Imagine sitting around a table with 7 other people, none of whom you had met before, sharing what you are learning at a conference. This is not your normal one liner conversation per participant that solicits polite head nods, follow on comments, and side bar discussions. Actually, the people around the table, as they listen to one another, begin disclosing successively deeper and more intimate reflections.
Is it possible to connect with people at a deep level rapidly? It is, according to Ed Schein, noted leadership and culture guru, and to the people who experienced this exercise with me at the 2010 Organization Design Forum Conference in Denver last week.
Schein argues that to begin building teams across cultures we need to create “cultural islands” where we suspend assumptions and typical rules of social order. The only way to learn about the deep assumptions of macro cultures is to create a microculture where people share experiences and their way of thinking in context of the group’s purpose and goals. This concept works extremely well even when working with teams from the same culture, as individual thought patterns and ways of seeing the world obviously differ across people.
Here’s the basic framework of the exercise:
- Have everyone sitting around the table focus on an object (vase, candy jar, pencil, etc) in the middle of the table. The participants will speak to this object, as if it were an actual campfire.
- Participants should avoid making eye contact with the other participants.
- Do a “check in” where everyone comments about their current state of being, motivation, feelings, thus contributing to the formation of the group.
- Frame a question that is pertinent to the reason the group is forming. In our case, it was about our learnings from the conference. For a team that is gathering to work towards a common organizational objective, Schein proposes two questions that get at power and trust: 1)Share an experience about a time when a person of authority was about to do something wrong. What was your reaction? 2) Share a situation where you had to decide whether or not to trust a coworker. What happened?
- The convener of the virtual campfire instructs that the participants are to listen to the question and to provide their responses, talking to the campfire. People respond in order going around the table. Participants must be willing to suspend impulses to agree, disagree, challenge, respond directly, clarify, and elaborate on what others are saying.
- When the responses have been given, time for reflection ensues. Then the convener asks for responses, comments and questions, all by having participants continue talking to the virtual campfire.
- Move on to the second question or set of questions. At the end of the questioning, solicit input on how the process helped the group understand different ways of thinking and seeing the world.
This exercise could easily be adapted for leadership team retreats, planning sessions, and critical decision meetings. By imposing a few simple rules that encourage active listening – not debate, discussion, or idea evaluation – it is amazing how deep the conversation can go and what people share that they, surprisingly, may not have even been conscious of prior to the exercise.
In other words, we need to learn to question ourselves and get out of the trap of constantly evaluating the rightness of others. Only then can we truly learn to listen – and truly hear – the other perspectives in the room with us.