What does a conversation architect do? with Joshua Davies

Conversations are at the core of how we learn with each other, too often live sessions both face-to-face and online are presentations not conversations.  Moving online does make designing learning around conversations more challenging but not impossible.  In this interview Robin is talking with Joshua Davies from Knowmium about what a conversation architect does.  Powerful conversations helping people transform the way they think and behaviour don't just happen, they need to be planned and designed.  This podcast will give you ideas and strategies on how to design conversations.      

Joshua and the team at Knowmium have put together the Radically Remote Facilitation Toolkit which is a book, a toolkit of templates for activities, a short course and tutorials on using Zoom. 

About Joshua Davies 

Joshua is the founder of Knowmium.  He has 14 years of business and communications training experience in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, as well as both South and North America. He has worked with Fortune 100 companies around the world, conducting research, coaching and workshops on various areas of communications improvement at all levels of management.  

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What does the conversation architect with Joshua Davies

Robin: Joshua, welcome to the Learning While Working podcast. You call yourself a conversation architect. What does the conversation architect do?

Joshua: It's a good question. It's either an extremely pretentious title or the best job title ever. It's basically we look at conversations as systems, they're things that can be constructed. So if you have a conversation, whether it's a negotiation or an innovation conversation or a training session, for example, at the end of the conversation, there's this sense, many times, that the conversation inevitably led there. That because of the people who are in the room, it happened to go there and that's the only way it could have gone. In the back of our head, we might have that regret of, "Oh, I should've said this. I could have said that."

But overall, we feel that the flow landed the way it did because that's where it was going to end up. But the reality is there are hundreds and hundreds of pivot points in most conversations and we tend to look at it in conversation architecture as every conversation is multiple conversations and so what we're trying to do through architecting this, through actually looking at and designing it, is we're trying to look at more positive ways that we can spot those pivot points and take the conversations in more productive directions for both parties. So that's really what it's about. It's about more mindful conversations, more conscious conversations and looking at the structures that underlie them.

Robin: So it's almost about making sure people are really aware of what those pivot points are and making the choices at those pivot points that keeps with the bigger picture of where they want to go with the conversations in mind.  

Joshua: Exactly and of course, being open to new directions. It's the map. There's the slightly cheesy aphorism that the map is not the territory but that's true in real physical architecture, the best plan you've got, if you get to the land and the actual land does not support that kind of development, you need to make adjustments based on what's going on there. So it's a mixture of ... we always say that in any conversation you've got half the ingredients but half the ingredients are coming from the person you're talking to. So if you're only using what you've come with, then you only have half the recipe, so it's respecting the other.

Robin:  There is a subtle word in what you said. It was multiple, because there's something always happening with the other person who's listening as well. That might actually be a different conversation to the one that the person that's talking as well.

Joshua:  We tend to come in with these checklists way too often, where it's that whole Covey ( Stephen Covey 1932 - 2012)  quote that most of us are just waiting for our turn to talk, because we're not listening to understand, we're listening to reply and we're really, really treating it like it is just a checklist that we're going down and that's not a great ... it's not a real conversation then. It's two monologues in search of a dialogue.

Robin: Actually, you're reminding me of an academic committee meeting that I was part of once, there was a really controversial topic and the chair, literally, made everyone have a turn.

Joshua: There are programmatic ways of doing that and that's not necessarily a bad thing. We try not to have it be that structured but sometimes there's a necessity for equal voice share to occur. Otherwise, we get what we call a louder ship as opposed to leadership and that's not what we want.

Robin: It was a very structured, very democratic way of making sure all the voices were heard. Everyone did have their prepared statements from their particular viewpoints ready to go as well. 

Joshua:  As a starting point, there's nothing wrong with coming in with what you prepared, as long as it's just a starting point, even in a very structured conversation where we then begin to look at the narrative threads that underpin what everyone has said. The problem is, of course, if you get that kind of structured meeting where everyone makes their statement but no one actually listens to what others have said in their own statements. So really it's a balance of the two.

