How To Create Conversations That Matter – large group conversations that work!

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A major problem facing people leading large teams is, “How do I truly engage the people I lead with the direction that we are heading?”. Hosting a Conversation That Matters can significnatly enhance a team’s sense of shared direction and responsibility for where it is heading. In this episode Gary explains the key features of a Conversation That Matters and shares his experience of participating in a conversation with over 1,000 people!

It was the year 2000 and Andrew and I were attending the Systems Thinking in Action Conference in San Diego, USA. Andrew had attended this conference several times before but it was my first time attending a conference in the USA, let alone one outside Australia. There was a buzz of excitement in the air as the 1,000 delegates from around the world were waiting to file in to the large auditorium for the keynote speech on the first morning. All of a sudden a piano commenced playing in a modern classical style. “This is interesting” I recall thinking to myself.

The hotel staff simultaneously opened four or five large doors so that we could enter the conference venue. My eyes were met with amazement. Rather than the seats being arranged in rows (which was all I had ever experienced at conferences) the seats were arranged in groups of four around small, round, cafe sized tables. Each table was covered with a cafe style cloth, had a large piece of butcher’s paper on it with some coloured pens in the middle of the table, a “menu” that included some rules for how we would conduct our conversations and a small flow placed in the middle of the table. With the smell of coffee emanating from the stalls across the back of the room, I felt as if I had just walked into a huge cafe!

Within minutes the place was buzzing with excitement. This was different. I sensed it. Andrew sensed it. Everyone seemed to sense it. Our host walked to the podium and introduced himself. He was Daniel Kim one of the co-founders of Pegasus Communications who were conducting the conference. Daniel explained that he was going to provide the first keynote of the conference and that he would also be playing the role of ‘theme weaver’ throughout the conference. He then explained that his keynote would not be a ‘talking at’ event, rather it would be a ‘talking with’ experience. “How is that possible? There are over 1,000 people in this venue at the moment. How can we hold a conversation together?” is the immediate thought that went through my mind. But hold a conversation we did. It was truly amazing.

Daniel shared with us a process that he had learned from Juanita Brown and David Isaacs. Upon leaving the conference venue that morning Andrew and I looked at each other and said that we had to find out more about the process because it fitted perfectly with our perspective of including people who were working on issues that directly impacted them. It also seemed to solve our problem of creating a shared understanding amongst large numbers of people. As a result we have been conducting our version of Conversation Cafes (we call them Conversations That Matter or Strategic Conversations) ever since.

We have worked with many, many different organisations and groups of people and the process continues to work. People like to be able to have their say, but not everyone likes to have their say in front of everyone else, which is why the Conversations That Matter process is so effective. It allows people to have their say while also enabling people who might not normally have an opportunity to speak with each other to have a clear and focused conversation about issues that concern both parties. The process works for group sizes as small as 12 through to more than 1,000 people as our story above highlights. We have also modified the process for groups smaller than 12 using some of the core principles of hosting Conversations That Matter.

The process is relatively simple and includes the following features:
* People sit together in small groups (ideally 3 – 5 people per table)
* Butchers paper and coloured textas are provided at each table
* People are encouraged to have tea, water of coffee while they converse * A brief overview of the process is provided including the etiquette for the conversations
* The first question is posed to the group and the people at each table hold a conversation for 10 – 15 minutes, recording whatever they like on their butcher’s paper
* After 10 – 15 minutes one person stays at their table and acts as the ‘host’, while the other 3 – 4 people who were at the table move on to separate tables for a second ’round’ on the question
* The host welcomes the new people to the table, explains the conversation that had taken place in Round 1, and then invites the new people to share their conversations (this is called ‘cross pollination” of the conversation)
* Depending on the issue and numbers of people present, a third ’round’ on the first question may be conducted
* A ‘town hall’ process is then held to capture themes and patterns that have emerged from the conversations
* Over-all two to four questions are usually posed to the group following the process outlined above
* The final question usually focuses upon a call to action, so that people can clearly see something will happen as a result of the conversation

While the process is simple, creating the right questions to ask is not so simple. Also, this process should only be used when there is a genuine desire to have input from the people participating in the conversation. If you are in a position to include people in conversations about issues that directly affect them, then we encourage you to adopt a Strategic Conversation process because quite simply, they work!

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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