The shapes of conversations

The shape of a meeting reflects the purpose of the meeting: telling or listening. Both are appropriate depending on the intentional purpose of the meeting, and often telling and listening purposes are simultaneous. Here are questions I ask to figure out what shape I will use in preparing for a meeting:

  • What is the purpose of the gathering?
  • What needs to be told and who needs to tell it?
  • Who will be listening and to whom are they listening?
  • What are we listening for?
  • What is the shape that serves the purpose?

We are most familiar with two shapes of conversation: the board table and the theatre. These shapes, and our behaviour in these shapes, is about expertise and power; at the front of the room, or at the head of the table, is the one from whom we expect will tell us what to do, the boss or the expert. One person has the answers and the rest expect the answers. One person knows what to do and the others will make it happen.

board and theatre
Shapes of telling and following: the board table and the theatre

These are shapes for telling and following, for providing direction.

We all participate in these shapes: the boss/expert expects others to follow and the subordinates have steep expectations of the boss/expert. The boss will say how things will unfold. Subordinates expect clear directions.

The shapes of telling and following are the right choice in the right circumstances. A doctor friend has extensive expertise is infectious diseases and she has a role in the health care system to serve as a resource for front-line doctors. She has knowledge they need in their work; when something strange happens in their practice she tells them what they need to know as a speaker at a conference, at meetings around board tables or by teleconference, or a one-on-one consult. While there is room for questions from front-line doctors to understand what she is telling them, they trust the information she conveys, take it and use it directly. My doctor friend is in the telling role. The front-liners listen and follow.

Listening is a crucial part of telling and following. The subordinates, or the audience, are there to listen and are expected but the boss/expert to listen. This is listening as an individual: I hear what the boss/expert has to say, I take some notes, and I will adjust my actions as dictated.

The shape of a conversation shifts dramatically if the gathering has a purpose different from telling and listening. The intentional purpose of a conversation may be to explore and digest, and figure out a way forward together. In this case, the shape shifts to circle, where the expertise and contributions of everyone–rather than one or select few–are welcomed. The listening is done by individuals and the group because the purpose of the conversation is about collective discernment: we have something to figure out together.

circles
Shapes for collective listening and discernment: the circle of many sizes

These are shapes for listening–as individuals and as a group–that lead to wise action.

Shapes of listening and discernment are the right choice in the right circumstances. A city planner colleague of mine is working to create a new set of rules to guide infill development in his city and he recognizes that there are people with different perspectives on this that need to be taken into account: other people in city hall, builders and developers, and citizens and community organizations. He recognizes that they all have pieces to the city-puzzle we are making. He needs to listen to them all and he recognizes that as these different perspectives listen to each other, better solutions come forward. He offers, around little tables and within the whole group, ways for people to listen to each other and find ways forward that look after a wide range of interests. This tangibly helps him in his work and it enables everyone else make a city that serves them well.

All of these shapes are right in the right time and place. It all depends on the purpose: telling or listening, direction or conversation.

As you design and prepare for your next gathering, ponder these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the gathering?
  • What needs to be told and who needs to tell it?
  • Who will be listening and to whom are they listening?
  • What are we listening for?
  • What is the shape that serves the purpose?

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Interested in learning more about circle? You might be interested in The Circle Way Practicum and/or exploring The Circle Way.

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