Learning Conversation Guideline 4: Hold Space for Difference

This is the fourth post in a series about Learning Conversation Guidelines. See the first post here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

The fourth guideline follows logically from the third, suspend certainty. To hold space for difference means that we accept the diversity of the people in the conversation and their ideas. Differences in perspectives and thoughts must be voiced, because through these differences, new and creative ideas are formed. This guideline, in practice, includes openness to outcomes you might never have considered as well as encouragement to all parties to speak if they wish.

For this to be possible, everyone in the conversation must feel that what they have to say will be listened to, acknowledged, and responded to respectfully (see the examples in the Speak from the Heart post). Responding respectfully does not mean we have to agree with what the person says, but it does mean suspending judgment, asking questions about the person’s viewpoint rather than responding with criticism or dismissal offhand.

Think of this guideline as a learning opportunity, a chance to gain understanding of the people you are talking with and ideas you might not have considered before. Often, a new way of looking at a topic can enhance our own current thinking, even conflicting ideas, if we allow space for them. Innovation and stronger relationships can grow from a space where diverse, honest thinking is encouraged and embraced.

Learning Conversation Guideline 3: Suspend Certainty

This is the fourth post in a series about Learning Conversation Guidelines. See the first post here, the second here, and the third here.

Any conversation with a purpose, from formal meetings to classroom or family discussions, will benefit from some basic ground rules. The first two, listen for understanding and speak from the heart, rely on the third, suspend certainty, just as suspending certainty only works with a commitment to following the first two guidelines.

Suspending certainty means suspending our assumptions. It does not mean that we give up our opinions or beliefs; it means merely that we put them on hold for the sake of the conversation. As David Bohm describes it, we suspend them before us, like a ball suspended from the ceiling that hangs just in our line of vision.

We must suspend any certainty that we have the answer, that we know the result, or that we are the expert. Like listening deeply, this is a skill that requires practice, largely because how we define ourselves is often tied to rigid belief systems, which can be so deeply rooted within us that we are unaware of their influence on our thoughts and actions.

We live in a world of self-generating beliefs, beliefs that remain largely untested. These beliefs often inform how we react to others, sometimes not even at the conscious level but in our body language and tone.

We adopt many beliefs because they are based on conclusions; however, those conclusions are inferred from what we observe and understand through the personal lens of our ABBAs: attitudes, beliefs, biases, and assumptions.

  • We tacitly register some data and ignore other data.
  • We don’t realize we are making interpretations.
  • Our conclusions feel obvious, so we see no need to test our views.
  • We see data that confirms our perspective and miss data that does not.

When we take ideas and information for granted as obvious, we overlook the fact that many critical pieces of information are not available to us, such as someone’s true feelings or intentions as well as events that are forgotten or undisclosed. We also overlook the fact that we do not work with complete information in any given situation. Therefore, we are unaware of the fact that we cannot operate with complete certainty.

All decisions are made with either incomplete or inaccurate information.

What can we do to suspend certainty and sustain safe space throughout the Learning Conversation?

  • Explain and test our views and assumptions.
  • Probe participants’ thinking with high-quality questions.
  • Develop a shared understanding of differences.

While facilitating discussions with differing opinions, use language that will expand the conversation and enable participants to clarify and discuss their thinking in a nonthreatening way that doesn’t limit or close the conversation down, developing barriers and hurt feelings. Be aware of the types of questions you ask and how they are phrased. Are they leading toward your own conclusion? Are they closed? Or do they support safe space and sharing of diverse opinions, doubts, and concerns? Examples of quality questions are listed below.

  • Instead of Don’t you agree? ask In what ways is your view different?
  • Instead of Do others feel that way too? ask Does anyone see that the same or differently?
  • Instead of Do you understand what I’m trying to say? ask What’s your reaction to what I am trying to say?
  • Instead of Did you do that because of X? ask What led you to that thinking or conclusion?
  • Instead of Why don’t you just try what I am suggesting? ask What about this idea raises doubts for you?
  • Instead of Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind? ask What prevented you from sharing that information with me?

