How to design better conversations for better results

Conversation seems to happen by happenstance. Sometimes we might develop an agenda for a meeting, offering some structure, but rarely will we go beyond that. Fred Dust, a former senior partner and global managing director at the legendary design firm IDEO, says that’s not enough. We need to design our conversations so something great will occur.

Our working lives are a series of conversations, some mundane but others that have potential. He says those need a more substantive and intentional form of engagement. You must work to resolve differences, exploring hard issues and aiming for a positive outcome.

When conversations go bad, he says three symptoms are common: an evident imbalance in power dynamics; a lack of certainty about purpose; and a collapse into critique not so much of the ideas discussed but of the meeting itself, leading to a dispirited feeling. To counter those dangers, you must go beyond mere facilitation to an active creation – design – that involves seven essential conversation components:

  • Commitment: Usually we enter conversations with just one goal – convincing everyone else we’re right and they are wrong. Instead, people must commit to the conversation itself, and the open-ended exploration it offers if we let go of our own ideas.
  • Creative listening: He says most people aren’t good listeners, treating it like a chore, something that we must endure in order to gain our own chance to speak. Instead, as we listen we must actively search for clues to create something from the conversation. “With creative listening, we can learn to help people tell us better stories; to test perspectives other than our own; to embrace our own reactions and judgement,” he writes in his new book Making Conversation.
  • Clarity: Words can mislead. They might be complex or technical, or hindered by different meanings. A conversation needs to begin by seeking clarity and definition of words and terms, building a common language and even uncovering common values.
  • Context: We’re learning from moving our conversations online during the pandemic that where you hold a conversation can have a powerful impact. But it’s not just online or in person; what type and size of room and what’s in the room must be considered carefully. “The space, literally, sets the script: Some rooms give conversations extra energy and life, some turn dialogue inert,” he warns. To have a good conversation with your teenager he suggests the car, sitting in the front seat together, equal, not seeing each other’s face all the time, allowing conversations filled with pauses to ponder. When IDEO was hired by a European bank to look at engaging customers better, research uncovered the widespread comfort feel at the kitchen table and so instead of polished wood desks and glass walls the new offices had a series of kitchen tables.
  • Constraints: Every conversation has rules. Often they go unsaid or are arbitrary, leading to frustration – for example, the loudest voice dominates the discussion. You need rules to fuel creativity – to set people free for a solid discussion. TED talks won’t allow more than 18-minute presentations and that seems to ignite condensed magic. He suggests a Quaker-like moment of silence for deliberation in your meetings, but not at the start – later in the session.
  • Change: All conversations require a moment of change when a group of individuals become a community intent on conversation. One key he took away from walking the Camino de Santiago trail was that every single pilgrim offers only words of support. So encourage encouragement in your conversations. Various spiritual traditions remind us of the importance of rituals in creating change.
  • Creation: At some point, the talking ends and you start doing. “Creation is about moving from actionable ideas to just plain action,” he says.

So stop leaving conversational success to luck. Think of your role as a creator or co-creator.




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