A conversation with David Gurteen, Director of Gurteen Knowledge

“And it seemed to me that so many of the problems and issues that we face in the world were down to this increasing connectivity, increasing complexity that we weren’t really suited to deal with. And so it dawned on me that conversation was the tool that we could use to make better sense of the world.” – David Gurteen

David Gurteen, director of Gurteen Knowledge, is best known as the creator of the Knowledge Café – a versatile conversational process to bring a group of people together to learn from each other, share experiences, and make better sense of a rapidly changing, less predictable world.

In this episode of Control the Room, Douglas speaks with David about street epistemology, virtual knowledge cafes, and David’s interest in astrophysics. Listen in to find out how conversation can help us make better sense of the world.

Show Highlights

[4:32] The first knowledge cafe, September 200
[9:31] The necessary power of forging friendships at work
[16:14] The first virtual knowledge cafe, March 2017
[22:13] Human nature’s tendency to control a conversation
[33:47] Street Epistemology
[45:46] Initiating conversations that would have not been had

David on LinkedIn
Gurteen Knowledge Website
Knowledge Café Website

About the Guest

David Gurteen, Director of Gurteen Knowledge, works in the fields of knowledge management, organizational learning, and conversational leadership. He is best known as the creator of the Gurteen Knowledge Café – a versatile conversational process to bring a group of people together to learn from each other, share experiences and make better sense of a rapidly changing, less predictable world to innovate and improve decision making.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings. 

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to The Control Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all the service of having a truly magical meeting. This episode is brought to you by MURAL, the digital workspace for visual collaboration. At Voltage Control we use MURAL to facilitate engaging and productive meetings and workshops from anywhere. MURAL gives teams the means, methods and freedom to collaborate visually. Use their suite of facilitation superpowers to control the virtual room and solve tough problems as a team with their pre-built templates and guided methods. To see for yourself like companies like IBM, Atlassian, and E-Trade rely on MURAL, start your 30 day trial at mural.co. That’s mural.co.

Today, I’m with David Gurteen, director of Gurteen Knowledge, where he works in the fields of knowledge management, organizational learning, and conversational leadership. He is best known as the creator of the Gurteen Knowledge cafe, a versatile conversational process to bring a group of people together, to learn from each other, share experiences, and make better sense of a rapidly changing, complex, less predictable world to improve decision making and to innovate. Welcome to the show, David.

David: Thank you, Douglas. It’s good to be here.

Douglas: So for starters, David, I’d love to hear how you found your way into this amazing work you’re doing. Not many folks can call themselves conversation experts. And it’s always fun to talk to people who study conversations and think about something that is so germane to every interaction we have throughout every day. So I’m just really curious how someone gets into this work.

David: Yes, I stumbled along over many years. If we go back far enough, I started out with a degree in physics and working for an aerospace company, helping engineers develop software for satellites, spacecraft, some aerospace. But very quickly moved into software development, and I guess, for most of my corporate career, you could best describe me as a software development manager. But my last job in corporate life was with Lotus Development. You may remember Lotus 1-2-3, early spreadsheet before Excel stole the market. Well, my final job at Lotus was, I had the most amazing title. My title was international czar. And I worked at headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my job was to work right across the organization to ensure that all the software products were designed for international markets. 

And that was a lot less technical than anything I had done before. That was a lot more about working with people and dealing with people. And that was quite a challenge. And really a very interesting, sort of formative time in my life. And then about 1993, I returned to the UK. And I started to work… I got back to my techie roots, so I started to work as a Lotus Notes consultant and developer. So developing… And this was before the web. So this was developing collaborative applications for organizations. And all the issues I face there were really nothing to do with the technology, the technology was the easy part of it all, the real problems and real challenges, again, with the people. You could build a collaborative application, but if people weren’t inclined to collaborate or talk to each other, then things weren’t going to work very well. 

