Understanding what makes a good conversation
We often assume that conversations take place in real-time between two or more people, where information is communicated and shared. But they are so much more! If we want to change tourism, then we need to understand, design, host, facilitate and engage in conversations in clear and intentional ways.
The conversation is shifting
Good conversations are where learning takes place, understanding is formulated, and future actions may be incubated. Done well, they are also a source of energy, inspiration and real connection. They resonate, deepen our understanding, and shift our engagement in issues long after they end. Done badly, conversations can also have the reverse effect - shutting down collaboration and reinforcing silos. As the late Judith Glaser observed "conversations have the power to move us from "power over others" to "power with others".
The conversations about tourism have tended to be the "power over others" kind. In these conversations, the value of tourism has been asserted by industry and government, and communities have not had much choice but to accept those conversations. Tourism has been done to communities.
From where we sit, it appears that the traditional "power over others" (i.e, we know what's good for you, your community, your industry, your region) position that the industry is accustomed to adopting in their conversations is no longer as effective as it once was. Times have changed. People are questioning, in both good and bad ways, what is good for them. Deep listening, building trust, confidence, and collaboration have never been more important. Those businesses, organisations and governments that have shifted away from "power over" to "power with" (i.e. building empathy, a deeper sense of trust and collaboration) appear to have had more success in pivoting and re-imagining the way forward. They have also managed to maintain stronger connections with their business ecosystems.
The framing, quality and space for conversations matter, now more than ever. If we want to change tourism, then we need to understand, design, host, facilitate and engage in conversations in clear and intentional ways.
The building blocks for hosting good conversations
Deep listening is at the heart of good conversations. Building the capacity to listen intentionally, with an open heart and an agnostic mindset, is a core skill in hosting good, meaningful conversations. In recent years, Otto Scharmer of the U:Lab has popularised the four levels of listening, identifying them as Downloading, Factual Listening, Empathic Listening and Generative Listening. These four levels of listening help us to understand and deepen our practice of listening. But to be clear, the capacity to practice deep listening, the ability to reach a state of transformative understanding has long had a place in meditative practices and can be traced back to various origins including Tibetan Buddism. It involves both an attentive mindful approach to listening deeply and vigilance to where our mind and our thoughts are wandering. Sensemaking must be shared.
Empathy: A key ingredient for good conversations
According to researchers, the global pandemic has seen a rise in empathy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Empathy is a key component of social interaction and promotes prosocial behaviour. Other research examining the presence of empathy within communities, suggests that empathy is linked to increased cooperation, civic engagement, community action, and social participation. The World Economic Forum has also acknowledged a shift in the business environment, where large companies have started to acknowledge the importance of putting empathy before profit. Research into leadership during the pandemic has also shown that leaders who are empathetic, and who display a genuine concern for issues beyond the boardroom and shareholders, are more likely to have happier, healthier workforces. This flows through to businesses that are more resilient and creative in the way they have pivoted, repositioned or innovated during the pandemic.
So let's start with thinking back on our own experiences of conversations to understand the different types of interaction that take place. According to Glaser, there are three main types of conversations, although we should remember that conversations may display more than one of these types at any one time.
Types of conversations
Transactional conversations are those in which habit may be involved. Brief salutations like the following fall into this category:
"Hi, how are you?"
"Well thank you, and you?"
"I'm well too, thank you. Lovely day isn't it?"
In these conversations, the transaction is brief and superficial. They can often have a ritualistic element to them and no deep information, thoughts and feelings are shared.
Positional conversations are those where information is shared about a person's thoughts and values but they tend to be one way and little sharing takes place. As an example from my own experience, I recall a meeting I had with a prospective PhD supervisor many years ago. After pleasantries were exchanged (the transactional part of the conversation), in an effort to connect with me she launched into a mini-lecture about how she had been studying planners and policy-making (i.e. people like me) and their role in the cultural economy. "But they just don't get it", she enthused, expecting me to agree.
I was in a different mindset. After 10 years working as a planner, was she talking about me? Was she suggesting I needed to be reprogrammed? Or was she generalising across a diverse profession with which I indeed had a complex relationship? The truth of the matter was that I was constantly being challenged by issues of social justice, sustainability, and ethics among other things and that was my reason for wanting to explore a PhD. It was a complex profession and one that I suspected she had little practical or embodied experience. Our positions were drawn, and the positional (rather than inquiring) framing of her views meant there was little room to navigate.
In this conversation, her position was established and fixed. I chose not to share mine, in part because I did not see an opportunity to engage in a deeper level of discussion, but also because there was a power dynamic at play. To challenge her position, even in a polite way, may have thwarted any chance of entering the PhD program. Positional conversations often stay at that level due to a range of factors including, power, fear, perceptions of risk, or even disinterest.
Conversations that illuminate our hearts and minds
Remember the conversation that left you feeling empowered, happy and inspired? Or a conference presentation when you felt the speaker was talking directly to you? Perhaps you were responding with every fibre of your being, just soaking up their wisdom, and your brain felt like it was exploding with connections to your own experience and ideas. You were generating new insights. As a surge of oxytocin flooded your brain, you became more open to new ideas, more creative and connected. New neural pathways were being formed. Chances are your worldview was shifting and transforming as a result of the conversation you were experiencing in your head, your heart, and your gut.
