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We communicate all day long, through words, signs and body language. But how many of us communicate mindfully and with consciousness? Do you know how to have constructive conversations when views differ?

For the past nine months, the Capacity team at Catalyst have been practicing how to communicate better. We also wanted to learn to support others to do the same. As partnership managers, it's our role to help meaningful collaborations. 

We have had the support of the brilliant Abi Handley and Pete Burden from Outlandish throughout. With their guidance and coaching we’ve adopted processes that give us the tools to support teams. These tools enable teams to be clearer in expressing what they need. They support decision making and action; no more endless discussions. We know you can relate! 

Group Development 

People are at the heart of any team. Members of the team bring a variety of backgrounds and experiences that add to an eclectic mix of skills, views and opinions. There is power in this diversity, yet all too often it can cause friction. Teams risk being trapped in ‘storming’ or ‘norming’ stages. (ref)

Source: The Coaching tool Company

For a team to move past this stage - into 'performing' -  requires a clear approach.  This approach needs a healthy dose of motivation, trust and honesty.  This is exactly what we have been working on. 

As a new team, we needed to learn how to work well together. Then we could use these skills to support others. Pete and Abi introduced us to different ways to create opportunities for members of the team to grow as individuals as well as together.

Consent-based decision making

Consent-based decision provides a way to take a step towards a shared common goal, while giving everyone a chance to be heard. The aim is to create a safe and productive environment for the team to take steps forward (small or big) with equality in voice. This enables learning and change to happen; where uncertainty meets psychologically safe spaces.

Any member of the team can make a proposal which goes through structured rounds of ‘clarifying questions’ and ‘critical concerns’. When there are no outstanding clarifying questions or critical concerns, the proposal is accepted. 

The approach challenges you to think about the distinction between your personal preferences and your range of tolerance. By embracing this 'uncertain but safe' space, teams can make consensual decisions. The idea is to reach a decision together that might not be perfect, but is ‘good enough for now, and safe enough to try’. 

Preference -vs- range of tolerance 

I like chocolate, so when we have in-person meetings (remember those!?) I would like us to have chocolate as a snack (=preference). Actually, it is the sugar in the chocolate that helps me get the energy boost I like to have during meetings, so any sugary treat at the meeting will be fine with me (=range of tolerance).

Feelings, Observations, Needs and Thoughts (FONT) 

FONT* enables individuals to better understand their decisions and actions. For example: I use it to prepare for meetings to help me be clear what I hope to get out of a meeting. Post conversation, it is a great tool to reflect and put things in place.

* a bricolage that draws on theories of Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication, Thomas Gordon's work on I-statements and requests, Gervase Bushe's Clear Language and 'experience cube', and others

Reflective Listening

Reflective listening requires listeners to pay attention to content and feeling in conversation. The listener actively focuses on hearing and understanding, then checks back in with the speaker. This provides a conscious opportunity to make sure their message has been understood. 

In reflecting back, the listener can support the speaker to communicate clearly. In turn, this enables open, honest conversation.

Jessica Perkins - The PlayFULL Way

What has and hasn’t worked well for us so far?

As with anything new and complex it has been a steady journey of trialling, reflecting and developing. It is a continuous learning experience so we need to remember to be patient, learn together and adjust the pace when it feels right. 

Here's what we've learnt:

  • We really valued the role of our facilitators. Pete and Abi helped us to learn and embed new practices.
  • Using the FONT model is a great way to enable more emotive conversations to take place, and to create greater clarity for the listener as well the speaker.
  • However we have found it harder to apply FONT in a natural, non-structured, way so it doesn't obstruct the conversation. We think that with more practice we can support other to be clearer about their observations, feelings, thoughts and needs in conversations.  
  • Practicing reflective listening works well in 1:1 and within small groups. At first it takes up time, but with practice this actually really supports constructive conversations.
  • Reflective listing when one of you is tired or has a lot on their mind is really difficult...
  • ...making it important to check in first! Make sure you've got the capacity to use this tool, and be honest if you can't.
  • We have been exploring with quick voting rounds to move forward on a suggestion or proposal. Roman voting (thumbs up, sideways or down) is a great way to accept or reject and enables the conversation to move forward. We used it in our peer workshop to set an agenda and decide if we need more time to discuss a point. 
  • Consent-based decision-making is now the default in our team.
  • We're able to use consent-based decision making with 1 or 2 'new people', but it's more challenging in bigger groups.

What we want to practise:

  • Practising consent decision making with people outside our direct five person team.
  • Listening more reflectively in all kinds of conversations we have.
  • Finding a natural way to reflect without ‘spelling it out’. It seems right to start with ourselves and identify our feelings, observations, needs and thoughts for what they are.

How we will do this:

  • Breaking down proposals into bite-size blocks so it is easier to come to a decision. And, making them smarter and clearer so they need less discussion time by the team.
    ...but don’t make them too specific because they might never get passed.
  • Take inspiration and guidance from Abi’s blog on making good proposals
  • Communicating the approach of consent-decision making to 'non-practitioners' so together we practice and make it work for larger groups.
  • Talk less, listen more! No matter how hard it is to be consistent with our reflective listening we need to keep practicing and support each other in doing so. 
  • Using ‘I feel’ less and ‘I think’ more - we often use “I feel that” to play down a message, but in reality we are not clear when we do this as you don’t ‘ feel that this solution isn’t right’. In reality you might feel worried about this solution, because you know, see, expect X or Y to happen that will impact on the solution’s effectiveness.

Keep on Building…..

We are excited about incorporating what we have learned into our interactions with the network. You will notice us bringing these processes and techniques into our events, meetings and chats with you. This might make you feel a bit uncomfortable and strange at times. However, we will be brave together and find a way forward at a pace that feels comfortable. You will be a convert before you know it! Or maybe you already are!

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