So over that period there, maybe about 10 years, I became very much more interested in people and started to get very interested in how people interact, and conversation. And I guess everything started to change about the year 2000, about the turn of the millennium. I created my website which is gurteen.com. I started to blog, I started to publish the newsletter. So I started to get- very early adopter of social media. But then interestingly and pivotably really, September 2002, I ran my first knowledge cafe. We can talk a bit more about lunch cafes later, but the whole idea of knowledge cafe was to bring people together to have conversations about interesting topics. And that cafe was just like a side project to me. But it took over my life, because I ended up running the cafes, pretty much all over the world. I learned a lot about people, a lot about culture, a lot about conversation and when people would talk or not talk, and how to create psychological safety. 

And I’ve been running those now, say, for the last 18 years. Of course, these last few months, I’ve been running them online using Zoom. I discovered Zoom three years ago, long before, I think, really anybody had heard of it. And I liked Zoom because it had breakout rooms, it was very stable, very high quality. And I could actually run nice cafes on the Zoom platform. So that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing. But again, about five years ago I started to… See, I’m at an age now where I don’t have to work if I don’t need to. I’m in some ways retired. I’m still working as hard as ever. But I don’t need to earn money. So I can indulge myself, I can do the things that I want to do. So what I started to do about five years ago, was write what I call a blook; it’s a cross between a blog, and a book. It’s an online book, if you like. And my software development background has helped me develop it, and then I spend most of my time writing and developing that book. 

And it’s on this subject of conversational leadership. And originally, when I first started writing it, it was very much about the knowledge cafe, and how to design and how to run those cafes. And it was about other conversation processes as well. But it’s grown and it’s a lot more than that. It’s a lot more than that today. So, summarizing and to bring things right up to date, my focus today is my blook, it’s on conversational leadership. And we can talk more about that. And I run a lot of knowledge cafes, but again, today, they are virtual rather than face to face. And of course, I also run workshops where I teach people how to design and run their own knowledge cafes. Does that all make sense and bring things up?

Douglas: Yeah, that’s a rich history. And I can certainly relate. I was a CTO for many years and launched a few startups on my own. And as a technical person where I was developing software, I had to make that transition from working in the editor, in the IDE, to working with people. 

David: Yes.

Douglas: And I think that led me on this journey into facilitation, or having to think about organizational health, and how to bring teams to work together more efficiently. So when you’re sharing your story, I certainly related to my journey, and I guess for the listeners, I think it’d be really interesting to unpack some of the things that you noticed as you started to make that transition around, here’s the binary technical stuff, or here’s the plan that we can just construct and say, this is the plan, and this is a knowable, understandable thing. But then we have people with emerging qualities and things. So, what were some of the patterns and things you started to notice, and maybe some of the early underpinnings of what became the knowledge cafe? What are some of those first principles we need to consider?

David: I think the one thing I clearly remember, let’s just go back to my time at Lotus. So my job was to work right across the organization to make sure that all the development teams… Actually it wasn’t just development teams, it was marketing and production. It was right across the organization to ensure the products were designed for the international market. And that was my job. And I moved to Cambridge to do that job. And I learned very soon, to my horror, that all the development teams, they were rewarded on North American revenue. They weren’t rewarded on international revenue. So they actually had no incentive to do what I asked them to do. And I can remember going to see the VP of development who had brought me out there, and he basically said, “live with it, David, I’m not changing it.” So I didn’t have any authoritative power to get these people to work in a way and create international products. 

And I realized very quickly, the only way I could do it was through the relationships that I was building with these people. I needed to make friends with them. It might be a little bit, disingenuous doing it. But I- I’m that sort of person anyway, I like to make friends or work with people. So, very early on, I used to visit the development managers and the VPs, and what have you with the various teams and just sit down and talk with them, and not actually ask them for anything, just build the relationship, because I knew at some point in the future, I was going to come knocking on their door to ask them for something that maybe they didn’t really want to do, or they didn’t have the time or the resources to do. 

