The Agony of Conversation

Beth Sanders
12 min readNov 9, 2022

How do you design a public meeting when you believe that everyone has something to say, not just the vocal few? A conversational process makes room for everyone.

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Note: the names used in this article are not real people’s names.

I should have asked Stan for the research he spoke of when he said:

You know, there is lots of research out there that says that when you divide us into smaller groups, you stop us from talking to each other.

Stan was worried and angry about a social service agency relocating a community center two blocks closer to his home and neighbourhood. At the invitation of a group of local community folks who wanted to give the agency and its new neighbours a chance to share information openly, honestly and respectfully, my job was to “run the meeting.” Stan expected a town hall, where he could be angry — with an audience — but that’s not what was on offer. Instead: conversations in smaller groups where people chose where they wished to spend their time and who they spoke to or heard from. He was frustrated.

A design choice: interaction between many, not few

The local community people who reached out to me for assistance recognized that the agency’s relocation was not popular; emotions were running high, and there were a lot of concerns. The organizers — I’ll call them the community planning committee — had a clear purpose for the meeting: to create a space for respectful, open and honest communication. With the word “communication,” they meant good and solid information sharing in multiple directions:

  • The neighbours (residents, businesses, a school) receive accurate information about the agency’s plans.
  • The agency receives and hears the concerns, worries, and opportunities that come with their plans.
  • The neighbours hear directly from each other about their reactions, thoughts and ideas.

The community planning committee had a clear objective for the design of the gathering: to create opportunities for both neighbours and the agency to speak to and hear from each other directly. They wanted as many people as possible to have this experience, not just the brave few comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. This objective had a profound implication for the design of the gathering: to exchange thoughts and feelings, people must first make contact with each other, not remain separate as we do in a town hall format.

The design we chose

Here’s how the community planning committee and I designed the gathering:

  1. Welcome
  2. A land acknowledgement by a resident Indigenous Elder
  3. A prayer by a resident Indigenous Elder
  4. An overview of the agenda for the evening and ground rules
  5. A presentation by the agency (what’s happening, why, when, and answers to 6 most-often asked questions)
  6. Conversation in small groups, organized by topics of interest
  7. A plenary debrief
  8. Close

We planned for two-hour meeting and our time allocation landed like this: 25 minutes for the set-up (the welcome, land acknowledgement, prayer and the overview of the agenda and ground rules); 25 minutes for basic information (the presentation and answers to six frequent questions); 5 minutes to set up the conversations; 50 minutes for discussions in small groups; and 15 minutes as a large group to hear a few voices, debrief and close.

The set up

After convening the meeting, two Indigenous Elders offered a land acknowledgement and a prayer — essential elements as most of the people served by the agency are members of various Indigenous communities. The Elders’ words and prayers served as a vital moment inviting us to settle into the truth of much work ahead of us to reconcile relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, settler, and colonial peoples.

The set-up included a description of how the evening would unfold (some basic information first, then conversations, then we’ll all come back together to share insights before we close) and ground rules:

  1. Let’s pay attention to how we listen: listen with compassion and curiosity; receive what others say with grace and curiosity; hold all stories or personal material in confidence (share only with permission)
  2. Let’s pay attention to how we speak: speak with intention, noticing what is relevant to the conversation; anger and frustration and grief are in the room, and it is OK to feel angry, frustrated, sad, and hurt; monitor when feelings might be getting hot, or blustery, to a point where others are not able to hear you — take a break when you need to (remember: listeners are listening with grace and curiosity).
  3. Let’s acknowledge that confusion is in the room: embrace confusion as an opportunity for new understanding.
  4. Let’s record with permission: it is OK to record the words of the Executive Director when he makes his presentation; any other recording (photos, audio, for example) only with the permission of those you are recording.

The community planning committee wanted to connect people so they could meet and exchange information. The set-up involved articulating purpose: for as many neighbours and agency people as possible to speak to and hear from each other directly. The “not-purpose” was also stated: “There is no requirement or expectation that we find some kind of agreement tonight.”

Basic information

The community planning committee recognized that there was basic information that everyone attending was expecting: What is happening, why, and when? The agency prepared handouts with written information and answers to many questions, but we also asked people to sit and listen, as a whole group, to the executive director’s verbal description of what was happening, why and when.

