10 Ways to Host Better Conversations for Collective Action

Changing the Nature of our Conversations

I am sitting here at The Blooming Hotel in the Netherlands having just hosted a three-day strategic workshop for HIVOS’s Green and Inclusive Energy team.    The new global programme, funded by the Dutch Ministry, is supporting national, regional and international advocacy and communications efforts to help make the shift to a more inclusive, renewable and locally driven energy paradigm.

It was a successful few days of supporting the team to see the bigger picture, to align around their approaches for change and to connect deeply as individuals.

It is clear that changing the energy paradigm is complex – meaning that there are many actors, interacting at multiple levels and in ways that are unpredictable and often surprising.    

With this complexity, it is essential that we, especially those of us in civil society, build our capacity to host new types conversations, using new processes of facilitation, that lead to better collective action.     Powerpoint, expert presentations and case study evaluations are no longer enough.

We need new modes of facilitation that:

·      Include a wide range of voices, especially from those that are not usually heard

·      Cultivate more insightful ways of knowing –beyond the rational mind

·      Mobilize people through a sense of ownership and co-creation

·      Synthesize collective intelligence to inform the best action.

In my 12 years in leading change processes, I have been practicing how to host participatory conversations and build collective intelligence.  Here are a few things I’d like to share with you so you too can host new and better conversations – that all help accelerate a transition a blooming future – for people and planet!


10 Ways to Host Better Conversations for Collective Action

1.    Co- Design with Core Team

When you start co-designing the meeting, workshop, conference with teams take an attitude of co-designing with them.   They are closest to the needs of the group and have the biggest role and responsibility to play in the outcomes of the meeting.   As a facilitator – you are there to serve the team – so the meeting or workshop is about them and their leadership – it is not about you.

2.    Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Start with the end in mind.  What is the purpose of your meeting?   What are your objectives?  What outputs do you want to create?  What do you want people to think, feel and do? Understand where people have come from, where they are at and where they want to go.   What are the relational dynamics - like power? Start with a draft flow on a template that should include elements such as:  the purpose of the meeting, the objectives, the outputs, the running order and steps of each session and their hosts and the relevant logistics required.  Expect (depending on scope of event) to do between 3-5 iterations of the agenda.   Establish a ‘hosting team’.  Create a mini project plan.  Establish roles for each team member – including project manager, facilitator(s),  space-keeper and logistics person.   Schedule regular planning sessions with the hosting team and do a final run through before the event itself.   

3.    Choosing the Right Space

There is much research these days that shows how our physical space and infrastructure affects the mindset, mood and behaviours of people.  So when choosing your venue, make sure it aligns to the energy tone and feel of the meeting.   Most meetings involving change practitioners include an element of helping people to think big, openly and differently and at the same time helping people to feel safe, connected and relaxed.   Spaces that work the best are not usually office environments.  They have good light, are spacious, have outdoor space, access to good food, lots of wall space, and break out space including places to relax.   Is there a theme to your meeting that informs where you hold the meeting?   The Blooming Hotel is an example of an ideal place for a workshop or conference.

4.    Setting the Context, Intention, Principles

When you kickoff the meeting, make sure you set more than enough time aside to ensure that everyone understands the context of the meeting and the meeting’s intention.  It is helpful to have an agenda on a flipchart or drawn on flipcharts on a wall so that people can feel orientated throughout the day (s).    Set principles of ‘relating’ for the group for how they want to ‘be’ with each other.   Ask the group what will make this the most successful meeting – crowdsource these ideas and cluster them into themes that you can also refer back to these during the meeting.

5.    Divergence and Convergence

Design the meeting or workshop in a way that starts very broad – exploring questions of ‘why’.  Then design the flow to work through other questions such as ‘how’ and ‘what’.  The nature of ‘why’ questions – the deep rooted meaning of things – is likely to be broad and have differing perspectives. Thus is often the stage in the meeting where there is tension, ambiguity and misunderstandings.  It is important to prepare for this and understand how you will intend to remain centered and help people through this ‘messy’ stage.  As people make sense, clarity will arise and convergence will begin.  At this stage it is important that key actions and commitments are voiced, owned and documented. The key to successful collective action is to surface, explore and appreciate all perspectives and align around common themes of purpose and action.

6.    Sensing the Energy

One of the most important things we can do in our every day conversation and in our meetings is to ‘sense the energy’ of people.   Energy is what makes the world go around.   Often there is greater meaning behind words and actions that is expressed through the energy we radiate.  We all experience this through the invisible ‘sense or feeling’ we get from someone.   To identify deeper meaning, to find ways to navigate it and to carefully (re)direct it is one of the most important (and hardest!) skills to develop as a facilitator.   When is the energy low? Stuck?  Generative?   For larger workshops, it is often helpful to have two facilitators for this reason so that they can better sense and guide the energy of the group.  And it is important to regularly check in with the group – “Where is our energy at now?’

7.    Connecting to Personal Purpose

When working with complex systems – which are often messy and take a long time to solve- it is essential to success for people to see and explore their own personal purpose as it relates to the purpose of the ‘work’.    It is wise to have a separate session on this – often encouraging people to have reflection time on their own such as taking a walk outside in nature. Connecting to one’s personal purpose is a motivator, a guide and the ‘North Star’ that will help people to want to expand into their fullest potential.  And to endure when things get tough.

8.    Adapting as you Go

A complex system (and working within one) requires you to continuously act, reflect and adapt.  We can’t fully control outcomes – as much as we’d think we’d like to!  Evolving your work is key.   So in meetings it is also important to adapt the agenda as you go.   Checking in with the hosting team and with the group at regular intervals helps you to decide what you need to do next.   Make sure that you have a formal ‘check-ins’ and ‘check outs’ each day.

9.    Engaging the Whole Person

For too long we have assumed that the only intelligence comes from rational thought.   This is ironic as psychology research shows us that about 90% of our decisions are based on emotions.  Indigenous wisdom bases its intelligence on intuition.  New science shows us that the ‘heart’ and the ‘gut’ are more advanced sensing organs than our brains.   All of these things show us that we have an opportunity to tap into a broader spectrum of knowing and intelligence.   And, we know too well, that our complex and stuck challenges require ALL the intelligence we can generate.  During meetings there are many ‘process technologies’ you can use:  World Café, Open Space, active listening, working in pairs, storytelling, bricolage, journaling, drawing, learning journeys, story-lining or performance arts – to name a few.   The Art of Hosting offers great training in these practices and I’d highly recommend taking these training courses.

10. Connecting to Nature

Seeing the bigger picture is an essential part of enabling change at scale.   For this, spending time in nature during the meetings or workshops is very powerful.  In nature, people can see more clearly, connect to what really matters and feel energized in being connected to a wider whole.   Often, for those of us working to address social and environmental challenges, spending time in nature often reminds us of ‘why we do what we do’ – and this can bring new energy to ourselves, our teams and to our work.

Changing the quality of our conversations is essential if we are going to accelerate scaled change in the world.  However it will not be easy. We need to learn how to collaborate.   We have to work against the grain of our very individualistic culture.    But-  I believe - with clear intention, practice and support of others – better conversations are possible.  

I am grateful to all of the leaders for change who have shared their own practice and mastery with me – so I hope these tips help you in your own work.   Here’s to a blooming future!