It is essential for everyone to realize that their inferences and decisions are not set in stone. Their inferences and decisions can change and evolve based on the new data that become available to them. In other words, the decisions represent their “best thinking in the moment.” They—and you—should feel comfortable and even encouraged to change your minds over the course of learning during the conversation or over several conversations.

Featured image by Kenny Louie.

Learning Conversation Guideline 2: Speak from the Heart

This is the third post in a series about Learning Conversation Guidelines. See the first post here and the second here.

In the conversations we have in the workplace, community, school, and home, from formal meetings to one-on-one discussions, all too often we protect ourselves, not saying directly what we mean or not sharing our true thoughts at all out of fear, mistrust, and sometimes simply habit.

But unless we speak from the heart, we open ourselves up to misinterpretation, frustration, distancing from the people we are meeting with, and often, the need to have the same conversation over and over again. No one gets the results they want or a sense of common understanding when some or all participants in a conversation are holding back or dancing around what they really want to say.

Speaking from the heart requires willingness (and openness), for it necessitates making yourself vulnerable before others. It also requires trusting the safety of the conversational space and trusting that what is said will be treated respectfully, without judgment and without retribution. Being “heartful” is courageous. Courage comes from the Latin word cor, which means “heart.”

One who speaks from the heart speaks with courage to help develop common understanding rather than just to end the silence or to be heard. Courage requires vulnerability in recognizing that your thinking can be very different from another’s but that everyone’s thinking needs to be heard.

Of course, taking this risk means that everyone needs to follow the first Learning Conversation Guideline, to listen for understanding, rather than thinking about what to say next, or jumping in to criticize or argue.

Similarly, learning how to acknowledge and respond respectfully (ARR) is also key to people feeling as though they are in a safe space to speak from the heart. Examples of ARR responses include:

• “I am wondering what is underneath your thinking.”
• “Interesting way of seeing that.”
• “From what you’re saying, I am hearing this . . .”
• “What I am hearing you say is this. . . . Am I right?”
• “Can you explain your thinking behind that statement?”
• “What obstacles do you think will surface as a result of . . . ?”
• “Does anyone see that in the same way? Does anyone see that differently?”

Another way to demonstrate speaking from the heart is AA, announce and ask. This simply means announcing what you are about to do (such as hold an honest conversation about such-and-such topic) and ask for their help. People are often much more willing to open up themselves when you show vulnerability in asking for help.

Speaking from the heart gets to the heart of the conversation more quickly and helps set the stage for genuine conversations that get genuine results.

Learning Conversation Guideline 1: Listen for Understanding


In our last post, we introduced the concept of Learning Conversation Guidelines as basic ground rules for the intentional conversations we have, conversations that have a purpose: at work, in school, at home, in the community.

When everyone involved in the conversation understands, agrees to, and practices these guidelines, these conversations become a safe space to create change, whether that change is commitment and follow-through on actions agreed to in the meeting or simply a change in the sense of learning, gaining a deeper understanding of each other or an important issue.

The first guideline is to listen for understanding.

All participants must listen deeply for understanding when others speak. Note that the guideline asks us to listen, not merely hear. Hearing simply requires that sound vibrations reach the ear, but listening requires that we focus our attention on the meaning being conveyed by another, silencing our inner dialogue so that our minds are intent on understanding and learning.

How often have you been in a conversation with someone only to start thinking about what you’re going to say next or where you’re going for lunch? Maybe you’re genuinely interested in what the other person is saying, but then a particular phrase or even a gesture or tone of voice triggers a memory or an emotion or a train of thought that completely distracts you without your even realizing it at first. These distractions are often referred to as cognitive noise or listening obstacles.

Cognitive noise will raise its head in any meeting simply because as human beings, we have ideas about almost everything we’ve ever come in contact with. In a conversation, particularly in formal meetings, these ideas can distract us or cause us to be overly focused on one idea and miss others.