Good inspiring conversations aren't always what we think they are. Conversations are multidimensional, not linear, and they don't have to be over and finished in an instant. As Judith Glaser observes, what we think, what we say, what we mean, what others hear, and how we feel about it afterwards are the key dimensions behind conversational intelligence. Conversations are not simply batting backwards and forwards discrete packets of information, although we often treat them as though they are.
Only recently has neuroscience started to reveal the science behind how conversations make us feel and act. The quality of conversation matters. Good conversations inspire, motivate and empower. They create generative, free-flowing engagement, where people are comfortable and trusting enough to be vulnerable. Ideas flow and connect in these generative spaces. Neuroscientists have linked the flow of the neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin to the brain with increased cognitive flexibility. Creativity-related traits such as novelty seeking, extraversion, and openness to new experiences are heightened, and behaviours such as exploration, divergent thinking, original ideation, and problem-solving are enhanced.
The dark side of conversations
But there can be another, darker side to our conversational experience. Perhaps you can recall a conversation where you felt confused or even inadequate? Did it make you close down and unable to communicate? In the worst-case scenario, it may have trigger freeze, flight or flight. Let me illustrate with another example that I was witness to many years ago but which left a lasting impression.
I was asked to attend a planning and environment court hearing. Imagine the formal setting of the courtroom, an old lady in a summery floral dress sits in the witness box. Her white wispy hair falls over her face to hide her distress as she looks down at her sandals. She was being questioned aggressively by the developer's legal counsel about some rocks on the site of the proposed subdivision. She is overwhelmed by the questions that bombarded her. To answer these questions required that these men in suits and robes understood how she knew what she knew. The rocks on the site were significant and that information had been shared with her through stories shared over generations. She just knew, but how to convince these men seemed impossible. It was clear she cared deeply about the land that would be developed. Where could she possibly begin? They didn't seem at all open to listening much less understanding her perspective. They merely re-read extracts from the planning scheme dismissing her points as irrelevant.
I recall feeling the defeat that the woman in the witness box was experiencing. I felt her powerlessness, her confusion, and her inability to speak up in that courtroom. As he dismissed her, the judge admonished her for wasting the court's time. As she left the court, head down and visibly shaken by the encounter, I felt a deep wave of empathy and a need to better understand what the heck just happened. This encounter triggered a deep interest in communication, community engagement and understanding from the perspective of others.
Freeze, fight or flight
Perhaps you can recall conversations that have triggered a visceral feeling where your mind is closing down, shrinking, or even distancing yourself physically from that person. Your instinct is to cut and run. Poor conversations create stress, anxiety and close down our capacity for creativity according to Richard Glasser, co-founder of the Creating We Institute. In these situations, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol is released into the brain and high order functioning that supports advanced thought processes like decision-making, trust, and creativity are shut down. The Amygdala, which is that part of the brain that drives instinct, takes over and fight or flight mode kicks in. As our brain closes down, we are no longer open to new ideas, and we are less likely to be influenced or open to collaboration.
So how can we design and hold space for conversations that will drive the change we need in tourism?
Creating conversations for learning, creativity and change
Good conversations, when we are trying to shift mindsets and reassess our direction, should resonate and leave an imprint that lives on in heads, hearts and instincts (gut). However, for those working in tourism, community engagement is often a gap in the knowledge and skill set available. There is a common assumption that by running a workshop, collecting a laundry list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, by using sticky notes (and posting images to social media!), they can tick off their community engagement requirement. But community engagement, and empowering stakeholders in their change-making journey requires good conversations. For this reason, a closer look at conversational intelligence, and how to create good conversations in tourism, is long overdue.
We will continue this thinking in a series of blog posts, but for now, we offer five key takeaways drawn from our own experience in the Tourism CoLab and which will be explored in the upcoming Hosting Community Conversations course:
1. Think about and plan for community engagement as much more than a box-ticking exercise. Community engagement does not have a start and endpoint but is integral to the identity of the communities you are working with. Good community conversations should empower and enable participants to lead into the future.
2. Framing conversations with communities instead of over communities is essential. Be sensitive to how conversations have been framed in the past and the perceived power dynamics of those conversations.
3. Create generative spaces where conditions of trust, reciprocity and a willingness to collaborate are nurtured. Use insights from neuroscience to ask open generative questions and create the conditions that make people want to lean in, engage, collaborate and learn. Avoid spaces and approaches that make people feel defensive, anxious or judged.
4. Build awareness of empathy and alternative perspectives. De-centring your own view and striving to achieve an agnostic position in every conversation helps to create a generative space. In these generative conversations, future actions emerge. Listen deeply for these emerging solutions for need to be shared and co-created through quality conversation.
5. Include activities in your community conversations that encourage the learning to be embodied. We have known for some time that active and experiential learning can be recalled more easily and has more impact on the learner. So no matter where you are, get up, generate movement, activate the body in community conversations.
About The Tourism CoLab At the Tourism CoLab, we believe in a future that is regenerative, purpose-led and inclusive. We believe in thought leadership, provocation and doing things differently. To deliver the next tourism and visitor economy, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and re-invent our ways of working. This means new knowledge, new skill sets, and new approaches. We exist to expand your mindset, cross-pollinate and build collaboration!
If you would like to know more about what we do and how we work, contact us.