Fred Dust is Senior Design Advisor at the Rockefeller Foundation and was previously Senior Partner and Global Managing Director at the international design company IDEO. As an architect and design thinker, he often had difficult conversations between stakeholders with very different points of view. As he explains in this excerpt from his new book Making Conversation on December 1st, the experience led him to consider how conversations themselves could be better designed, which led him to some life-changing insights.
Nowadays everyone I meet – friends and colleagues, even strangers at dinner parties – keeps asking me a variation on the same question: "I had this conversation today and it just didn't work." What do you think i did wrong? "
The headmistress wondered how she could better handle tough conversations with the powerful and wealthy parents of her students. A CEO who tries to deal with determination with caution. A mother in fear because her daughter's anorexia has turned the family table into a war zone. A board meeting that went wrong over a single word. A senior member of a police force who has difficulty discussing ethics with their officers.
Without wanting to, I become something of an expert at designing conversations.
Constructive conversation is one of mankind's first and most powerful tools. Conversations built our first communities and contributed to the advancement of emerging civilization. Public discourse has been the bedrock of democracy and has underpinned all aspects of government and governance throughout history. And whatever we think of our handheld devices and ping social media accounts, technological “advances” have resulted from constructive discussions. Creative collaboration brought humans to the moon and still kept us on the digital ether.
Courtesy HarperBusiness / HarperCollins Publishers
But lately we all seem to have lost the ability to talk to one another. Have productive conversations. Exchange ideas and promote them together.
Everything is going too fast. The news media encourage friction and faction. Politics and democratic dialogue seem lost to us and hit a new low point every day. The campuses are so divided according to race, class, and gender politics that institutions built on the dialogue are now afraid of hosting it in the first place. At one point we might have believed that others were wrong; Today we believe that others are lying.
In the meantime, our children are being driven inward and can only communicate through their devices. What we perceive through social media is only the thinnest part of who we are as humans. The “online discourse” takes place between ourselves, spirits in dialogue. We have lost our sense of humanity and this is reflected in the wickedness of the rhetoric that surrounds today's "conversation" on social media.
Sure, we always found it difficult to hold important conversations across political, socio-economic, gender, or racist boundaries. But now we have trouble speaking to the people who are closest to us. It happens between friends, family, co-workers, and people who share political beliefs and goals. The crack is visible everywhere.
Throughout my career, I've built my life on the idea that a fresh and creative approach to important conversations could save us. Could change the world. But in the last few years I've been increasingly desperate. I wasn't sure if I actually believed more in the power of creative conversation. It was like a loss of faith.
Like me bBecame a designer from conversations
It all started in 1988 when I dropped out of college to work with the HIV activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
ACT UP's early days felt like a creative revolution. So many of those affected by the disease have been artists, playwrights, and designers; Their approach to public protest was so fresh and transgressive that a movement about death felt alive. The die-ins. The slogan silence = death. The re-appropriation of the pink triangle – a remnant of the hallmark of gay men and women from the Nazi era who were sent to the concentration camps. It was new and modern, and the combination of activist methods and creative coalitions reinvented the landscape of modern protest.
That was the beginning of a journey for me. I was hunting something. I was able to see how art and social change could merge – how tough conversations could become both more provocative and positive through the introduction of creative practices.
A year later I returned to school and switched my studies from politics to art and art history. While the medium was different, the underlying stream I was engaged in was the same. I decided to study the long history of artists who had made social change through their work. I was looking for places where art and activism merged.
After graduation, I began working with artist activists like Yolanda Lopez and the Border Arts Workshop art collective, who did politically charged work on immigration in California, and Mary Kelly, who became infamous for documenting every aspect of her child's first year of life, drew excessive anger from the mostly male world of art critics. Her art was brave, clever, funny and beautiful, but also capable of encouraging bold change. It encouraged new forms of conversation in the world.
I soon discovered the architect Christopher Alexander, who had developed a method that allowed communities, towns, and neighbors to design their houses and town houses next to him. Today we would call it co-design. Basically it was a way to have a collective conversation and use that conversation to come up with solutions for this community.
To me it seemed like an evolution of my work, but it evolved from a creative political dialogue to a collective creative act. In 1997, I attended the architecture school at UC Berkeley to learn more about his practice.
I practiced as an architect in a company for a short time, but I missed the feeling of making a change. I missed the idea that creativity inspires conversation, things that I found at the core of my own creative practice.
I got to know IDEO by watching the iconic shopping cart video on Nightline. If you haven't seen it before, it follows the process of a large collaborative design team that takes a week to completely redesign a standard shopping cart. The essential humanity in this process spoke to my heart. IDEO felt like a place where design and real change could take place.
I joined the company in 2000 and built IDEO's architectural office. The nature of the design culture at IDEO was very collaborative and it wasn't difficult to extend that process to the people we designed for.
I have personally committed to breaking down the language of architecture in order to simplify the process and principles so that our customers can really help shape it. We had nurses design patient rooms. We built rough classroom concepts in full and walked around the room with teachers to change them on the fly. It was design as an engineered and constructive conversation, an evolution of what I had seen in Alexander's design process.
Schools, nonprofits, philanthropy, and governments came to see how we could solve bigger, more systemic problems. These were challenges emerging, but I realized that this was the type of work I really wanted to do: bringing people together to use creativity to make change. And everything we did started with real conversation.
We have started building a business that focuses on working with these very diverse organizations to address larger, systemic and societal issues such as income inequality, gun violence and health care.
These types of projects have meant bringing groups together in "cross-sectoral" discussions – nonprofits and foundations, nonprofits and private companies, and government. These conversations were of course incredibly exhausting. The three sectors often had very different reasons for getting involved. With that came the more subtle problems. Sometimes there was no common language; In other cases there were different ideas about how a conversation should take place or how quickly things should move. Very early on in this work, I realized that our existing tools were not good enough when we brought together different stakeholders, communities, and political and cultural entities in the hope of change.
