A Socratic Circle: creating space to talk about what matters most
I’ve been leading lots of sessions the last few months — and in so many of them there is this magical moment where it seems suddenly the conversation shifts from individual needs to collective possibility. I’ve stepped back to reflect on what might be happening to enable the depth of collaboration that is created and come up with a couple of ingredients that need to be present to go into the recipe. (Note: The November/December 2019 edition of the Harvard Business Review has an article entitled “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration”. I support everything outlined in that article and want to go a step further and expand the context to the public arena.)
Ingredient #1 requires that participants are willing to listen and talk with each other with empathy, open hearts and open minds. That doesn’t happen overnight; it comes from good participatory design where people build comfort, and then are supported to see each other as real human beings rather than simplified stories or opinions. It takes time for this to happen in a conversation. I sometimes call it “the settling” where people settle into the space and into being with each other. A gentle urge to go deeper in the interaction, a generous encouragement to share openly, and sometimes even a conversation about what creates a safe space can allow for this to happen.
That question about the need for a safe space comes up in most sessions I lead. Someone always says that they need “the space to be safe” so they can participate. I believe the responsibility for a safe space comes from all of us showing up in a way that promotes that safety. The leader of a conversation has a responsibility to intervene or call out comments or behaviours that create discomfort or fear so they can be explored further, and every participant has a responsibility to show up with behaviours that promote a conversation that makes them feel safe. The irony of this is that safety is created not when we are protected and basking in the familiar, but when we show up with open hearts and vulnerability and are met with empathy and kindness. Science at work notes that psychological safety in work teams happens when 5 ingredients are present: role clarity, peer support, interdependence, learning orientation, and positive leader relations. The research they reference points to established work teams with existing relationships. In my work in the public arena, those team dynamics and interactions are often not present, or worse sometimes fractured. That requires significant time, conversation and invitation to show up in new and different ways for people who may enter a conversation fearful, angry or uncomfortable to start.
Photo source: World Economic Forum, “Is your team in psychological danger?”
The World Economic Forum extends the idea of psychological safety and contrasts it with psychological danger outlining that danger is present when:
being wrong is avoided like the plague
blame is more important than gratitude
outlying views are ignored
Sound familiar? To me it sounds like every day in the public arena. We have to work with real intention and commitment to create a space that is safe enough to talk about our hardest challenges together.
Collaboration requires us to step into conversations about challenges and problems, and it requires us to stay in those conversations long enough to find real solutions. We often search for easy, simple answers to tough situations; unfortunately the easy answers are rarely the ones that work long-term. Sometimes those easy answers even make the problem worse. It takes courage to launch a conversation about challenging issues, and it takes even more courage and commitment to stay in that conversation where difficult things might be unearthed or where divergent views may be expressed. Sometimes its helpful to give people time and permission to explore together what they think it might take from them to find a resolution — this often generates a conversation about commitment to the relationships and the issue being discussed.
I’ve often had people tell me that they feel that a session is successful if everyone is happy. That is a lovely idea, however happiness is often a place of harmony where there is little divergence or difference. Divergence and difference are sources of new learning and the tension that comes from conflict leads to innovation, solutions and ultimately holds the possibility of a deeper understanding between people. I have long said that conflict is a signal that something needs to change. This perspective on conflict provides a positive outlook and reflects the opportunity that conflict presents.
I recently attended the International Coach Federation conference in Prague where Frans Johannson of The Medici Group was the opening keynote speaker. Frans gave an inspiring talk about creating the conditions for innovation where he emphasized how crucial diversity is in fostering innovation. He defines diversity as WHO we are (age, ethnicity, gender, culture, sexuality etc), WHAT we do (education, sector, role) and HOW we do it (thinking or interaction styles.) Check out this video of Frans giving an example of what it means to seek out diverse perspectives to solve problems in new and more innovative ways.
In the public arena we are always in danger of conversations full of like-minded people, or even worse, conversations where one group of like-minded people is pitted against another group of like-minded people who see things differently. When we invite people into these conversations and create a space where we can focus on curiosity and possibility rather than just agreeing to disagree we foster the conditions for real collaboration.
When we’ve got acceptance and inclusion with a dose of psychological safety, a commitment to stay in the conversation when things get hard, some conflict and divergent perspectives and experiences being explored things can get messy, emotional and go in unexpected directions. That requires leadership at the individual level to take responsibility for words, actions and behaviours that influence the conversation and interaction. This requires making choices to take accountability for our own reactions, interactions and participation, and how they impact others, even when the impacts are unintended.
Photo source: My Life Through a Lens on Unsplash
In order to find solutions to the challenges we face in our lives, organizations and communities we need to be willing to question our assumptions, challenge and extend our thinking and seek new innovations. The rules we hold about how to do things, what works and what doesn’t, how to approach challenges — all of these things are for a world that is moving slower with less complexity than the one we live in now. We need to be willing to take risks, try things and learn from failure, and throw a little spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
The word “collaborate” is one of the most overused words of the last few years. It is up there with words like synergy, sustainability, transparency and more it has become synonymous with people talking together. By using the word to cover every situation we lose the essence of what it really takes to use all the ingredients that result in a collaboration cake. My wish for you is that you step forward with courage and love, into the space of discomfort and possibility to create real collaboration.