And I’ve experienced in the past, where basically I was just told to get out, they didn’t even want to talk to me. So I knew I had to just build that relationship. And it’s just reminding me, as I say it, there’s a wonderful quotation I often use from Peter Block, where he says, “Connection before contents. Without relationship, no work can take place.” Now, I only learned that quotation a year or two ago. So, in retrospect that’s what I was doing. I was building those relationships. That’s what I feel is so very important and often missing in corporate life.

Douglas: That’s amazing. And thanks for… I’ve heard that quote before, but I haven’t thought of it in a while. And it’s so appropriate, because we’re going to host our facilitator conference again for the third time in February, the second through the fourth. And our theme this year is connection. 

David: Wonderful. 

Douglas: Because there’s so much of a concern around the facilitation community around connection, and especially with the pandemic, at the beginning of the pandemic, a real concern around would we be able to to maintain our connections, we will be able to create the same level of connection. And it’s certainly nuanced and morphed since the beginning, but I think that’s… Anyway, I really appreciate you bringing up that quote, because we’ll definitely make use of it for the conference. 

David: Yeah, I think something else which I think is a problem is that to really make a human connection, it does need to be face to face. And again, in current circumstances that’s so much harder to do. Yes, we’ve got Zoom, we’ve got Skype, we’ve got things. So, we can see people, which makes it a lot easier. But there’s still something missing. I can never quite put my finger on it, but it’s not quite the same and you’re not in the same room with the person. 

Douglas: Well, yeah, there’s so many… We have more senses than just sight. 

David: Yeah, absolutely.

Douglas: There are pheromones, there’s smells, there’s temperature. The temperature is going to get slightly different as you approach a person because they are-

David: And there’s all the body language that you can’t necessarily see.

Douglas: Yeah, because it’s getting flattened, because we’re in Zoom, you’re only seeing a little sliver of, kind of what’s happening. And it’s also flattened. The depth of field is going to be impacted by the-

David: Yeah, yep. That’s absolutely right. 

Douglas: So I wanted to talk a little bit about your background in physics. And I was really fascinated by this concept of… Physics is how we think about the study of the world, understanding the world. Right? 

David: Yes. 

Douglas: And so in a way, when you’re doing this work with the conversations, you’re applying that physics lens to something that…It’s just a behavior or thing that people do, but now you’re providing a lens and a better understanding of it, which I think is what Physics does about our universe.

David: Yes, absolutely. And look, you really have touched on a hot button for me, that I very rarely get chance to talk about. My interest in Physics came… Actually there is a little story here. When I was about eight years old, my father took me into the garden on a dark winter’s night and pointed out the stars to me, and he knew constellations because he’d spent the war in the North African desert, so he’d slept out under the stars. And that inspired me, that got me interested. That got me curious about the world, as my father at a very young age got me interested in science. And I’ve just said, when I was maybe 16, 17, my interest was in the physical universe, it was what went on in the heart of the star. And of course, we pretty much understand that these days, maybe not everything with black holes and what have you. 

But that physical stuff is relatively straightforward. But today, I would say I’m a lot more interested in what goes on in our minds, it is something that each and every one of us owns and has got, and we can explore and experiment with, because we know we’ve got our own mind to do that with. And so we understand the star, but we don’t understand our minds terribly well, we don’t understand who we are. And so my curiosity in the world shifted from the physical world to the mental world, to the social world. And so I look at things and say, the thing that’s driven me all my life, it’s just the curiosity. And I guess it’s like a quest. In some ways for the truth, maybe… Truth’s not quite the right word, just about better understanding reality, because I don’t think we got terribly a good grasp on it right now.

Douglas: So the other thing that came up for me as we were chatting around the connection, and maybe how Zoom isn’t as ideal as creating connection in person. 

David: Yeah. 

Douglas: What did you find when you were starting to… As the pandemic started to take hold and you were having to run your knowledge cafes inside of Zoom? Were you starting to notice about… What are some of the things you had to adapt or do to still obtain that connection?