Setting up the conversation

After sharing basic information and describing a conversational process to a group of people, two kinds of questions of clarification often emerge: clarification of the process and clarification of “the big thing” that brought people into the room. Last month, the relocation of the agency’s community center was the big thing. In other gatherings, it has been a new development proposal, a policy change, or some big thing that has people’s attention and is often ripe with conflict. An opportunity for people to ask questions of clarification is vital.

When I describe a conversational process to a room, the process is often unfamiliar and feels confusing. Clarifying the process is important so people know what we are asking of them. Without clarity, the process doesn’t work: the conversations don’t happen, information is not exchanged, and meeting outcomes are not met.

From time to time, a few people, like Stan last month, want to know when they can speak to the audience. In the moment, I gauge whether someone like Stan intends to clarify the process or a big thing, or state his opinion. Opinions are not wrong; they are a form of information we want to be spoken and heard in the room. Last month, the purpose of the gathering was my North Star: create opportunities for as many people as possible to share their opinions, thoughts and ideas.

Statements of opinion can have the effect of silencing others in a group of two or two hundred. In a town hall format, there are two default outcomes with a forceful statement of opinion: 1) dissenting opinions are silenced or 2) there is significant conflict between contrary opinions. Embedded in both outcomes is a meta outcome: those not comfortable or willing to take the heat of potentially intense conflict remain silent.

The community planning committee knew everyone in the room had information — and opinions — to share. The vocal people, as well as others. The choice, then: a town hall where only a few people speak or something else. We looked for something else.

The conversation: connection, interactions and exchanges of information

If the design we choose for a gathering does not put people in contact with each other, then it is a design for separation, not conversation. We might see a few people speak to each other if there’s a bit of back-and-forth between the podium and the audience in a question-and-answer space, but let’s not mistake that for conversation. The audience is watching a few people in conversation but not participating in the conversation themselves.

The community planning committee assumed that everyone has information to share in the form of thoughts, ideas, concerns, worries, anxieties, or even benefits or opportunities. The committee chose to design for conversations among many people, not the brave few.

The choice to design for conversations among many was the heart of the gathering last month, where we spent most of our time. The beginning of the meeting “set the table,” and with basic information in hand, and perhaps some questions answered, people then chose what they’d like to learn, talk or hear about.

With the ground rules in place, people moved around the room to meet different agency people and other neighbours. They chose the topics. They joined conversations or went to find people that caught their interest. They moved to a new conversation or stayed in a conversation when they felt moved.

A whole-room debrief + close

Before we closed, we gathered to make space for a handful of people to share what was on their minds or to notice an insight gained from the conversations they’d participated in or observed. We heard some statements of opinion delivered clearly and respectfully; people who seemed agitated earlier were calmer. A couple of last big questions were put to the agency’s executive director, who responded. The executive director expressed thanks and reminded people of what to expect next. The gathering formally closed, releasing people into the rest of their evening, with an invitation for people to linger if they felt inclined.

The agony of conversation

Out of about forty-five people, three demonstrated that they struggled with the format. As people arrived, Stan handed them a letter describing his opposition to the agency’s move. Shirley took over handing out the letters, and when we offered a space on the registration table to leave their information, she refused. Before the gathering formally started, Shirley and Stan inserted themselves into people’s conversations, losing track of who already had their letter and inserting themselves a second or third time.

When the conversational process began, people quickly moved to their topics of choice and the room filled with conversation. Stan was visibly upset with the process and sat off to the side. I sat beside him, and this was when these words of his came out:

You know, there is lots of research out there that says that when you divide us into smaller groups, you stop us from talking to each other.

I didn’t argue. Instead, I restated the purpose of the meeting (for as many people as possible to connect and share information) and asked, “What are you most concerned about, and can I introduce you to someone with the agency who needs to hear what you have to say?” After several minutes, he agreed to an introduction to Donny from the agency. I walked Stan over and introduced him to Donny with a summary of his concerns. (“Do I have that right, Stan?” Response: “Yes,” with a relaxing of his shoulders.) I left Stan and Donny to their conversation.

