It is thought-provoking to hear people come away from discussions that they have lead and say, “Why do you think people reacted that way to my ideas?” Another question they could ask might be, “What could I have done differently to develop a generative discussion rather than a debate?”

We noticed during a recent meeting, where an external speaker was presenting a set of models of change, that some of our often outspoken younger colleagues remained silent, and a few of our more gentle colleagues really debated the speaker strongly, even in one case where the differences were very slight between the ideas that were apparently in conflict. If you took away the words and just watched the body language and the tone of voice – what would come to mind?
For me, a university classroom. There was an expert standing up at a screen, talking about theory, showing diagrams, asking questions and inviting comments. Around the table there were several quiet learners who were on a steep-ish learning curve, and several others well versed in the literature and related theory, heatedly debating fine points with the speaker. Most of the discussion time was spent intellectually jousting – good mental exercise, thought-provoking, entertaining, and making us proud of our smart colleagues, and of our speaker who tackled them all. What it brought to mind – many people loved university and love getting back in the thick of it.

If the goal of the discussion was to get the most points, then this kind of mind wrestling would have been a perfect way to do it (nearly a tie I would say). If the goal was to get people to develop something new and think about ways to work together on a common initiative, then perhaps some changes in the approach could have produced a different outcome.

I think the outcome of the meeting was a good one, people left interested generally, although I think we had a slightly higher goal. What kind of impact could the following changes have made?

* Speaker sitting down or standing at the back of the room?
* Presentation more applied, with case studies?
* More conversational (less taught)?
* More explanation (less acronyms)?
* What else?

What did I learn – if one sets up an academic situation, then people will be happy to react as though they are in one! Rarely do people throw a professor or a keynote speaker for that matter a soft ball…

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