David: In general, what surprised me was how easy it was. For a long time people have been asking me. They’re saying, “David, you know, with a global distributed organization, how can we run cafes virtually?” And I was basically saying to them, “you can’t do it, but you can do things…. It’s not quite a cafe in the sense that I define it.” And when I realized Zoom had breakout rooms, and I realized just how Zoom worked, I thought, yes, I can do this, I can actually run my cafes online. And I run the first one, March 2017. So yes, three and a bit years ago. And I was quite amazed and how well they worked. And it’s one thing I haven’t really taken the time to do, to be honest with you is to sit down….Because I really want to write about it, and just compare face to face with virtual. 

But one big difference for me is that in my face to face knowledge cafes, let’s just describe the cafe process for you briefly so that you understand. So typically with a cafe, as a speaker, the speaker speaks for 10 to 15 minutes on a topic, poses a question to the group, the face to face environment that’s sitting at three to four people per table. There was no host or facilitator at the tables, everyone’s equal. They have a conversation around the topic, around the question, say 15 minutes. And we change tables maybe three times. So they have three conversations. And then eventually, we come back together in a circle, we just push the tables to one side of the room, form a circle with the chairs. And we have what I call a whole group conversation. I’m trying to get away from the reporting back paradigm that’s sort of so entrenched in a lot of workshops, and do the best they can to have a conversation in that circle. 

So that’s how it works face to face. Now, the difference is when I’m online in Zoom, is, yep, I can do exactly the same thing but now, I simply put people at random into breakout rooms. And now the first problem is, once you’re in the breakout rooms, I’m left on my own. I don’t get to listen into the conversations. And I really need to stay in that main room in case people drop out of their breakout rooms or people join late. I need to be there to hold the fort, so to speak. Now I could visit the rooms, but people told me very early on, and I felt it myself, that that was just disruptive if I came and joined the room. So I’ve got no feeling for how the conversations are going as to whether they’re broadly on track. When you’re feeling for the energy and the conversations, I’ve got to wait patiently until people come back to the main room. 

So that’s one of the big differences. I think also people have been put in rooms at random, whereas in the face to face situation they get to choose to some degree who they sit with. So if they want to sit with their friend, they can. If they want to avoid somebody they don’t get on with, they can do that. So maybe being randomly put into breakout rooms, I guess there are pluses and minuses to that from an individual perspective. And then the one thing I can’t do in quite the same way, I clearly can’t do the circle at the end. And so it’s a little bit different in that sense. But in many, many ways it’s not so dissimilar. And I get the feeling at times that when you’ve got, say just three people in a breakout room, it’s somehow a lot more focused than three people around the table, because they don’t have all the distractions of everything else going on in the room.

Douglas: That’s the same reason it’s more disruptive when you pop in.

David: Exactly, yes. Exactly.

Douglas: And speaking of that, a couple of things that we’ve experimented with was having a technical facilitator, so someone or an assistant. So someone who’s staying in the main room and handling the breakout rooms, so that the main facilitator can move around a bit.

David: Yeah. Because, again what I tend to do in the face to face sessions, and it depends on the context, sometimes I stay out of the conversations totally, sometimes I actually just become a participant myself, and I just join the tables myself, and I’ll stay at one table. Again, if I did have a technical host, then yes, I could do that myself which that’s a-

Douglas: Because you’re bringing up a valid point, even if there is a lot of juggling, because there are people who drop out and come back in, and no one’s in the main session, it can be really disorienting, they’re not sure where to go. So definitely…

David: In fact what’s really nice about it, is that sometimes someone does drop out or come late. And rather than put them in a room late, which again, is going to be disruptive, I will sit and have a one to one conversation with them. Which is really quite personal and really quite enjoyable. So there’s pros and cons. 

Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. And so when you think about the knowledge cafe, what is so effective about it, or maybe even going back to the first time you ran it, what was the thing that you realized that, “oh, wow, this is different. This is making people come together in a different way.”

