There are few things so exquisite as the road trip with a spouse or a friend – just the two of you – hours on a highway with conversation and times of silence, the shared experience along the way that frames the ways in which this provides an occasion to talk about life and work and relationships, both things that matter and those things that are merely of passing interest. No one is framing the conversation or leading or moderating. We are merely enjoying each other’s company and talking about our experience along the way.
Within an organization there will be these kinds of informal conversations with colleagues – no doubt. We go for coffee with no particular agenda . . . or we drop into an office to chat connect with a colleague about life and work and their health . . . all vital to the texture of our working relationships. But, what I am speaking to here is the more formal side of our shared learning and the deliberative process by which we come to closure: meaning that our conversation is benchmarked and is the basis for a decision that will be made, a policy that will be adopted, an action item implemented.
And when we think about conversation this way, it is not long before we recognize the vital place of what we typically speak of as a moderator. Organizations only flourish when there is a good moderator, or many moderators, who know how to foster good and effective conversation, meaning the deliberative process by which we move from shared wisdom and understanding towards a resolution. Few things are so frustrating as being part of an organization where we are constantly talking about and wrestling with a problem or issue or concern but then not doing anything about it. We need to talk; we need time and space to wrestle with a problem or dilemma. We need time for the leisured conversation that is essential to doing our work. But at some point we need closure: we need to come to some measure of resolution.
Herein lies the rub: this can only happen if we have clarity about who is moderating this conversation with the grace and skill to foster the conversation – the necessary give and take of diverse opinions and perspectives – but also to know when and where and how to bring the conversion to closure. In a formal deliberative assembly or committee, the chair or moderator might simply ask: are we ready to act on this? Are we in a position to make a decision, to vote if it requires a vote? Is there consensus on this matter? – and the moderator might then summarize that consensus and confirm that this is the intent or understanding of will of the committee.
But there is also a role of “moderating” when we perhaps are part of a reading or study group. And here we can actually take turns. Perhaps as colleagues we are reading a book together and each week we discuss a chapter . . . where we take turns acting as moderator, encouraging input and observation but then closing the hour together with a summation of what the moderator heard or appreciated from the exchange.
The gift of the moderator is that such a person does not dominate the conversation but actually encourages and calls out the contributions of others – requesting their input, inviting their observations, asking how they feel about what someone else has said . . . actually perhaps even suggesting that when someone is coming close to dominating the conversation that they wait for a minute or two until others have spoken. The moderator is alert to those who might bully those who are for whatever reason less inclined to share their opinions or views. The moderator assures one and all that diversity of opinion is a good thing – not a problem.
Sometimes the resolution is merely a statement: “we’ve read this chapter together and if I am reading the conversation accurately, this is what we have learned together and here is where we seem to have a diversity of opinion.” And that might be all that is called for in that situation. But often, a decision is needed; a resolution needs to be passed; an action will be taken. And the role of the moderator is to speak precisely to that point: so that one and all know where this conversation will lead. In a formal situation it is a simple statement of fact: “the motion is approved.” In other settings, it is merely a statement that indicates what we have learned, what we have understood to be the situation that we, as a leadership team, recognize will now inform our capacity to fulfill the mission of this organization.
My main point here is that few things are so important to the vitality and effectiveness of an organization is the capacity of the moderator to foster good conversation that leads towards a growth in wisdom and the capacity to act and do what needs to be done.