Setting a Table for a Fearless Conversation
Questions come up about HOW to have fearless conversations, sometimes called "hard conversations", "difficult conversations".
Facilitators typically refer to the need to build a "container" in which a challenging conversation can occur. A container usually is a set of agreements that participants consent to that will support having a successful conversation.
I liken building a container to setting a table.
Setting a table introduces the notion of hospitality. The intent is to invite each person's wholehearted engagement given whatever thoughts, feelings, needs, beliefs, information, ideas, perspectives they bring. The first step in setting a table is to listen - that is to listen deeply to each person to hear what they are bringing to the table. I usually ask something like: "Tell us what is alive in you [about such-and-so]." "What is mattering most to you about . . . ?" We don't respond in any way - just take in what we hear.
After we have listened to each person, I ask what fears or worries seem to be present. Sometimes people speak up for themselves. Sometimes people just offer what they heard. There are no right or wrong answers. Some typical examples are fear or worry about:
- getting angry
- hurting someone
- being hurt
- not being understood
- being judged
- getting too emotional.
This is an important step in setting a table. It begins to change the power of fears and worries as barriers to challenging conversations. Instead, people begin to relax and feel supported.
Then I ask for requests. Each person has a chance to ask for something that will help him or her "stay at the table". For example: "If I say something hurtful, will you tell me rather than keep silent about it?" "Can we agree that everything that is said here is confidential?" The requests lead to some agreements that I usually write on a flip chart or we note in a simple way. The agreements keep us grounded in the knowledge of the needs and values of everyone at the table. The table is set for a fearless conversation.