David: One of the principles of my cafe is that anything that gets in the way of the conversation is a bad thing. So when I designed the cafe… In my corporate life I’ve been involved in lots of workshops where I felt I was being manipulated all the time. I felt the facilitators were often trying to control things. And so that was the reason for the principle that I really wanted nothing to get in the way of the conversation, and everybody to have an equal voice as far as they could have an equal voice. And so if you compare my knowledge cafe, say with the world cafe, the world cafe has- it’s similar in many ways to my knowledge cafe. But they typically have a host at each table. And when people move tables, the host stays put and the host welcomes the next group, gives them a summary of what was discussed in the previous round. 

Now, I deliberately didn’t want to do anything like that, because as soon as you’ve got a host at a table, even if you tell them not to dominate or control, human nature says that they will. So I want everybody around that table or in that breakout room to be absolutely totally equal, to have no bigger or less responsibilities than anybody else. And so that for me is a big part of it. There was something else I was going to say about not letting things get in the way of the conversation. So, I didn’t want things like flip charts. I went to a world cafe once where… I’m not too sure all world cafes work like this, but this particular one was fun, because every table had a flip chart. And most of the people in the room hadn’t taken part in a world cafe before. 

So we were given a question and we had the flip chart and felt tip pen. And one of the people at my table, he stood up, picked up the felt tip pen, went to the flip chart and said, “okay, first point.” And somebody shouted out bla bla bla, and he wrote it down. And he said, “second point.” They went to the second point, and I thought this is not a conversation. And then quite simply when someone said a third point, I said, “I’m not so sure I agree with that.” And then the conversation started. But again what was happening here was somebody was taking control, the flip chart gave control to somebody to take control of the conversation and control the conversation. That’s what I didn’t want to happen in the cafe. But that wasn’t quite your question. I mean it’s all part of it, but-

Douglas: I love that story though, because if we… There’s a couple of things to unpack. I immediately as you were talking about the first point, second point, it reminded me of this debate around what’s the difference between a moderator and a facilitator?

David: Okay.

Douglas: And I guess whenever people refer to us as moderators, they’re saying, we need a moderator. I immediately think of this person at the flip chart saying first point, second point, where I believe a facilitator often will get out of the way. They know when to lean in, and when to lean out.

David: Yeah.

Douglas: And you talked about the control, and the name of the podcast and the conferences even a little bit play for- around the notion of control. 

David: Yes.

Douglas: Because control can be rigid or it can be loose. The fact that we even decide that we’re doing a knowledge cafe means that we’re applying some level of control, we’re setting the initial conditions.

David: Yeah. I often don’t call myself a facilitator. In fact, I don’t think of myself as a facilitator. I call myself a host.

Douglas: Mm-hm.

David: Because I’m not trying to intervene in the conversation, I’m not trying to direct the conversation, I’m not looking for any specific outcome, I’m not trying to necessarily get certain people to speak up and certain people to speak less. I clearly would like to see that happen, but I’m doing my damnedest not to control. What I often say about the cafe, is that I want the conversation to go where the conversation wants to go, not where I want it to go. 

Douglas: Mm-hm.

David: And what’s really interesting… This is one of the interesting parts about the cafe that I’ve learned, is that even today I still haven’t quite learned, I will spend a long time thinking about the question that I’m going to pose. But it’s very rare that people actually answer the question. Most of my cafes are about exploring an issue. It’s about making better sense of it, and understanding different people’s perspectives. They’re not designed to come to some specific outcome that comes to some specific conclusion. So there’s no particular need to keep reminding people of the question and focusing on the question. And usually after a few minutes, people have forgotten the question. And they are talking about what they want to talk about, what’s relevant to them. As I say, it’s the conversation that that takes them in a particular direction, often, not the individuals and certainly not the facilitator. Makes sense? 

Douglas: Yeah, absolutely. And so I want to come back… That brings me back to another point that I got really interested in when you were talking about your beginnings. And also, as I read your bio and looked at your work is, there seems to be a complexity theory influence. And I’m just curious if that’s intentional, or if it’s more of just… I find a lot of people stumble into this stuff just because it works. And so I’m just curious if complexity is an intentional element in your design?