Robin: To switch to thinking about training and facilitating.  There is a different sensibility, when a learning experience is seen as a conversation. How does moving online shift the experience?

Live Online Learning

Joshua:  When we moved online ... we have to recognise first that this was not only a stressful time for people, there's a need for a higher degree of empathy but also that for a lot of people, this was their first real time training and facilitating online. ATD (Association for Talent Development)  in a study published last year, said only 10% of training was live online learning. This year, I'd estimate, it's probably the reverse of that, where 90% is live online sessions and what that means is you've got a lot of people who are very new to it, the facilitators but also the participants. They're bringing with them a lot of potential baggage as to what their conceptions of a virtual facilitation is going to be. They're thinking webinar or those bad meetings that you sit through, rather than something that can be much more profound and deeper.

Robin:  We haven't been exposed to a lot of really good, really powerful online conversations.  Actually, you reminded me of a moment where a leadership development facilitator came back to an organisation during the COVID crisis. Her first day back at the organisation was remote in her home.  She felt it was going to be impossible to run her sessions remotely.  She was in one of our sessions and afterwards she said, "Oh, so it's possible to have a conversation. It doesn't have to be a webinar." It just clicked for her that you could actually design these very different types of experiences online. 

Zoom Fatigue

Joshua: Absolutely and that's something that we're really trying to do with Radically Remote and just all the other workshop type stuff I've been doing, is not only to show people bright spots, to show that it is possible through using tools like Liberating Structures and Miro and other tools like that. They're using tools like that to have these amazing conversations in virtual spaces that break away from the Zoom fatigue but on top of that, it's not just possible, it's accessible. So, it's one thing to show people this is amazing, it's powerful but if it's seen as impossible for new facilitators, then it's not going to matter.

Robin: It needs to be sort of stepped through. To dive into it ... okay, you just talked about two things that people might not be familiar with. First of all, all Liberating Structures, another person on the podcast here is Nancy White, we didn't actually talk about Liberating Structures but it's really important to her practice. For people who are not familiar with them, what are they?

Liberating structures

Joshua: So Liberating Structures ... a couple of things I love about it are, basically it's patterns of interaction and as a conversation architect or a facilitator, I find that categorization can actually be very free. So it's structures you can use in a classroom, whether it's face-to-face or virtual. For example, the easiest one would be something like what we would call a one, two, four, all. That would be where the participant, the learner, thinks about something, self-reflection, then pair share, then group of four, and then all in plenary. So that would be one of the patterns. There's actually 33 of the patterns that they've put together in this taxonomy they've got and what's nice about it is, they're not the originators of all these patterns. It's gathered from many, many different resources. So it's put out there very open source and it's been taken up by thousands and thousands of facilitators worldwide because they allow for more powerful conversations to occur. They are really good at transferring ownership of those conversations to the learners themselves, rather than just being entirely facilitator driven. So it's structure that actually creates freedom.

Robin: And indeed, that’s what's so lovely about them and they're proven structures.  

Joshua: Very proven.

Robin: The one you just talked through is a really simple one to transfer into online. In terms of just breakout rooms and giving people different types of moments and it can be quite quick as well because the breakout rooms can go in and out so quickly.

Joshua: No, absolutely and that is true. There are some Liberating Structures that are a bit harder. What's really kind of fun is there's a Liberating Structures Slack community online where thousands of facilitators are experimenting with how to bring the different 33 structures to the virtual space impressively and every week I see new experiments, new efforts to really try to make these meaningful conversations.

Robin: Oh, okay. I didn't actually know about  that Slack community Joshua. I'm going to hunt that out personally as well.

Joshua: It's a lot of fun. It's worth taking a look at.

Robin: The other thing you talked about was Miro. 

