This post was originally published on Jul 14 2019 on Medium.

Conversations are something we have.

But then when you start viewing it as a medium, you realize, it’s not enough to just have them.

Conversations, like every other kind of experience, is something that can be designed.

As an experience artist, it is not enough for me to just start conversations. It isn’t even enough to start intentional and meaningful conversations.

I realized that exploring conversation as an experiential medium means breaking down the experience of conversations into individual components, and seeing how the end result changes when you tweak and adjust each one.

Through this journey, we found certain questions that are useful to ask ourselves when designing a conversation. We thought it might be interesting to share them with you, to help you think about conversations in a more conscious and mindful way.

Why lenses?

I like to see these questions as lenses, because lenses affect the way you see things. Lenses help bring certain things into focus, or helps other things fade into the background. A lens can colour your vision and help you see things in a new light. These conceptual lenses work the same way, they help you zoom into a particular component of the conversation experience and helps you see the act and experience of conversation in a different light. Lenses are inherently flawed and not all-encompassing. But that’s why we collect them. With enough lenses, we can put together an almost-perfect picture.

So yes, although we listed 7 lenses here, this is by no means an exhaustive list. And we hope that you will come up with your own lenses that will help you see conversations in a whole new light.

You can use these lenses not just for formal dialogue or group discussions, but also for day to day conversations like chatting with a friend or making small talk at an event. In fact, we find using them on more ‘mundane’ conversations yields even more interesting perspectives.

The 7 lenses of conversation design.

1. The lens of Intention

What is the purpose of this conversation? Why are you having this conversation in the first place? What do you want to achieve?
Is it for people to get to know each other? Is it to resolve conflict? Is it to learn more about something?

Conversations tend to stray, that’s perfectly normal. But knowing what your goal is helps you keep your conversations on track and make them more satisfying. And even if you do choose to shift away from achieving your intended goal, at least it is a conscious choice and you don’t leave the conversation feeling strangely unfulfilled.

2. The lens of Conversation Type

As long as there are two or more people communicating with each other, it’s a conversation. Negotiations, brainstorming, small talk, sharing, etc. are all different kinds of conversations. But a brainstorming discussion is going to be very different from say a relationship talk with your partner.

Knowing the type of conversation you are looking to have allows you to make decisions about other things, such as logistics, venue, etc.

3. The lens of participants

Who will be taking part in the conversation(s)? What are they like? Do they have any motivations, goals and or aspirations they want to achieve through this conversation? What is the relationship between the participants?

Conversations are had by people. We can have the best-laid plans but if it doesn’t take into account the idiosyncrasies of the participants, it’s not going to work. Knowing who will be part of the conversation helps make decisions about how you can design the conversation to better manage or service the participants. For example, a discussion on environmentalism between a group of empaths who happen to be close friends may not need a facilitator, but the same conversation involving a group of climate change activists and non-believers might need two facilitators.

4. The lens of Format

What is/are the best format(s) to support the kind of conversation you want to have? What are your constraints (e.g. time)?

The word ‘format’ may inspire the thought of formal structures, such as World Cafe Style, The Circle, or Future Search. But things like speed-dating, or even the act of breaking people up into small groups and setting a time limit for a discussion is a kind of format. Say your goal is to help a group of people make friends, but you only have an hour. In which case, gathering everyone to sit in a circle to share a vulnerable story of their childhood, which achieves the same goal, may not be as suitable as say, a casual conversation over lunch. Materials/logistics and tools are also things to consider under this lens.

5. The lens of Safe Space

What is the definition of safe for the conversation you want to have? What kind of space do the participants need to feel safe? How can the space be kept safe?

People often assume that the idea of a safe space is universal. But that’s not true. Every safe space looks a bit different. What remains the same is that the people in the space FEEL safe, and because of this safety, are comfortable to share and listen openly and honestly. A safe space for brainstorming might just mean a space where one feels like their ideas will not be ridiculed. But a safe space for a dialogue on racism may be much more complex. The rules and guidelines that help keep a space safe will therefore also differ.

6. The lens of Facilitators

The title of this lens may be misleading as it assumes that the conversation needs a facilitator. That’s not true. The first question under this lens is, do you need a facilitator? If yes, what role does the facilitator play? Mediator? Intellectual guide? Leading by example? Time-keeping? Holding a safe space? All of the above?

We often think of facilitators as people in group dialogues or discussions who lead and guide the discussion. But in reality, anyone who facilitates conversation, in any manner, is a facilitator. In a casual setting, say lunchtime at a conference, a facilitator could be a person who goes around starting conversations and engaging the shyer participants in conservation. It is not always a role that is formally conferred and announced.

7. The lens of You

Where do you come in in all this? Are you an organizer? Are you a facilitator? Are you trying to network? Are you trying to reconnect with a friend?

Do you have any triggers or strong opinions that might influence how you design or engage in the conversation?

How do you ready yourself emotionally for the conversation ahead (assuming you’re going to be part of it)?

Being selfless is considered a virtue most of the time, but when it comes to intentionally designing or creating anything, self-awareness is really important. Knowing our own triggers and biases allowed us to have greater awareness when designing conversations. It has helped us catch ourselves when we almost designed a conversation that was too biased to a specific conclusion. It has also helped us see more clearly, our goals and motivations for designing certain conversations, which helps answer other questions.

As you can see, the lenses are best used in conjunction with one another rather than in isolation. And although we presented them in a linear way, there is no real order in which the lenses should be used. You can very well start with the lens of participants, and based on the needs and interests of the people involved, decide what the goal, format and subsequent components should be. You can even start with yourself, is there a conversation you really want to have? What does that look like for you?

We hope that we’ve given you a different way to think about conversations. We will be posting pieces that explore individual lenses in further detail, so stay tuned!

Ri Chang
The intersensory workaholic who has made life their job. Also an artist-padawan...and kind of long-winded. 康復中的工作狂. 正努力練習認真生活