognise that there’s a learning process involved.

The reason for this learning is that our present-day group practices are in many ways quite undeveloped and unsuitable for the world of knowledge equivalence that we are entering. Customary practices — like top-down agenda-setting, strict protocols of presentation and exchange, and automatic deference to authority and expertise — are no longer productive or satisfying.

I’d like to offer some suggestions from our work at Human Methods Lab. And these stand in turn on the shoulders of many forbears over 20 years of practice: from Enspiral, Toi Whakaari, and John Shotter in particular.

Our suggestions start at the point when people are gathered together. (There are many ways and reasons for people to gather. Mostly these depend on the surrounding circumstances and on the spirit and character of the convener. So we’ll take these as read, and focus on the conduct of the gathering itself.)

Four kinds of bravery

1.Acknowledge everyone, and do the work that is necessary to help people to settle. As people join a gathering, they are arriving in the context of their full and busy lives. They are likely to be preoccupied in all sorts of ways. To become ready to work together, people need to make the transition from the grip of their immediate concerns to the work of the meeting, and in doing so, to acknowledge and recognise one another so as to become a participating member of the group.

This is important work that makes a great difference to the quality of the subsequent conversation. People both need to be properly introduced, and to be given an opportunity to express and put aside their immediate concerns.

This kind of work can be done in a range of ways. The customary practices of indigenous cultures—for example those of Te Ao Māori — can be exemplars. But proper time needs to be allowed for the work of arrival, and the larger the group, the more time is necessary. Such conduct goes against the grain of our usual impatience “to get on with the business”: but its adoption is transformational. People who are settled, relaxed and acknowledged are far more ready and willing to be brave in the company of others.

2. Set a conversational tone that invites and encourages bravery. Brave conversations can be risky for the participants. So it’s important to normalise that risk. A good way to begin is to encourage people to tell personal stories — of moments in their own lives that are relevant to the themes of the discussion, especially moments of discovery, insight or turning points and transitions in beliefs or behaviours. And to generate such personal stories, you can seed the ground with an experience of your own.

Sharing real, personal experiences also helps to steer the conversation away from “aboutness” and towards “withness” mode. In aboutness talk, the topic of the discussion is “over there”, distant from the speaker, in a realm of imagined objectivity and abstract thinking. Aboutness conversations are never brave, because they are supposed to be devoid of emotion and feeling. They may impress us, but they never move us to wholehearted, fully committed, hearts-and-minds collaborative action.

In withness talk, the speaker is themselves already implicated in the character of the discussion. We sense and ‘get’ their intention and aspiration, and can relate these to our own. We make sense of the conversational experience by relating to the person as much by what is said.

Unlike explanatory and expository talk, where elaborate, carefully structured arguments may be required to convey the message, personal stories are dense with entangled layers of allusive meaning that convey a great deal in a short time. So stories can also be more efficient, more succinct and more respectful forms of conversation than explanations.

Most of all, sharing stories of real experience helps to build a community of shared knowledge in a way that doesn’t happen when we are trying to impress one another with our erudition — or are seeking to dominate the gathering with the force of a strongly-held opinion. Shared stories make a new story: shared opinions make nothing new at all.

3. Encourage and develop a conversation about the conversation. Truly brave conversations have a certain character and quality that can be cultivated and nourished by judicious guidance. For example, people can be invited to notice when they are feeling uncomfortable or uncertain, and to voice their unease even without being able to fully describe it. Saying, “What’s going on now just doesn’t feel right to me —is anyone else feeling the same?” can be a way to bring an important source of discomfort to the surface.

There are in fact many noticings that can trigger moments of possibility in a conversation. Sometimes people use particular words in ways that indicate that they have a special significance for them: pausing and looking to go deeper into these words or expressions can be insightful.

Noticings are also clues to differences of individual orientation that are potentially available as resources for the conversation as a whole. Different responses to the same moment or event can become a rich source of learning for the group. And it’s often the more quiet people—even self-confessed introverts — who observe conversational moves and details that others miss, and if encouraged, can bring something otherwise overlooked to the attention of the group.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not finished and polished utterances that are most helpful in brave conversations. Pauses, hesitations, uncertainties and unfinished thoughts can often be clues and triggers for others. For these reasons, it can be important to be cautious about the presentation of ideas in this kind of discussion. A member of the group may feel that this is the ideal moment to present a long-cherished idea, something that now tumbles out more or less fully formed and overwhelms others in the conversation who haven’t yet ‘got there’. If possible, it may be best to pre-empt this and similar revelatory moves by reserving the presentation of ideas to a later and less brave stage of the conversation.

4. Emphasise the importance of ‘going on together’. A really brave conversation will not be finished, completed or concluded in a single gathering. Instead, the gathering should begin the relational work that’s foundational for continuing collaboration, by opening the members of the group up to one another’s underlying aspirations.

In this sense, brave conversations are not about exchanges among people who see themselves largely as self-determining individuals. Nor are they confessions that lead to some kind of personal catharsis in a 12-step programme. Brave conversations are ordinary exchanges where people are working “in the midst” of others — moved and influenced by those others, identifying the distinctive capabilities of each of those others, and then coming to recognise their own particular qualities in relation to and in the context of those others.

So the “going on togetherness” of the encounter becomes paramount. It’s best experienced as a feeling of flow — where each conversational moment invites another, and another, and another, and where the participants gradually adopt a shared language, movement, and rhythm, easing into a joint enquiry in which everyone has a shared sense of belonging. To continue the discussion after and beyond the gathering, protocols of discussion need to be set up that invite and sustain this flow.

Our journey of practice development has taught us that this kind of work has more to do with the body and with our senses than it has to do with the intellect. In our rational, instrumental world, it means that such practices remain largely invisible and ignored. However, they are right in front of us, waiting to be deployed: and our efforts at Human Methods Lab are about helping to recognise and deploy them with whoever is moved to try them.