Online learning tech tools

Joshua: Miro is one of many tools. The short answer would be, it's a virtual whiteboard. Now I know most of us are thinking, well, my Zoom or my MS Teams does have a built-in whiteboard but those are not really persistent spaces and they're not really infinite canvas. In a physical face-to-face classroom or workshop session, over the course of the session the ideas might be put up on sticky notes, on flip charts, all around the room to the point where the ownership of that knowledge, of that visible thinking is really, really up there for all to see and you can create a really cohesive learning journey. With the existing whiteboard tools that come with most of the video platforms, Zoom included, it doesn't really allow for that persistent space, that kind of ownership of the visible thinking.

But Miro, along with other tools like Conceptboard and Mural and similar stuff like that, allows for these kinds of spaces to be created. What's nice about Miro, the reason I chose that one in particular, is it allows for other tools to be embedded within it. For example, if I want to do a survey, with Mentimeter, or Type Form survey or when you show a YouTube video, I don't need to send people a separate link. The only two things I need are my Zoom and my Mural board with the survey or the other tools embedded within it. This keeps it simpler from a training perspective for my participants, so that they have a really consistent feel to the classroom space and it really creates a virtual space that they can pour themselves into.

Robin: Actually it’s that space word that I was just thinking about, what we miss online is a physicality, being with a group of people and some of the white boarding tools gives a sense of it. It gives a sense of a presence on that persistent possibility, physicality. People being able to move things around, participate in nonverbal ways that might be pointing at things or moving things around as well. One of the other podcasts people in this series Joshua, talked about the whiteboards becoming the artefacts afterwards as well.

Joshua: It's incredibly powerful. There was the old prescient Churchill quote, he said, "We shape our buildings and then they shape us." The spaces that our classroom creates, whether it's face-to-face or virtual, to some extent dictates the kind of conversations that happen there and that's not surprising. If you're face-to-face with a wall of Zoom, 49 people in a gallery view versus a small breakout or walking with a friend, it's a totally different kind of conversation that occurs. Miro just, along with other tools, allows us to break away from a lot of standard conscriptions of online learning and move them to a place where deeper conversations are possible.

Robin I'll pick up on the deeper conversations in a moment. So I've got a question for you. One organisation we work with, they have this really nice model, which is literally around being inside or outside of a circle and questions about safety and looking after yourself. I've actually found when I've tried to move that online, it's quite challenging. So I tried the whiteboard tool and it hasn't worked. They actually then tried some of the other white boarding tools and found they had to get paper. What they ended up with, was this odd spot that I think of people putting responses in chat and then copying and pasting them in. Have you personally got over the tech barrier with some of these tools? Because I think that's essentially what they had as a problem was a tech barrier.

Online learning psychological safety

Joshua: Definitely. And it really depends on the particular type of conversation that we're trying to create. For example, with yours where ... if I'm hearing correctly, this idea of where someone ... and in all spaces, I would argue that psychological safety and a feeling that this is a place where you can share is critical. That's just critical for all learning but in particular with the circle methodology where you've got people around the circle and people are stepping to the centre to speak, is that my correct understanding?

Robin: Actually, it's a big picture idea that some behaviours are inside of the circle and they're acceptable and then some behaviours are outside the circle and are not acceptable in our workplaces.   

Joshua: Ah, okay. I'm familiar with something called above the line, below the line behaviours, so probably a similar concept. So how do we actually shape conversations around that? And it is tricky about giving people a sense of feeling safe to share. We talk about, do we want things shared anonymously? Do we want them to share publicly? Do we want them shared in small groups? There's a lot of different structures for doing this, not just Zoom for example, but there's tools like ... there's actually one called Circles, which is literally a video wall where it's people in circles and they step to the centre to have a conversation. There's tools built on top of Zoom like Marco, which are mapping how much people are speaking. Marco mapping who's talking more, so you can actually look about mapping that out in a conversation. 

Robin: It's also about getting people technically ready to use the tools, and making sure they have skills to be able to work with the tools, so they don't become a barrier during the live session as well.

Joshua: And that's the key word, becomes a barrier and it's just absolutely critical that we lower that barrier. That we make it so that the tools and the technology disappear into the background. It's like, if you remember back when all these interactive whiteboards, these video whiteboards were put into a lot of schools around the world and for a day or two teachers might've been using them but a lot of times I went into classrooms and saw them just gathering dust in the corner because the technology had not been designed in a way that really lowered the barrier for everyone to participate with it.  I think in all cases, we really need to be thinking in terms of that.