I checked in with Stan later. Time with Donny was good, but he had more to say about a new topic. I encouraged him to slide into the conversation where the executive director was chatting with a few people about the same topic. Later again, Stan still had some concerns but was more clear. We spoke about the space at the end of the meeting where he could talk to the whole room. We navigated expectations about what could happen in that space and even agreed that I would nudge him to wrap up in the interest of time to make space for others if he spoke for more than a minute. (He did, I did, and he was gracious.)

Shirley sat near the door, out of earshot of any conversations and clutching her folder of letters yet to hand out, watching for any new arrivals.

Feeling heard

The process on offer was agony for Stan and Shirley because it did not align with what “feeling heard” feels like for them. The third person in agony was Steve, who also spoke up about his frustration with the conversational process in the meeting: “Everyone wants to hear what everyone else has to say.” I held my ground, and we proceeded with the conversations, with a commitment from me that if everyone landed in the same location, we’d stop and get back into the big group format (which didn’t happen). As with Stan, I checked in with Steve over the evening, and he also spoke clearly and concisely in the plenary debrief space at the end of the meeting.

What I heard: ‘I won’t feel heard until everyone hears me’

Stan and Steve’s insistence on having a process that allows everyone to stay together is not about “everyone hearing what everyone else has to say.” I heard: “I won’t feel heard until everyone hears me.” As I imagine it, they have an unmet need to feel heard, and a strategy they use to feel heard is to get angry. And, perhaps, look for someone to be mad at and an audience to validate their anger and, possibly, feel heard.

Shirley, Stan and Steve reflected different capacities — that night — to hear what other people had to say, even those who might share their opinion. Shirley did not participate in conversations and physically distanced herself from people. Stan and Steve, with some support from me, spoke directly to agency people, and Steve, in particular, spent time listening to other people.

Feeling heard before hearing

Conversation is a two-way experience: while I speak, you listen, and while you speak, I listen. When feeling not heard, we may slide into a habit of talking more loudly (like Stan and Steve) or not speaking at all (like Shirley), pulling us out of conversational space. When we do this for years or decades, we no longer know what conversation and “feeling heard” feel like. Pausing to make space to hear another’s words or to have someone listen to you may feel painful because it is an unfamiliar pattern. It is easier to be loud and angry, and any discomfort feeds more anger.

While forty-two other people willingly engaged in conversation — the purpose of the gathering — I needed to find a way to support Shirley, Stan and Steve to participate in a way that felt comfortable to them and not disruptive for the others. I didn’t need to know why conversation didn’t work for Shirley, Stan and Steve. I needed only to know what they wished to feel heard.

The time Stan and Steve chose to spend with me was important. They accepted a space where one person, rather than forty, heard some of what they had to say. In the end, they both spoke eloquently to the whole room in a more precise and “receivable” way than they would have 90 minutes earlier. Despite their knowledge, the conversations with me and others set them up for success. I now know that when I’m planning a gathering like this, I’ll think ahead to the people who might struggle with the process on offer and have some people on hand to spend time with them and support them to ease their resistance to conversation. They need someone to listen to them before they can imagine it possible to listen to anyone else. It might as well be us.

Who are we designing for?

The community planning team wanted to connect as many people as possible to each other; without saying it out loud to the forty-five people who gathered, they wanted to create a space where neighbours meet neighbours. In a town hall format, we hear from the few people who are comfortable being loud, but we do not hear the quiet voices. In a conversational process, the quiet voices do not always speak, just as Shirley did not speak, but there is a crucial element of agency: choice. Participants chose the topic and who they wanted to listen to or walk away from. And since the setting is less intense, they have more space to choose to speak.

When designing a gathering, it is essential to ask: Who are we designing the gathering for — the loud voices, the quiet voices or both? A town hall privileges people comfortable with being loud and ignores the quiet. A conversational process makes room for everyone but takes extra effort to support the loud to find their way, should they choose, into a conversational space where everyone might feel heard.

Reflection

  1. How often are you the loud or quiet voice in the room? Under what circumstances?
  2. Why are loud voices often uncomfortable being quiet?
  3. Why are quiet voices often uncomfortable being loud?

This article first appeared at www.bethsanders.ca

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Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.