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The task of cultivating dialogue at work it is not always easy! Managers often struggle to have their staff talk with honesty and candor about a work issue. Nevertheless there are ways – inspired by the World Cafe’ methodology – to ensure that even with the most difficult topic, participants will give you their best ideas and – at a minimum – the gift of honesty.

Principles for hosting honest conversations

  • Create a comfortable meeting space. Whether you are convening several dozen or several hundred people, it is critical to create a comfortable environment that evokes a feeling of both informality and intimacy. When your guests arrive, they should sense immediately that this is no ordinary meeting.
  • Make sure the meeting is about something they care about. When people focus on questions they care about, they begin thinking together rather than spinning off in random directions. Trying to convince others of a predetermined point of view is replaced by curiosity and new ways of understanding.
  • Encourage curiosity. State that learning something together is the objective of your meeting.Ask people to be curious and to listen for differences, surprises, and challenges. Consider different perspectives and assumptions as gifts; even when they make us uncomfortable, they offer rich soil for discovering unforeseen possibilities and unanticipated learning.

How do you do it?

  • Stay away from conference rooms! Instead be creative with your venue. If you can arrange tables in a staggered, random fashion rather than in neat rows. Ask people to sit in group of four or five at each tables. Background music is recommended.
  • Ask good questions, those that need not imply immediate action steps or problem solving. Instead, they should invite inquiry and discovery rather than advocacy and advantage. For example a conversation about the status of a project might feature questions like “What opportunities you see?” or “What is bigger than the committment to our client?”,  “What would a good project also look like?
    rather than “What action should we take?” or “What’s the next step?” or “What problems do you see?”
  • Join in the conversation and do not facilitate the meeting. Your behavior will model that you are a peer among peers in the quest for learning something together.
  • Encourage people to move to other tables in several rounds so that everyone can all meet everyone else. Have fun in the process.
  • At the end of the meeting, ask the participants to share a common theme heard from all conversations.
  • Be mindful of time. Never go over the scheduled end time.

What great idea could you get from your next meeting if you were to start appling those principles for cultivating dialogue at work?