Two better ways to have group conversations

The problem with “popcorn” style meetings and some better options

Daniel Stillman
Jan 19, 2018 · 6 min read

This is the 3rd Installment of the “Think Alone, Think Together” series, livestreaming each week. If you want to stay in the loop, head over to my podcast and sign up for updates!

You can watch this essay here, if you like that sort of thing:

I go through all six ways I’m currently aware of to shape group conversations there and below. If you know others, please comment!

Four of the six you probably know, two you might not. At the end of this, I hope you’ll have a larger, richer bag ‘o’ tricks as a facilitator or group leader.

Why We come together: To Close

It’s not just for Gordon Gecko

When we come together in a group at work it’s to close. By close, I mean, align, agree, get to an action. That close might be agreement on quarterly goals or where to get lunch…but you can’t get to a great close without a great open.

A great open is where someone poses a real question, a challenge, sets a mission, a puzzle… and the group explores that question and hopefully gets to something within a reasonable time. I covered more on this in Part One: The 3 meeting maladies and Part Two: On Ending fake meetings.

A sharp eye will see the Open, Explore, Close looks a hell of a lot like the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond when you squint at it. And not for nothing…I believe that there’s a Shape to Creativity, and to creative conversations of all kinds. Design Thinking isn’t just for multi-week projects, it also has something to say about day-to-day working.

A fractured landscape of Implicit Goals

This is where I find teams that I work with a first…a lot of goals, none clearly articulated and none shared between all team members.

One shared, Explicit Goal


This is the point, right? Getting everyone on the same page and getting going. Finding an action we can get moving on, to start learning. Managing that group conversation and concerted action is your job if you’ve come this far!

yes! getting going!

The four group thinking modes you might know

There are four common group conversation modes:

  1. Appoint or Hire a Facilitator
  2. Use a Conch
  3. Talk Around
  4. Popcorn

Hire a Facilitator or give up a team member?

I’m frankly all for you opening up your pocket book and getting me on a plane to help you…but that *also* means your team doesn’t know how to self-manage. Sorry!

Having one person pick who speaks and when, someone who absorbs and helps synthesize everything…it’s a LOT of power for one person to have. I’d rather distribute it. If the chair doesn’t recognize your ass, you’re out of luck.

the chair doesn’t recognize your ass

More on distributed authority later on.

I have the Conch!

Having a talking stick of some sort isn’t actually a bad idea…in fact, that’s why Zoom and Skype have presenter controls. If you’re screen sharing, you’re in control, and can give it over to others. Doing it “Lord of the Flies” style can work to help manage the exploration of topics that are tricky. It slows the dialog down with intentionality.

Talk Around

This way gives everyone a chance. You start somewhere and go around. I don’t like going first because I don’t have time to think. And I hate going last because I have TOO MUCH time to think! But it sure helps manage overtalkers and undertalkers.

The Problem with Popcorn

Popcorn is delicious and one of my favorite lazy dinners. But as a group conversation mode it has some flaws…most notably the First Speaker issue.

In a “popcorn” mode, people “pop” or speak, when they are moved to and to speak only once. But isn’t it always the SAME people who feel great about speaking first? Why in the hell should they get to set the tone all the time?

Protecting the Introverts and the Extroverts

One reason to avoid all of these four modes is that introverts need time. And that extroverts should take more time.

The Extroverts actually need to be protected from their own speed. I think out loud and sometime don’t realize I’m riding roughshod over my groupmates.

There’s a better way….

Think Alone, Think Together

These two other modes use some thinking time to allow people to capture or marinate on their ideas. In the next weeks I’ll talk about how to use space, place and time to shape that thinking…but for now, my concern is how we get from an opening to a closing without missing out on an a real, authentic and rare opportunity to think together.

These two other modes are:

  1. Think, pair, share
  2. One, Two, Four, All

I’m going to unpack them a bit.

Think, Pair, Share

What I love about Think, Pair, Share (aside from how catchy it sounds) is that it allows ME as a facilitator to think! If I’m managing a large group, giving people 4 minutes to capture 8 ideas quietly gives me a chance to take a deep breath and to step back. When I pair people up, energy and focus are generated in the room and people get connected to each other. The “Share” can then be popcorn style, or around the room or any other way…there’s momentum in the room and that’s always a great place to start if you don’t know where to begin. It’s my default. It fits in everywhere and is one of the best workshop “Lego module” I know.

One, Two, Four, All

This *looks* a lot like think, pair share and it is…but it goes a step further. It’s from the book Liberated Structures and I learned about this name for this pattern from my friend Marc Rettig. But it’s also a pretty common “shape” of creative conversations. The 5–10–20 Sketch Studio I saw my friend Josh Seiden run in Australia in 2015 gave another shape (and average timings!) to something I had been doing for years. Take a look at Instead of a Brainstorm, do a 5–10–20 Sketch Studio for a template and some more details.

This 1–2–4-All pattern helps get groups from an opening to a closing in an wonderfully organic way, to think together fairly effortlessly.

And, I believe that it can be run without a facilitator, just a time-keeper, meaning you can spend more money on snacks.


The Cybernetics of Conversations

This week’s episode is really just about managing the “turn taking” aspect of group thinking. In the next weeks I’ll talk about modulating the interface of the conversation from air to paper and how to build a group conversation into coherent threads.

If you want to dig into the cybernetics of conversation theory, you should listen to this recent episode of the Conversation Factory podcast!

If you’ve read this far, you’re a peach. And you might want to sign up for updates on the next episode!

Until next week…

The Conversation Factory

Insights distilled from the Podcast

Daniel Stillman

Written by

Host of and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.

The Conversation Factory

Insights distilled from the Podcast

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