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You can increase the candor, authenticity, and generation of innovative ideas in your meetings if you truly focus on the art of thinking together. William B. Isaacs, author of an outstanding book on dialogue, suggests that most of our biggest organizational failures today can be directly attributed to our inability to talk honestly and effectively at our most critical times in organizational life. We seem to live in an age of polarization, taking us to extreme political, social, and organizational positions. The question is how to interact and exchange ideas that get to underlying conflicts where new possibilities can emerge. How do we create conversations that can change our teams, organizations, and even the world? How can we create meeting spaces people look forward to being in? How do we make our meetings safe spaces for honest conversations? Here are some of the tenets of the art of thinking together.

  1. Start with creating psychological safety by setting the expectation that people can say or ask anything. The key is to emphasize that everyone should feel safe to say exactly what they think and feel and be applauded for saying it. It’s important that leaders set the safety stage and get the safety ball rolling by asking, “What do we need to get on the table?” “What are we avoiding or not discussing that’s holding us back?” or even, “What do you think I need to hear or know?” The key is that leaders constantly need to make it easy for people to speak up, to create a belief that the environment’s safe for interpersonal risk-taking – where each person is tough on the issues and respectful of the people.
  2. Listen to understand versus listening to respond. When people feel their comments are heard, understood, and treated with respect, they’re more likely to be vulnerable and actually say what they think. A great way to determine if your team or meeting participants are listening to understand is to observe the number of clarifying or probing questions they ask each other. Questions like, “What does it look like to you?” and “How do you see it going forward?” inspire co-thinking rather than one-way monologues on what they should think. The goal is to listen without judgement and talk without criticism.
  3. Call out the “fight card” issues. Meetings are often held without identifying the issues that need to be battled to clarity. These issues are often rife with adversity, conflict, or uncomfortable change and keep being postponed for a day that never comes. Make it a habit in your meetings to identify all the fight card issues that need to go into the ring for resolution, declaration, or robust dialogue for clarity. It means speaking plainly and not holding back on what needs to be said about our underlying conflicts.
  4. Questions can be more important than the answers. Inside the art of thinking together is letting go of your predetermined answers and openly exploring the most critical questions. For example, consider your team’s vision or goals for just the next year. Once the vision and goals are set, simply ask the team, “What are the most critical questions we need to address to bring our vision and goals to life over the next 12 months?” Once all the questions are on the table, ask the team to rank them from most to least important in determining your success. Then, together as a team, go about solving the highest-ranked question. The art of thinking together can be found in allowing new thinking and the feelings that can arise from exploring the most critical questions together.

Part of the art of thinking together is making sure there’s little to no pressure to have a perfect answer. The goal is to continue to iterate ideas and possibilities in a meeting that’s safe – where people listen curiously to understand, where everyone’s expected and encouraged to put the conflict or adversity (fight card) on the table, and where critical thinking is enhanced by exploring critical questions together versus debating one solution over another.

Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able, even obligated, to be candid.

January 3, 2024

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