Robin: So deep conversations, just to pick back up on that statement about having really deep conversations online. So first of all, the first thing is it's about virtual sessions that aren't presentations or about the conversation rather than the actual presentation. For you, what's a key for facilitators if you have that sort of deep conversations?

Joshua: So the question is what is the key to creating an environment that allows deep conversations? 

Robin: That's a really nice way to reframe the question.  

Joshua: I think you tapped into it earlier, this idea of psychological safety, where we have to warm people up to it. If I just jumped in with deep meaning of life conversations and we had a lot of other stuff that was going on in our head, we had just come off a previous meeting that was stressful. You've got to clear the room, you’ve got to clear the room and ready the room to some extent to have those conversations but then you've also got to set people up where they feel like they've got permission to share. If I ask just an open question, what's the meaning of life? Something like that, I'll hear crickets. But if I structure that question and I structure and break it into constituent parts, where it's sentence starters, like “Last year, two very meaningful things were  in my life, where dah, dah, dah.”

Scaffolding online learning

It's a question of scaffolding and how we scaffold it, which actually taps back into Liberating Structures. There's one they have, which gets people going very deep quite quickly called Wise Crowds, where it basically turns everyone into consultants for each other.  What they actually do is, they have the person being consulted, turn around and face away from the camera. There is something about that is entirely freeing, where it just changes the dynamic of the conversation. So it's really thinking about how are you structuring the conversation? How are you structuring your scaffolding conversation, so they feel that they've got things that they can lean on as well as people that they can trust.

Robin: That bit of physically getting people to move away from the camera, is to build trust in a different way.  

Joshua: It’s an interesting way.

Robin: And you actually talk about things being check-in at the beginning of sessions as well, which I think is a different type of concept. Ben Faranda in this podcast series talked about safety and check-ins not icebreakers as well. Check-ins are ... just a different, powerful sensibility of finding out where people are at and scaffolding and building that in that environment.

Joshua: Well, it's a frame, and I'm not against the concept of icebreakers. I think Daniel Stillman who wrote the book, “Good Talk,” a wonderful, wonderful facilitator, he actually asked the question, well, what ice are we actually trying to break? Just stepping back and what we mean ... so there's nothing wrong with icebreakers per se but if it's just a novelty warmup, it may not serve the purpose that we want it to serve. So it really depends. How does it actually break the ice in a way that checks in with people and allows them to share more deeply in the session? 

Robin: There's this nice moment where essentially  where the icebreaker affects the content.  In your Radically Remote book, you talk about people sharing their objects around them.  An insurance company we've been working with use this to trigger the whole session. After "What objects are important to you?" This leads to thinking about why insuring those objects is important.  

Joshua: That's genius. I love that. It goes back to intel. As simple as it sounds, if we bring the physical, if we bring the analogue into the digital, it really does help to humanise the person on the other side of the screen.

Robin: That's a nice way of thinking about it. Radically Remote has two parts to it, the book and the toolkit. Did the toolkit come about because you started to document your own practice?  

Joshua:  It’'s the book, it's the toolkit with all the resource categorization, as well as the free online class that we put up there for people, which basically takes them through all the lessons from the book and the toolkit.  The book is designed to be the philosophy behind the process and then the really practical aspects of what tools do you use, is the course and how you do it is the toolkit.    

I think it was partially just gathering everything that I do and everything colleagues at Knowmium do and now many other facilitators that we admire chipping in on the toolkit but it was us reflecting on our own practice on where we could go to actually look for tools as well. If you look at the bottom of the toolkit, there's everything really clearly categorised and that's actually partially for our own bookmarking that we just decided to expose to the world to see what other ideas would come out of it. A lot of facilitators have given us ideas that we had never heard of before either and I'm like, "That is a wonderful idea. Thank you for sharing that. I'm adding that to the toolkit."

