What is Structured Conversation?

Most conversations are not consciously structured ahead of time. Rather, the shape they take emerges organically through the people who are present.

A few recent experiences have led me to believe that while there is nothing wrong with these kinds of organic, unstructured conversations, there are lots of incredibly effective ways to bring a little bit of structure into group settings, often leading to a much more interesting and inclusive experience.

Last week I went to a dinner of 5 people; all of whom I barely knew. The food was delicious - a courgette risotto accompanied by a beetroot and cabbage salad. The conversation was beautiful and meandering. We started with ultra-marathons and triathalons, went on to familial relationships and the toll that an illness in the family can take on an otherwise strong family unit. We discussed medical specializations, the pressure of being called upon in an emergency you are undertrained for, capoeira and the fantastic body control that dancers have, how judo practitioners are taught how to fall in a way that rock-climbers, and some acro-yoga people, don't seem to practice enough.

I had a wonderful time at this dinner, and it serves as an example of an unstructured conversation.

However, even in a group as small as 5 people, there are some subtle failure modes that can tend to crop up. I believe the difficulty is most visible in the moment at which the person who is currently speaking seems as though they are about to stop speaking, and several other people in the group lift perceptibly as they attempt to enter the conversation next.

Perhaps this can be termed "the art of getting a word in edgeways". It reveals something that we are all guilty of, that we often spend our "listening" time in conversations thinking about what we are going to say next, and more neurotically, how we are going to be perceived by the group when we do start speaking. Another risk here is that people who are naturally extroverted or gregarious will tend to do better at squeezing in to the space left by the previous speaker and will therefore dominate the conversation, leaving other people feeling like they are on the fringes. This disparity becomes more pronounced as the size of the group increases. Also, failing to squeeze in to the gap can sometimes mean that the point will never get made, because the conversation might go in a direction where that point no longer makes sense, and it can be a pain to have to keep circling back to something that was said earlier.

Finally, because the direction of this kind of unstructured conversation is determined by the collective center of gravity, it can sometimes mean that the topics which get discussed are mostly relevant to a subset of participants, and if they include jargon or insider information, the conversation can leave some people feeling left out.

When group conversations of this sort go incredibly well, it is often because the participants already have a great rapport with each other, and so know each other’s ticks and interests. Alternatively, if there is someone in the group who is actively playing the role of bringing people in (the “includer”, “conversation leader”, or “invisible facilitator”), that can lead to a great dynamic for everyone. I know some people who perform this function amazingly well but I believe it requires a fairly large amount of skill, perception, energy and active attention in order to do well. I have observed that when people are performing this role very well, it can often go unnoticed by other group members, but that it sometimes is perceived as charisma and a sense of confidence.

So to recap, some possible problems with unstructured conversations are that:

  • a few people might dominate
  • people feel like they need to prepare their contribution instead of actively listening to what others are saying
  • missing the opportunity to speak might mean being unable to make that point without derailing the conversation
  • the overall direction of the conversation is driven by the collective centre of gravity which can leave some people feeling uninterested in the conversation.

In contrast, I have now had several experiences of structured conversations, and they have led me to believe that there is probably room in my life for many more of them.

So what is a structured conversation?

The first example of a structured conversation that comes to mind, for me, is from university. A few weeks before graduation, a trip called the Senior Outdoor Reflections Trip (SORT) was organized, where we were put into groups of around 7-8 and taken on a week-long hike through the White Mountains in New England. On the first night of the trek, after stringing a rope between two trees and draping a tarp over it to serve as a shelter, we huddled under the sounds of pit-pattering raindrops, and played a game called "5 Minute Introductions". The premise of the game was very simple, that each person is given 5 minutes in which to introduce themselves, and during that time, no one else will interrupt or interject. The person can use their 5-minutes however they like and can speak as deeply or as superficially as they wish.

My first reaction to this was that 5 minutes sounds like a long time to fill speaking contemporaneously. However, in our group, the second person to speak shared an incredibly personal story which she had never delivered in a group of strangers before. By making herself so vulnerable, it broke the whole group wide open and it encouraged everyone else to also share their deepest truths. I have since played this game with several other groups, and I have found that most people do not struggle to fill 5-minutes, and have so much to say that they struggle to wrap up when the 5-minute timer rings. Most people relish this moment since they are being listened to unequivocally and being given a period of time which is wholly theirs, where they won't be interrupted or intruded upon.