David: I don’t know about in the design of the knowledge cafe, but I’m very interested in complexity. Let me talk a little bit about complexity. One, working in the KM field from the very early days, one of the biggest influences on me is Dave Snowden. You may be familiar with him, he’s a Navy model. He’s one of the leading thinkers in the complexity field. So very early on, I started to see the world through… In my scientific background, I had a very mechanistic view of the world. And I think it’s really down to Dave, that woke me up to the complexity of the world. Now, what this is touching on is my work on conversational leadership. Because when I started to think five years ago about the importance of conversation in our lives, now I can see clearly that conversation is inherently good. It’s good if we can talk with each other rather than fight each other, you know learning conversational skills is very important. 

But I always felt that conversation was a much, much more powerful tool than that. And the thing that dawned on me was that, really, this last 75 years since the end of the Second World War, the world has changed out of all recognition. It’s a very, very complex world. It’s certainly way, way more complex than the world that we evolved in as hunter and gatherers from 100,000 years ago. And it seemed to me that so many of the problems and issues that we face in the world was down to this increasing connectivity, increasing complexity that we weren’t really suited to deal with. And so it dawned on me that conversation was the tool that we could use to make better sense of the world. So today, one person, one CEO, one president, really doesn’t have the ability to make sense of what’s going on in the world. 

It’s far too complex. Today, there’s far too much fake news and disinformation. It’s very difficult to know what to believe and what not to believe, and COVID is clearly a really good example of that. And so if you want to make sense of what’s going on, of course, the reason you want to make sense of things, if you can make better sense of things, hopefully, you’re in a position to make better decisions. So to make better sense of a complex world, you need to bring people together, cognitively diverse groups of people together, to have conversations around what’s going on. And I realized that in retrospect to some degree, that’s what I was doing with the cafe. And I wasn’t necessarily deliberately bringing together cognitively diverse groups, but what we were doing in terms of trying to make sense of issues… It was sense-making given the complexity of the world. So complexity is almost the driver of what I’m doing these days.

Douglas: Incredible. And so when you think about maybe what’s next, or where things might be going, what surface is for you?

David: Oh, boy. What I’ve got into just this last few months, is thinking and researching how we form our beliefs. And in itself is quite a complex topic. But what I’ve realized from the psychological research is that we don’t form our beliefs based on evidence, a lot of the time our beliefs have been set down in our childhood and through our life experiences. So, we are… I can’t remember who said this, we are not rational creatures, we are rationalizing creatures. We select the evidence to support our beliefs. And so I’m very… And because what if, if our beliefs are based on very little evidence, and you’ve got the left or the right, it’s…you’ve got Brexit, you’ve got elections in America, you’ve got people fighting each other verbally, if not physically from ignorance, yes? 

That’s… I often talk about, say, Greta Thunberg. And I say, with all due respect to Greta Thunberg, what does she know about global warming? Diddly-squat, she knows nothing about it, nor do you, nor do I. But we’re all going to have opinions and we express them. And so Greta Thunberg and certainly myself, and I hope yourself, we believe that global warming is true. We trust the scientific community. It’s not that we’ve read the scientific papers or understood them, we trust the scientific community. Other people, like say Donald Trump, doesn’t trust, made it very clear. He doesn’t trust the scientific community. So it’s not about some evidence or knowledge, it’s about trust. And so we need some way of rethinking, revising our individual beliefs. And what I came across, just a few weeks ago, was a website on the gentlemen. The website is called Street Epistemology. Have you come across it? 

Douglas: I have not.

David: You’re going to love it. You’re going to love this. Absolutely love it. It’s called Street Epistemology. The guy who’s founded it and running it is called Anthony Magnabosco or something. It’s not your usual name. But if you go to YouTube, and just Google, just search for Street Epistemology, you will find dozens if not hundreds of short conversations that Anthony has with people. Basically, he sets himself up, it’s usually on a university campus. He’s got a couple of video cameras, and microphones and a little clipboard. And he’s mainly stopping students and saying, “hey, have you got five minutes to talk about your beliefs?” And he gets them to take a belief, and then he very skillfully and very carefully and very gently, asks some questions about their belief. What he’s trying to do is not get them to change their belief, but get them just simply to think about how that belief was formed.