By 2016, we had successfully deployed new conversation formats to address design issues, ranging from working with the newly formed Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection to working with nonprofits and farmers in the Andes. I structured discussions about health, anxiety and stress with the general surgeon and examined how the dialogue in the town squares of the Greek villages could help to alleviate the weight of the Greek financial crisis. I led new formats with the elite at the Aspen Institute and with victims of gun violence in Brooklyn.
Our formats ranged in scope and intended impact. They broke conversational conventions, they had new and stricter rules, they built in movement or props, there was both choreography and craft in their construction.
We made progress. We talked.
Which conversations are important?
Quick chats, coffee catch-up, gossip in the hallway, and nightly laughter with loved ones can be life's best gifts. However, the conversations I focus on are a more substantive and deliberate form of engagement that usually have three things in common.
First, there is a difference. The people in the room cannot all be the same or agree.
Second, it feels difficult. Important conversations are about dealing with difficult topics – often about strategy, politics or emotionally charged topics.
Third, something is done in addition to the conversation. Too often we experience a kind of “conversation fatigue” that arises from the fact that it seems to be turning out so little. This is the greatest risk: little will come of it. A creative conversation has to move us forward. It has to help us move from thinking and speaking to acting. Agreement cannot be enough; Action is required.
The targeted burden I place on the term conversation is that it must help resolve differences, investigate difficult problems, and aim for a positive outcome.
The conversations you choose to use creative energy on can be global in nature, discussions that cross the lines of international conflict, or the future of climate change. Or, they can also be more personal, exposing harsh truths to those you love. These seemingly small domestic conversations can also be designed.
What designers bring to the conversation
When we think of those who can have tough conversations, we are more likely to think of professionals with sophisticated, even extreme, tools: moderators, mediators, psychologists, hostage-takers. But . . . As you approach dialogue as a designer, it means that you treat dialogue as something that you create, as something you design, rather than something you facilitate.
It's tremendously liberating. There are new opportunities when you can think about how to influence the structure and feel of a conversation through design rather than willpower. It doesn't depend on your interpersonal skills, but on another ability: the ability to identify and design opportunities to shape outcomes and impact.
Think of creativity as a benevolent force to wield when conversations go astray. The most powerful thing about applying creative constructs to the conversations you have is that they can help balance the power, protect against inequalities, and do so in a way that is built into the structures that govern the conversations.
Have a conversation
When I started researching this book, I found hope again. I felt like I could write and speak optimistically about the future of the conversation without being foolish optimism. Why?
Again and again I found references to people who had persevered and had tough conversations in all sorts of surprising contexts. I saw more people bridging separations than falling into them. I've seen people deal with difficult subjects, not fear, but some kind of excitement, even joy.
It became clear that there are seven essential components that I consider the seven Cs of creative conversation:
ENGAGEMENT Most of us have conversations with just one aim: to convince everyone else that we are right and that they are wrong. And why shouldn't we? When we hold on to our beliefs, we feel safe and powerful. But creative conversations are very different. It's all about unlimited exploration. Letting go of our own ideas, or at least not holding onto them as tightly. Commit to the conversation yourself. Commitment to the people we talk to.
CREATIVE LISTENING Most people are not good listeners and few of us actually enjoy it. We treat it like a chore, nod along, dutifully silent, and wait for our turn. Listening can really be a creative act – generative, satisfying, and enjoyable. By listening creatively, we can learn to help people tell us better stories. to test perspectives other than our own; accept our own reactions and our own judgment. When we listen in this way, we are actively seeking clues to creation.
CLARITY Conversations are based on their most basic element: words. But words are full of misunderstandings. There is complex or technical jargon that not everyone understands. There are words that we use every day that we think have a common meaning but don't. As a result, so much conversation gets lost in the gap between the words we hear and the meaning behind the words someone else is using. However, if we start a conversation by seeking clarity and definition in the words and concepts we use, we can build a common language and even uncover common values.
CONTEXT Where you have a conversation has a big impact on how the conversation goes. The room literally determines the script: some rooms give conversation additional energy and life, others make the dialogue sluggish. Sometimes this means rearranging an available space or moving to another. Sometimes just a slight shift in position can have a huge impact on the type of conversations that are possible.
RESTRICTIONS Every conversation has rules. But too often the rules are unspecified, arbitrary or unfair. As a result, everyone gets frustrated, nothing feels fair or productive, and the loudest voice dominates and reduces the dialogue to its own monologue. But, as any designer will tell you, constraints can fuel creativity. Rules can set us free. First, we need to reject someone else's rulebook and design better constraints on the conversations we want to have and the communities we want to build.
CHANGE All creative conversations require a moment of change – when a group of people becomes a community focused on creation. This moment of collective change allows us to introduce ourselves, move a conversation forward, and inspire the potential for action.
CREATION When do we stop talking and just start? So many high-impact conversations produce remarkable ideas, and so many of those ideas never leave this room. Creation is about moving from actionable ideas to simple action. Creation means becoming real, whether the people in conversation are the ones who can realize the ideas. Creation is about taking that conversation out into the world.
If you feel like you can't have a conversation, or if the world seems to be spreading the idea, remember: you can and people are. Don't succumb.
When a conversation seems difficult, when it makes you nervous, when you feel vulnerable or nervous, think about this core lesson: Conversation is always an act of creativity.
We don't just have to participate in conversations or become victims of conversation. We can be the makers of the conversations that matter most.
Excerpt from the conversation. Copyright © 2020 by Fred Dust. Reprinted here with permission from HarperBusiness, Reprinted from HarperCollins Publishers
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