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Let’s talk: A love/hate relationship with conversation

We emerge into this world through conversation—an exchange of words that danced between our fathers and mothers. Conversation is the universal tool we use to attract some of the priceless things we desire out of life: understanding, insight, happiness, friendship, solace, love, and more.

In our work as nonprofit professionals, conversation is also our go-to for addressing topics affecting our society and sector: lack of diversity and inclusion, racism, achievement gap, homelessness, intergenerational workplaces…the list goes on. Yet in all our casual and suited-up exchanges, are we really moving the needle toward transformational change, or are we just talking ourselves in circles?

Talk is cheap.

Let me first say that this post is not about eliminating conversation. Conversation is a vital component for personal, community, and organizational growth. What I am saying is that we must be more intentional and inclusive about designing conversations that move us beyond words.

In an effort to categorize some of this verbal dancing, Patrick M. Jenlink and Alison Carr (1996) identified four types of conversation in their work:

  • Dialectic: A form of disciplined inquiry into whatever is being examined, generally with the intent to frame a logical argument.
  • Discussion: A form of conversation where people advocate for their own position—sometimes backed by fact, but generally heavy on opinion and assumption.
  • Dialogue: A form of conversation focused on the sharing and construction of meaning to hopefully develop collective mindfulness and understanding.
  • Design: A goal-oriented mode of conversation that focuses on the creation of something new.

Many of the issues we work on have been inoculated with discussion and dialogue—so much so that those issues have transformed into more resilient, sophisticated strains of their previous selves. We’ve learned what to say and what not say so as not to appear ______ [enter racist, sexist, elitist]. And we throw around words like “sustainable” to scare us from even attempting to act on any potential solution.

Designing change.

Hoping that through dialogue the collective mindfulness and understanding of a group or individual will automatically move us toward change is really a coded level of privilege that comes with being part of the group not directly affected by the issue.

Major movements in this society (and globally) were built on conversations designed around action—toward creating a new environment. Waiting for one’s understanding was a luxury that could not be afforded while people were being denied their humanity and killed due to their skin color or arrangement of sexual parts. Yet today, the modernization of issues like racism and gender equality has removed our sense of urgency and created this false comfort that allows us to soak in conversation for an undisclosed amount of time without any significant action.

What exactly is design conversation? To me, having design-oriented conversations means:  

  • We are clear on what should be and intentional about what will be;
  • We talk, listen, and involve our constituents as the solutionists of the problems we’re addressing;
  • We are engaged in a process that allows for insights and revelations to be heard;
  • We are held accountable on acting on the things revealed to us;
  • We use collective intelligence to create innovative strategies and inform decision-making;
  • We iterate: test, converse, refine, and test again;
  • And we don’t allow fear to strangle or stigmatize progress.

One might argue that I’m just impatient. I guess I feel I have every right to be. I’ve heard and I’ve had conversations about diversity and inclusion in the sector without seeing any real movement. Women comprise the majority in this sector and society but still hold only a fragment of leadership positions. We continue to have conversations about the education achievement gap by the day, while youth of color get left behind by the hour. Tell me: why are you so patient? 

Much of the dialogue we’re entrenched in isn’t new—ask your parents. I, for one, no longer wish to engage in conversations today without the goal of action tomorrow, and as emerging and now generation leaders, we should demand the same.


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