Pulling a Thread: Facilitating a Good Conversation

Pulling a Thread: Facilitating a Good Conversation

In deeply divided times, and with so many forces competing for our attention, a good conversation is rare. I’m not referring to casual pleasantries, but to authentic challenge-your-thinking conversations with someone who holds a different point of view. We can go days and months with only the most perfunctory interactions, often aided by social channels and digital devices. 

But what are we sacrificing by not challenging ourselves to more? 

Good conversations build trust, invite learning and break down barriers. They are among the core business processes of successful organizations. They represent the most active form of learning we engage in every day – at work, at home or in the community. And the ability to encourage a good conversation is the most important characteristic of successful leaders

But a good conversation takes work and practice. And, in today’s environment, a new set of skills. But it also takes some help.

It’s not enough to simply get a group of colleagues or neighbors together to talk. And if the topic on the table is challenging (like diversity, inclusion or politics), we tend to hold back for fear of offending someone, or, even worse, inadvertently stoking the fires of division. 

Books@Work builds and conditions the muscles of effective conversation. 

Enter the facilitator – a trained expert that shapes a discussion and re-engages the participants when a conversation gets awkward. We recruit and coach faculty who are naturally curious and keen to learn with the group. In fact, a Books@Work facilitator both leads and responds, balancing questioning and listening to permit a group to connect to the story and to each other. 

Books@Work with an engineering team in a global manufacturing company.

We start in a book or a story to ground the discussion. A story is an indirect entry to some of the most sensitive aspects of the human condition.  But the story is only a starting point. 

By asking thoughtful questions, grounded in preparation but also building on the insights and reactions of the participants, a good facilitator deepens and intensifies an otherwise surface level conversation. He or she maintains the focus, engages everyone and makes space for quieter voices. Stepping back when appropriate but pushing when needed, a facilitator – especially an outside facilitator – enables participants to delve into corners and places they would not have gone alone. 

A participant recently commented that one of the most powerful moments of his Books@Work experience was instigated by the facilitating professor.  He “pulled on a thread in the story that was less obvious, and it changed my point of view entirely.” 

We are all guided by our own personal filters that color and shape the world we see. In removing the proverbial wool from our eyes, this “pulling on a thread” unravels our biases and challenges our paradigms. A facilitator is like a coach that models and helps us to focus on these limiting points of view, widening the lens of awareness. He or she demonstrates the very process of pulling new threads, leaving participants eager, able and ready to pull their own. 

Case in point: several teams that regularly engage in Books@Work actively schedule their sessions before addressing a difficult business topic, to tune the muscles and to create an environment for healthy and respectful disagreement and debate. One leader explained the connection: 

“Books@Work has helped with our focus and the speed of execution. We do a lot less interrogating of each other’s mental models than we used to because we’ve honed our critical thinking and practiced deep inquiry. The team is more accustomed to engaging with each other on challenging topics, and we are ready to tackle the elephant in the room with ease and openness.” 

To move toward effective and meaningful conversations – the ones that solve problems and spur innovation – we must be willing to hear and explore completely different approaches to shared issues. 

Well-facilitated story-based discussions encourage participants to read, ask questions and entertain ideas with a new openness to diverse perspectives. More than just an engaging activity, this is a critical practice for the kinds of discussions and debates collaborative and inclusive organizations need to encourage every day. 

We all know how to talk. But a good conversation takes help.

Image credit: Photo by Tara Evans on Unsplash

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith


Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.