The next example that comes to mind is from the meditation retreat I went on last month. The 9-day retreat was spent mostly in silence, except for group sessions which happened every other day. In each session, 7 people would sit in a room with one of the meditation teachers, and each person would take turns speaking 1-on-1 with the teacher while everyone else listened. There was no cross-talk, question asking, or commentary from the other group participants in response to what was said, and it was much easier to protect the confidentiality of the space because we all went back into silence after the group session was over.

It makes sense to wonder what the benefit is of having the additional 6 participants in the room, since all of the action is taking place between a single person and the teacher? Ignoring logistical concerns, surely it would make more sense to have each person see the teacher in sequence rather than as a whole group?

As a speaker, I found that there were several interesting benefits. First, knowing there will be no interruptions or commentary makes it much easier not to worry about what other people will think of you, while simultaneously feeling heard by the group. Second, you are not worried about eating into other people's time or dominating the conversation because you are aware that the structure guarantees that other people will have their opportunity too. We didn't timekeep, but we had a rough sense of how much time the meeting would take, and therefore how much time each person had (~8 minutes), but if an individual or the entire meeting went long, it was understood that this was not a problem.

As a listener, the main benefit was that it encouraged us to practice active listening much more deeply. By removing the expectation that we would need to offer a response (and perhaps be judged on the quality of our responses), it freed us up to listen and only listen to what was being said, without needing to spend our listening time thinking about what we would say next. (Though admittedly, for people who spoke before me, I did spend some listening time formulating what I would say when it would be my turn to speak with the teacher).

At the end of the meditation retreat we did another structured conversation exercise, this time with just two people. We were asked to sit across from our partner and for the first round we were asked to describe something we had learned during the meditation retreat to our partner. Our partner was not allowed to interrupt, respond, or offer commentary afterwards.

When groups get sufficiently large, conversation becomes impossible without an imposed structure. I am thinking here of the British Houses of Parliament, where debates are chaired by the Speaker of the House, who brings people in only after they have declared an intent to speak by standing up, and enforces that only one person is speaking at a time. Or, I can think of ~25 person seminars at university, where the professor would often ask a question and then "collect" a group of people who wanted to respond by writing their names on the board, and then work down the list while also synthesising their comments into the broader discussion. I have also heard of techniques where the chairperson will ask that people raise a hand if they have a large comment that would take the conversation in a different direction, and raise only a finger if they have a small comment that is an immediate response to something that was just said. This gives the chair control of how and when to move between topics while making sure that comments are not sliding past unchecked.

For conversations between only two people, there is perhaps less need for structure because each person has enough control that the issues raised above don't present themselves.

However, it seems to me that there is a sweet spot in the 4-12 person range where adding a small amount of structure would enrich the conversations massively, and I suspect that there is much more room in my life for these kinds of structured conversations.

One final example comes from a breakfast I attended yesterday. This time there were 12 people sat around a beautiful breakfast platter at a vegan restaurant in Brixton. After a brief round of introductions where each person addressed the entire group, we were broken off into pairs and each given a "take-it-or-leave-it" prompt to help break the ice. Then, after 15 minutes or so of conversation, each pair reported back into the group with something they had learned or noticed from their conversation. The pairs were then disbanded and new pairs were formed by the host, who paid particular attention to connect people who she thought would benefit from talking to one another. The pairing process repeated 3 times during the breakfast.

In this example it is absolutely clear to me that the structure created a much better experience than I would have gotten if we had tried to have a 12-person free-for-all. It meant that we all got much more speaking time than we would have gotten in the alternative case, and feeding back into the group meant that I still felt like I was getting to know people even if I was never paired directly with them.

To recap, some of the benefits that structured conversation can bring to small groups:

  • People feel listened to because they are not being interrupted.
  • It is possible to practice active listening more deeply if you know you are not expected to speak.
  • The speaker can be less worried about how they are coming across, because they won't be engaged mid way through a thought.
  • Taking ownership of your time - because time for everyone is built into the structure of the conversation.
  • Everyone gets to participate - a well mediated conversation is much less likely to be dominated by only a few people.

I am excited to try these kinds of techniques more, and to see what types of relationships can be formed by taking on a more active facilition role.

Next on my reading list is: The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.

Thanks to Isla and Steph for providing comments on a draft of this piece.

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