Learning to listen for understanding, also known as deep listening, will not happen overnight. It takes practice and consistent conscious effort to break poor listening habits.

On a more subtle level, deep listening also requires that we not judge what the other person is saying, compare what we are hearing to other concepts, plan our response to what is being said, or perform myriad other mental tasks that we habitually do when we process sensory data. Deep listening is listening for understanding from a place of learning, not from a place of knowing or judging.

At JLC, we have multiple methods for developing and maintaining focus and attention in a meeting, which we will go into in future posts. For now, just take the baby step of introducing this one guideline into your conversations, asking others to commit to practicing it just as you commit to it yourself.

Just making the conscious effort together to learn to listen deeply is a small step that can have an enormous ripple effect on not only your conversations but also your relationships.

Image of Antony Gormley’s “Untitled (Listening)” by Amanda Slater.

From Boardroom to Classroom to Family Room: Having Conversations that Matter

What do you think of when you hear the word “conversation”? For many of us, the first thing that comes to mind is a casual conversation, such as with friends, on the phone or in person, about multiple topics that seem to follow tangentially one from the other.

But these are not the only kinds of conversations we have. Work meetings, classroom discussions, family meetings, and more are all types of conversations. The difference is that in these settings, we usually have a particular purpose for the conversation. In other words, these conversations are intentional.

In practice, however, this doesn’t mean that they do not follow the same pattern of a casual conversation, meandering instead of staying on focus, often ending with some or all parties feeling dissatisfied, with important points left unsaid, difficult topics unresolved or unaddressed, or a sense that the time spent was a complete waste of time.

Sometimes we leave these conversations without any clear idea of what we are supposed to do now. So nothing changes, and we inevitably end up having the same conversation over and over, much to the frustration of everyone involved.

So many issues get in the way when human beings attempt to have intentional conversations. Distractions and lack of focus (or at least sustained focus), competition instead of collaboration, lack of trust, interpersonal conflicts, biases and assumptions, and more. Addressing all of these issues would take far more than a blog post, but we can take the first step by learning, agreeing to, and practicing some basic ground rules that can pave the way for conversations that matter to everyone involved.

Learning Conversation Guidelines are ground rules for intentional conversations we have in professional, personal, educational, and community settings. The Learning Conversation Guidelines have roots in the insights of Peter Senge, David Bohm, and others, as well as the real-life experiences of those who have found that a safe space and trust develop dramatically when everyone involved in the conversations learns and consistently follows these principles.

The five basic Learning Conversation Guidelines are:

1. Listen for understanding.
2. Speak from the heart.
3. Suspend certainty.
4. Hold space for difference.
5. Slow down the conversation.

In subsequent blog posts, we will discuss each one in turn: what it means, how to do it, and why it matters. Stay tuned!

Lessons from TedTalks: How to Improve Your Presentation


Chris Anderson gives some tips and advice about how to give an engaging and great presentations or talk. One of the main points Anderson says is you must try to give a narrative within your presentation; some of the best talks have a narrative structure. Another critical element of a great presentation is sharing an idea followed along with anecdotes, explanatory or illustrative stories.

There are three different ways on how to deliver to a presentation/talk:

1. Read it directly off a script or teleprompter

2. Develop set of bullet points that map out what you’re going to sat in each section

3. Memorize talk – rehearsing it to the point where you internalize every word

It is not recommended to read it off a teleprompter or a script, since people will sense it and the talk will become distancing. Memorizing the talk in verbatim may take a lot of time and repetitive rehearsals, so it is the most time-consuming route. The talk must be rehearsed as many times such that the flows of words become second nature.

We also have to pay close attention to our body language. Keeping still tends to be more effective, since swaying from side to side or other movements may show our nervousness and show signs of weakness. Importantly, we should make eye contact by focusing eye contact on at least a few people in the audience. There are also ways prior to presentation or talk to get rid of nervousness, such as doing power poses like striding around, standing tall, and extending their bodies.

