Conversations that inspire action

31 Aug

You know the difference between a conversation that energizes you and one that saps you. What makes the difference? Sometimes, it’s how you feel about the people you’re talking with, or the particular issue being discussed. But how we frame a conversation also powerfully affects its energy. Under the surface of the “who” and the “what”, the questions that frame a conversation influence its momentum like an unseen river current.

I’m currently helping several different community organizations to frame “calls to action” on a variety of projects. As we plan, we’re mindful of  being authentic about the purpose of public conversations: to engage people around real opportunities for direction-setting, without paralyzing action by trying to get everyone on the same page.

The four conversations that build community” is a great article by author Jack Ricchiuto that speaks to this leadership challenge. Ricchiuto offers four conversation starters to generate meaningful input and energy for collective community action. Paraphrased, they are as follows:

  • What’s our dream? What would be a source of pride and delight 20 years from now? (vs. focusing the conversation on what’s wrong that needs to be fixed?)
  • What small acts can we take now? What small experiments could we undertake to move us toward this dream (vs. what can we all agree on?)
  • What talents or resources do we have already that we could apply to our dream? (vs. what don’t we have? What are we lacking)
  • Who else could bring value to this conversation? (vs. who’s missing? Whose fault is it that we can’t be successful?)

There’s an inherent tension between framing conversation to build consensus (Ricchiuto’s first question) and framing to build momentum (his second question). I experienced an “aha- duh!” moment when I realized that consensus-building, a core principle for much community development work, is not an all-purpose mode for conversation. Two things especially resonate with my experience.

When consensus-building inspires: A shared, clear and positive vision for the future is foundational for everything else that an organization undertakes. It’s important to take the time to engage everyone; to pause as needed to build consensus around vision. This agreement-building conversation surfaces shared passions and thus inspires action.

When it saps energy: It can be counterproductive to focus on building consensus for specific action steps. We can spin our wheels and miss windows of opportunity trying to determine and sequence the optimal action plan. We can lose potentially ground-breaking ideas in favor of the lowest common denominator of agreement. We can get sidetracked by trying to satisfy all stakeholders, even those who really don’t want anything to happen.  Inspiring conversations about action free people to act quickly with clear purpose. Such conversation is peppered with the back and forth of “We can try this. Can you help?”

Conversations that inspire action take many forms. It’s a true leadership challenge to choose effective framing questions as projects move from the raw idea stage to implementation.