Dave Pollard: Conversations that Don’t Suck #kmw12 #KMWorld

Dave Pollard is retired CKO at E&Y and Director, Group Pattern Language Project. For more information on the Group Pattern Language Project see www.groupworksdeck.org

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2012 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Intention. How you prepare for a meeting has an enormous impact on the results of the meeting. For example, engaging a facilitator beforehand can help surface conflicting agendas early. What matters with respect to intention? Set the focus for the meeting early and articulate that priority clearly and early.
  • Context. To promote better conversation, place them in a pleasant discussion space. Even if you have participants of different rank, make sure you’ve created a welcoming and equal playing field so that everyone feels empowered to contribute regardless of rank. Be sure that you understand and give respect to group culture and the history/context of the discussion. Finally, make sure you’ve invited the right people to the meeting and that all of them are present and participating.
  • Relationship. “Hosting” a meeting is a critical role. They set and maintain the tone of the meeting. You can help build relationship by breaking bread together, expressing appreciation for the members of the group and encouraging the good faith assumption (i,e., accept that we are all doing our best). Other critical factors are transparency, shared airtime and continuous attention to tending the relationships as they grow,
  • Flow. Pay attention to the rhythm, energy, balance, and pacing from beginning to end. How you open a meeting sets the tone. Equally how you close the meeting can help with resolution — especially where there has been conflict or uncertainty in the meeting. Be aware that if you are exploring a new topic or looking for new ideas, you need to observe the divergence/convergence rhythm: diverge so that you can brainstorm and then converge to come to consensus.
  • Creativity. Be careful that you don’t shut down creativity too early. Common ways of doing this are failing to encourage bold thinking, trying to force new ideas into an existing structure too quickly, using budgetary constraints to stop new ideas, being unwilling to be playful (using humor and fun). That said, be aware of the “power of constraints.” If you embrace limitations as challenges, that can help focus your efforts more productively. Just be aware of your intentions — don’t rush to a constraint if your goal is to shut down the current conversation.
  • Perspective. When it looks like a meeting is running off the rails, it may be necessary to help everyone shift perspective. For example, help the group focus on common ground. While doing that, don’t ignore what’s going on — be sure to honor the contradiction and ambiguity that has emerged. Other ways of shifting perspective are (1) Fractal (notice patterns repeating at different levels); (2) Go meta (widen the lens, change the frame of analysis; (3) Change your focus by zooming in or zooming out (focus on forest or focus on trees); (4) Time shift (reflect on the past, envision the future); (5) Translation (reframe, articulate, bridge differences); (6) Value the margins (listen to voices from the edge);(7) Viewpoint shift (see with new eyes so you can think differently about the problem).
  • Modelling. The facilitator needs to be very courageous throughout this process — don’t be defensive — just hold the participants to their commitment to achieve/perform together. In addition, the facilitator needs to “hold space” — this means maintaining the trust, focus and openness of the group. Sometimes the facilitator may need to say “I’m stuck here and need help moving us past this logjam.” Ideal participant behaviors include (1) listening carefully until you really understand what is being said (or not said); (2) mirroring — reflecting back what you’ve heard; (3) don’t things personally — it isn’t always about you; (4) be self-aware — understand your own values, biases, needs, biases, gifts. One key technique is to use the words “Yes, and” rather than beginning with the word “But.”
  • Inquiry & Synthesis. At this stage, it’s important to take time to reflect. Then distill by summarizing/synthesizing what’s been said or decided. If necessary,consider going deeper (drilling down) until you really undersatnd what’s going on.
  • Faith. While this may be a tough concept for a business audience, it is important that people trust that by doing the right things, the right result will emerge. Letting go and letting come can be very hard — especially for the faciitator.