Because so many of our beliefs, we’ve never really thought hard about. And there’s some amazing conversations. Like a common one is somebody will say, “well, I believe in God.” And the first thing he does, he asks them, he says, “So on a scale of nought to 100, to what degree do you believe in God.” And they might say, 100, or they might say, 90. And then he goes through his little process of very gently questioning them. And again, he’s not judging them, he’s not trying to give his own point of view. He’s getting them to talk, he’s often reflecting back to them what they’re saying, he’s just getting them to draw themselves out. And he’s looking for maybe…inconsistencies maybe in their logic, and just… But he’s not even pointing out the inconsistencies, he wants them to see them for themselves. So he gently does that. So at the end, that usually goes on longer than five minutes. He then basically says, “okay, so now on the score from nought to 100, what’s your score now?”

And usually it’s lower, because most people’s beliefs, they feel very strongly about. But when they’ve talked about them, and they’ve had them gently questioned, they notch them down a little, and I haven’t seen all the videos, but some of them I’ve looked at are a bit… There’s been a complete about turn, some people have started out with absolute certainty in their belief. And he’s managed to get them to see that there’s no foundation for their belief whatsoever. It’s an amazing site on the technique and the way he does it is phenomenal. It’s well worth taking a look at. And I think we could do with a lot more street epistemologists having those sorts of conversations. 

Douglas: Yeah, it strikes me as the curiosity and maybe the patience that it takes to peel back those layers, because you’re starting that conversation off saying, “hey, I’d like you to challenge your belief.” I think about, it’s like a… I once watched this… I was working with a school, working with children that were in socioeconomically depressed area of Dallas. 

David: Okay.

Douglas: And they had this program that was really focused on social-emotional learning. And one device they use really just blew me away in its simplicity and its effectiveness, but it was a thermometer. And whenever a child was having a moment, they would take them to the thermometer and say, “where are you on the thermometer?”

David: Ahh, okay.

Douglas: And the brilliant thing is, think about when a child is throwing a tantrum or having a moment, the immediate reaction is you need to stop that.

David: Yeah.

Douglas: Stop behaving that way. But that request is not taking into account that they need to take a journey from there to where they need to be. 

David: Yes.

Douglas: It’s not flipping a switch. And I think the thermometer acknowledges that. Because it’s like, “I’m way up here, I need to get down here.” There is a transition to make, or even to go to Snowden’s thing. I need to move from one domain to the other, and I have to go through disorder to get there. I can’t just slip over.

David: Yeah. 

Douglas: Yeah. And so when I think about that further, and your Street, uh-

David: Epistemology.

Douglas: Yes, your Street Epistemology.

David: It is quite a mouthful. 

Douglas: He’s taking them through that journey rather than asking them to flip that switch to think a different way. 

David: That’s fine. 

Douglas: And I think as facilitators and meeting participants, we need to be cognizant of that and how we take people in journeys and not just have them flip switches.

David: Yeah, absolutely. 

Douglas: Amazing.

David: But I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the world. It’s going to be interesting this next few years to see how it all pans out, because we’re getting far more polarized than is healthy.

Douglas: I agree. And I think the trick is to think about that polarization through a lens of how can we go on a journey with them? How can we have a conversation and understand where those beliefs come from, what mindsets they might be in, et cetera, because just expecting people to change their minds or just assuming we understand how they think, I think is a very, very counterproductive paradigm.

David: Yeah, we make a huge number of assumptions about other people, that there are bad people that they are stupid. When most people are not bad people, they’re not stupid. Most people, like I hope you and I, are acting in good faith. They’ve just got different beliefs and different views and different ways of expressing them. Let me just share one other thing with you, that’s just come to mind, which was a little piece of magic. One of the things I’ve often felt strongly about is the word respect. Because I feel in order to have a good conversation, you need to show respect in having that conversation. And I’ve realized quite early on that there was a difference between having respect for somebody, admiring them, and showing respect for them. And so I can think of plenty of people, many politicians who I don’t respect as people. But if I ever met them, I would show respect to them. I would want to have an open conversation with them.