Robin: It’s  lovely to hear that the collaborative process is happening because it's always exciting when sharing is actually also ... almost about the process of sitting there going, "Well, we need this, the categorization, what tools for what type of things?" And then if you share it and add value to other people. This is really, really great to hear the people that are contributing to it as well because often these sorts of resources just become tumbleweeds that people don’t contribute to.   


Joshua: Yes, they do. That's true.  We're seeing a lot more collaborative stuff. If you look at session labs and other tools like that, there's a lot more conversation, especially during these COVID times, where people are really facilitators, the facilitation community is connecting up in a way that they had never done so before and it's not that facilitators were hiding in boxes or in little corners of the world. I think the facilitators are, in general, very, very giving and very willing to talk to other facilitators but for some reason, the opportunity other than a convention here or a big workshop here, or a local thing here, the barriers had not broken down in a way that was really opening up these conversations to occur. Now it is and it's absolutely fantastic to see.

Robin: There's something that's ... well, we've been remote and isolated, I think it's reminding us all about the power of connecting with others in different ways and I think that takes you to part of that collaboration process you're talking about. The people that realise that they have to work harder at it, is maybe the way to put it.

Joshua:I'd say that that's very, very accurate  When it's face-to-face it's trickier and it's not that there weren't good communities, Miro, Liberating Structures, a lot of these had good communities online but they were very much in isolation and now they know all about each other and there's a lot more cross-pollination going on in a fantastic way.

Robin: I'll make sure there's links in the show notes to those resources as well for listeners. Joshua, I'd like to finish the podcast with a question that sort of wraps up about if somebody wanted to be a very different type of conversation architect online, what would be your greatest gem of wisdom?

Listen more

Joshua:So if some ... two, two words - listen more. But very honestly, in the conversations room ... so we've done, and we, meaning myself and my team, we've examined hundreds and hundreds of conversations. So we use a tool called Otter to actually do live transcription of a lot of our simulations and a lot of the stuff we do. We watched the back and forth conversation dynamics and the biggest thing that human beings do is, we have a tendency to drop the ball. You'll say something to me, I'll get that ball, I'll look at it and go, "Oh, that's nice" and then I'll just kind of drop it and I'll go back to whatever I was saying next, rather than summarising, rather than tossing it back to you and exploring what you've said.

We just tend to rush from A to B and I think that as workshops have gotten shortened that way, too often there's been a tendency to rush more, rather than to take the time to take the conversation deeper. This doesn't mean going off in random directions necessarily. It's not a lack of order to the workshop but it's having the patience to make the conversation matter and so that's my main thing I would say.

Robin: Listen more, pause, make it happen, don't go off topic, still guide it through as well.

Joshua: Absolutely. It's still very guided. It's still very guided and co-created with the learners. So it does go into places we may not expect. I love the quote, someone said it, "If you're not learning, you're not listening." Meaning that if you, as the facilitator, haven't learned something new and gone at least a little bit off of script, then it's very much too much a checkbox exercise for you as well. So it's being willing to listen and see what they bring to the table.

Robin: Thank you for a fantastic conversation today Joshua and it's been interesting for me, because it's been one of the times when you've sparked a couple of new things for me to hunt out personally, as well, including the Liberating Structures.  Thank you.

Joshua: Always very, very happy to share it. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Questions and ideas to explore from this interview 

  • How could your online sessions become conversations? 
  • Could your session planning be more like designing a map of options and different directions for a conversation rather than writing session notes?    
  • Learner expectation about what online learning is. How can these expectations be broken down? 
  • What Liberating Structures could you use in your online sessions?  
  • How could you make your sessions be more like ‘spaces’ by using collaborative whiteboard tools such as Miro?  
  • How can you structure and scaffold complex, powerful questions so they are easier for your learners to interact with?
  • Does your icebreaker and check-in actually prepare your participants to share deeply in the session?
  • How could you use video to bring the physical space around your participants?
  • How could you use transcriptions to analyse your sessions?