We highly recommend this read Chris Anderson on how to improve your presentations. Join the conversation

How Do We Ask the Right Questions?


Are we asking the right questions? Some people believe persuasion and motivation is an external force that assists people in becoming more enthusiastic and energetic about per se having more teamwork or more hardworking. However, when a person is externally motivated or persuaded, it only last for a limited period of time. This being the reason for a prospect to completely change their mind last minute about buying your product or the reason for the team you supervise to have great initial motivation slowly decline within two months. Daniel Pink, author of Drive and A Whole New Mind, discusses how we can ask particular questions in order for an individual to articulate his or her own reasons for doing a particular action. If this is not successful, then we may try to figure out what environmental obstacle is barricading them. Join the conversation and hear what Pink says about how to effectively lead people with the right kind of questions.

Want to Lead: Learn to Ask the Right Questions

Today’s Discussion: Open space meetings

Group discussion without tables

Today’s topic is about open-space meetings. What are open-space meetings? Open-space meetings are essentially are agenda-less meetings whereby a circle of people decide what the topics will be. Individuals who write down the topics will then hold a smaller meeting and discussion for the people who signed up for that particular topic. In this manner, the people in the discussion are there because they want to be; unlike, some meetings with predetermined topics in which people attend because they are obligated or required to sit in. Also, these interested folks who have a chance for discussion are the individuals that are most likely to improve them.

How can this possibly work? Would anything get done? Some people or managers may have appropriate concerns of this style of meeting, especially when we are typically exposed to the pre-established agenda with priorities already listed. Mr. Owen, an organizational consultant who developed and implemented the concept of open space meetings, discusses how companies like Rockport and the World Bank have shown tangible evidence of improvements.

Click here for the link to the interesting article and read. Join the conversation! =)

Dorsey’s Activity Speaks Louder Than Words

Whole Group Instruction

Kendell Dorsey begins the article with an anecdote that emanates the difference between a students simply listening to a lesson plan compared to interacting with the lesson plan.

If you went to the movies with another person and had a discussion about the movie with them, then you are far more likely to have a better insight about the movie, since the discussion involves analyzing and evaluating the movie itself, while hearing something new that you overlooked and they observed. Whereas, if you went to the movies by yourself, then this new level of insight and understanding would have never occurred. In the same manner, students have a particular level of cognitive engagement with each lesson plan, task, project, and group assignment. As an instructor or teacher, it is imperative that we constantly ask ourselves what are the students doing and are they equally engaged. Similarly, it is very important to use methods that will engage students consistently.

One method of engaging all your students is to have whole-group discussions, but there are many different formats for these kinds of discussions. For example, one method is evaluation, in which you prompt students to reassess, to agree or disagree, or add supplemental comments on another student’s response to a particular question. Another way is called surveying, whereby you ask everyone the same question that has multiple answers and a reasons – a “Which one do you believe is correct? Why?” kind of question.

Kendell Dorsey mentions many other methods for keeping students engaged and consistently learning by interacting and doing activities and discussions. Join the conversation and read the full article here!

Improve Classroom Time with Project-Based Learning


Summer break is on the horizon or has already started for many instructors. With that in mind, we can reflect on the year, such as, the days when none of the students seemed to care and yawns were contagious throughout the day. Surely, we are then reflecting on ways to improve our classroom instruction and how to make next year’s lesson plan or lecture more productive.

This article (link below) by Tristan de Fondeville discusses a list of strategies to increase a thoughtful discussion, create a consistent flow, and keep students engaged! The strategies revolve around having project-based learning in the classroom, but many of the methods can be used without a project happening. The article includes strategies like simply being more aware and focused about the kinds of activities that truly engage students and which activities do not work so well. Another method is practicing an end-of-the-day writing reflections to communicate with students. For example, it allows you to hear the students’ responses and reactions to the lesson plans and activities of the day so as to guide your future lessons. In this manner, it gives you a better idea of not only the state of the student, but also, which activities the students were engaged or disinterested about.

Join the conversation and hear the full article here: Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement

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