And so there’s this difference between those two forms of respect. But in writing about that, and just googling it and researching it, I found a Jewish term, and the Jewish term is lashon hara. And it means evil tongue. And in Jewish religious law, if you will, this is a sin, to speak lashon hara. In other words, it’s a sin to say anything derogatory about anybody else. What I quite liked about that it was putting a nice interesting label on it, I think it’s Hebrew. But the Jewish law goes a little bit further, it says, “it is a sin to say anything derogatory about somebody, even when it is true.”

Douglas: Mm-hm.

David: And that was the… I don’t know, that just popped my mind, even if it’s true. And you think, how do you live in a world where you can’t unmask somebody even if it’s true, even when you know they’ve done something bad. And clearly, in the Jewish culture, there’s have been a lot of discussion over that over the years. And there were exceptions, if you’d like, to the rule. But I took it on board, and I thought, right, I am going to stop to the degree that it’s possible, let’s put it this way, for this business puzzle. I’m going to stop speaking lashon hara. So whenever I find myself saying something derogatory about somebody, I do notice it now. And basically what I say is, in my head, “is this absolutely necessary?” I say this, most of the time, it isn’t. So I try to stop saying it. 

Douglas: It makes me think about the difference between information- things that are informational, and things that are personal and relational. So if we judge someone, and we attack their character, and we say that these things about them, that’s personal and relational. But if we simply state that he stole from the bank, that’s different than saying he’s a thief.

David: Yes, it is.

Douglas: And so labeling someone and attacking someone’s character is different than saying, “Hey, they did this thing.” Because I think labeling someone and attacking their character is really hard for them to move forward from. Right?

David: Yeah.

Douglas: Because it says, it’s an absolute. It says they are this thing and so…

David: You’re attacking their identity. 

Douglas: Yeah. And so that’s where I went when you were talking about it is outlawed to do those things. It’s like, “okay, well, we can still talk about the fact that it happened, and what we’re going to do about it.” But we don’t necessarily need to demonize that person because they did something, we can still hold their humanity in high regard. 

David: I think what’s also interesting about lashon hara, there’s a couple of other things they say is, first of all, it does more harm to you than to the person you’re attacking. 

Douglas: Of course. Right.

David: Which is interesting. And also, it is a sin to allow somebody else to speak lashon hara, if they do, you should point it out to them or you should walk away. And also it’s a sin to think lashon hara. And it’s almost a gold standard. It’s something that’s almost impossible to I think in some ways to live up to, but it’s a really interesting goal, if you like, to work towards as individuals if we could stop all the ad hominem attacks that we make on people. Especially people who’ve got different beliefs to us. And we recognize that most of them are acting in good faith. And what we do need to do is show respect, and have those conversations that we need to have. So we better understand each other. For me, that’s the key to all of this. 

Douglas: So amazing. Well, I think that brings us to a close and what an amazing place to end. And this does acknowledgement that we need to respect the humanity in the people that were with, and the people we encounter, especially when we’re doing work. And I think it comes back to the Peter Block quote, you shared that we had to put the connection before content. 

David: Yeah, absolutely.

Douglas: So before we go, I want to just give you an opportunity to share a message to our listeners, what would you like to leave them with? 

David: A little while ago, I came across a woman called Patricia Shaw, she was a professor of complexity at Hatfield University. And she was talking about leadership. And she said, “One of the ways that she thinks about leadership is that a leader initiates conversations that might otherwise not have taken place.” A leader initiates conversations that might otherwise not have taken place. And I really like that because it plays very well into my thinking and writing about conversational leadership. And so if I want to leave a message for people, I would say to you, what are the conversations that you should be having that you’re not having? Figure that out, and go out and have those conversations.

Douglas: Amazing. It’s been so great talking with you today, David, and thank you so much for coming on the show and I hope we can stay in touch. 

David: I hope we can, too. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you so much Douglas.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com.