Can you remember the last time you had an amazing conversation?
I had one the other day. It felt illuminating and productive and energized for hours. We were discussing new models for reducing waste in local food systems. And despite our varied ages and backgrounds (design, engineering, medicine, chemistry), all four of us were highly engaged. We each listened and contributed, built on each other’s ideas, challenged each other, and eventually ended by planning another time to get together to move the discussion toward action.
The day before that, in contrast, I had a very blah conversation. It was marginally related to composting and some of the various issues that community composters are experiencing in New York City. It meandered at the uncoordinated will of the participants. It didn’t seem like everyone was on the same page. People were waiting to put their two cents in instead of actually listening. And to my knowledge, no one walked away with clear actions to be taken. It was a conversation in name only, more like a series of soliloquies in rapid succession.
I imagine that everyone experiences—to varying degrees—both the highs and lows of this “art form” on a regular basis, right? So how can we design better conversations? How can we increase the likelihood of productive conversations while minimizing the ‘blah’ ones?
These are critical questions not only for those of us studying Design for Social Innovation (DSI), but for the world at large. We’re all social beings. Almost everything we do is about relationships, from career trajectories and professional opportunities to our sense of place, identity and security. And conversations are at the core of those relationships. In fact, they are the building blocks of relationships. We all rely on them routinely to achieve goals, create collective action, and seek personal and collective fulfillment. And as such, many of the complex problems that arise in social systems today require that our conversations be more productive and purposeful.
Take a school classroom, for example. In the best of circumstances, students and teachers have direct and open lines of communication. They both give and take: Teachers hope to effectively convey concepts, impart lessons and give instructions, but the best ones are also great listeners and empathizers. They help their students learn and grow by engaging them in meaningful and reflective dialogue. The teachers who had the greatest impact on me were those who could understand where I was coming from, build common ground and communicate in a way that made sense. But for each one of those conversant teachers, I had two handfuls of didactic, teach-to-the-test types who were more interested in monologue than dialogue.
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