Every so often, conversations within a meeting, or between meetings, or maybe over the lunch table, enter into a dialogue zone that’s so productive, so creative, so exciting that everyone in the group takes notice. Thoughts flow rapidly and freely, people listen carefully and genuinely understand one another, and new ideas are meaningfully built and questioned. Looking back, you sense that something remarkable has taken place, maybe a breakthrough, or as I like to call it, an aha! moment. It feels great!
What just happened? Why now? How do we do this again?
While it may feel like these moments come about out of the blue, there are actually ways to intentionally support this kind of creative, positive exchange of ideas. With intention and practice, we can increase the likelihood of those aha! moments in our work. Two frameworks that can help in this area are the concept of flow, and the cultivation of skillful dialogue.
The psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term flow to describe “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Flow is often associated with athletes or artists, but can occur with any activity or task.
Csikszentmihalyi describes 8 characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task
- Clear goals and indicators of success
- Perceived speeding up/slowing down of time
- Intrinsic enjoyment of the task itself
- Effortlessness and ease
- A balance between challenge and skills
- Merging of actions and awareness
- A feeling of control over the task
As I review these characteristics, I can’t help wondering how much of my day I really allow myself complete concentration on a task. Not very often, is the honest reply. Whether I’m sitting at my desk attempting to work through my to do list, or making dinner, like most of us, I’m usually only partially attending to the task. I’m simultaneously attending to the flashes on my phone screen, glancing at my email, wondering about this or that with the kids or my extended family… Those little distractions quickly accumulate!
Recognizing that psychologists have done lots of research into the factors that contribute to flow, my hunch is that if we give ourselves (and others) the gift of complete concentration, we’ll have made a significant start. I know from facilitating hundreds of meetings that the ones where all participants give their deep attention to the challenge at hand, listening and conversing, letting creative connections and thoughts flow into the “middle,” these are the sessions that feel most effective and energizing. Such sessions end with great excitement, high fives, and a recognition that the “win” came from everyone building upon each other’s ideas and questions into a collectively devised and owned solution. The aha! moments have “flowed” out of the group as a whole.
In facilitating adaptive change processes, my colleagues and I at EmcArts spend much of our time helping teams gain the skills needed to grapple with difficult ideas in a respectful, productive way. We do this primarily by helping the team members develop their individual and collective practices of reflection, and of balancing advocacy and inquiry.
We understand these terms to mean:
Reflection – becoming more aware of your own and others’ thinking and reasoning
Advocacy – making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others
Inquiry – inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning with genuine curiosity
As groups become effective teams, they use these tools to share their assumptions, their experiences, and their beliefs and anxieties about the project or challenge openly, without feeling anxious that they are being “judged” or are “wrong.” This can allow these teams to turn the corner and begin to suspend their assumptions and presuppositions, or at least hold them more lightly. And voilà! – they create a “container” in which their collective thinking, and those elusive aha! moments, can emerge. This is true dialogue.
We practice dialogue by being genuinely curious:
“Why do you think there’s an opportunity in that neighborhood? I’m intrigued – I’ve never seen it as an area worth considering.”
We also practice by making our reasoning explicit, even when we don’t feel clear or confident and it’s more of a hunch:
“I’m not sure why I see it that way. It’s just a feeling I have from recent conversations and the feedback we got from subscribers. I think there’s a real sense of openness in the neighborhood, though I don’t think they’ll make the first move.”
“Thanks for explaining! I don’t think I see that openness. My sense from the feedback we got was that these neighborhood associations weren’t interested. What did you hear that makes you think they might be?”
Balancing advocacy and inquiry creates a space where we can ask others about their assumptions without attacking or appearing unhelpfully critical.
As you get ready for the next week’s various meetings and conversations, take some time to consider how you might create conditions that will more likely foster flow and skillful dialogue. Maybe your next meeting will end with high fives, celebrating the aha! moments you’ve reached together!