Rules of the Road: Designing the Structure in Difficult Conversations
Every time I drive down an undivided highway, speeding along at 60 mph past cars whizzing to my left and right, I am amazed that this is possible - mostly without incident. I remember learning to navigate the winding Berkshire Mountain roads as my father taught me to decipher the dividing lines. Sometimes the line in the middle is double striped (everybody stay in their lane), sometimes solid on our side and dotted on the other (they can pass; I cannot), sometimes solid on the other side and dotted on mine (I can pass; they cannot). This delicate dance, silent choreography, all based on impulses channeled by well thought out structures.
These structures - yield signs, flashing yellow lights, or blinkers - that tell us in varying ways to slow down and pay attention: change is underway. An encounter is coming. These systems, while legally enforced, are mostly adhered to by agreement - a tacit understanding that these structures allow us to move gracefully and efficiently. I follow the guidelines because others are willing to do the same and because when we all do, we all stay safe and get where we are going.
Conversations are complex journeys, too. And the most difficult ones are also best navigated with some well-placed structures, offering a design that channels our impulses in constructive ways. Think of the simple difficulty of deciding who gets to speak and for how long. I go to too many meetings where the most powerful or outspoken people speak first, last, and longest, and where some people don’t get to speak at all. Without implicit trust that the design of a conversation will help them be heard, people spend most of their time struggling for an entry point instead of deeply listening.
Meet the elegant, efficient, and beautifully simple “timed go-around.” We start in one place and go around the circle allowing people to speak in turn for up to two minutes. People know that they will get a turn and that everybody else will as well. There are rules of the road. They can actually listen without worrying that they will be held captive. It’s like coming to a 4-way stop sign and knowing who will go next – people are less anxious, less likely to barge into the intersection.
Like the intersection, it might feel restrictive to wait, an impediment to getting ahead. But conversations are like journeys we are taking together – so If people feel left behind, you’re no further ahead. And the reality is, there is always some restriction on us, whether we know it or not – the question is whether we leave it to the old patterns of power and group dynamics (“Steve always interrupts me!”), or will we choose to be explicit, fair, and mutually agree upon structures like a timed go-around. Once new patterns are established, structures can be relaxed because people actually internalize them; they become embedded into a group’s culture of communication.
Essential Partners once facilitated a large gathering of the leading environmental justice advocates in the country. These folks are used to holding forth for long periods of time advocating for their cause. You might imagine the look on their faces when we asked them to limit their comments to two minutes, and to wait to comment until the circle came around to them. Early in the day we had to use chimes to indicate when two minutes were up; we even had to step in and remind people to finish. While frustrating for speakers, it was a visible relief to the rest of the group. By midday, we kept time, but did not have to cut anyone off. They had begun to limit themselves. Instead of feeling rushed, we felt greater spaciousness and ease.
The structure went from feeling like a restriction to serving as a container and ultimately to an internalized pattern of collaboration, listening, and flow. Just like the guiding lines on a winding mountain roads, some simple structures in difficult conversations allow us all to get where we are going safely, gracefully, and together.