How to build a collaborative conversation

What question stopped you in your tracks this week? Mine was from a client who asked me just how ‘structure’ can strengthen our ability to collaborate.

“Do you mean governance? Setting the agenda? Allocating roles and responsibilities?”

A great question that sent me back to the basics. From the Latin structura, ‘structure’ means ‘to build’ and ‘a building’. It’s the ‘doing’ and the ‘thing’. So, how we build a conversation that helps people to collaborate and what the collaboration -‘the building’- looks like.  

What people ask me for help with the most is how to set up, build and ‘hold’ a collaborative conversation. What skills are needed to:

👐 Create the trust that enables people to feel comfortable to talk, to share, to say that they ‘don’t know’

👐 Encourage contributions from the reserved ones, the introvert

👐 Make it safe for people to improvise and ‘riff’ like musicians in jam, rather than an orchestra following the sheet music

👐 Give people the confidence that we know where we’re headed, so that they can explore different pathways to get there

👐 Know what’s the best question to ask, and when

👐 Turn negativity and scepticism around and keep the conversation flowing

I’ve done this instinctively most of my life and learnt from some wonderful stakeholder and partnership mentors. I’m constantly unpacking these skills so that I can share how I do what I do with others – when I’m speaking, mentoring or training. So, when I got feedback on a session last week that they ‘appreciated the structure of the conversation’, I asked them what they meant:

“I knew where we were headed. There was variety. We heard from you and I had time to think on my own. It was then good to swap notes with my neighbour – I didn’t know anyone and would have been a bit nervous to talk in the group from the get go (the ‘how’). And the questions you asked were spot on (the ‘what’). They made us go deeper.”

Any group who wants to collaborate needs to know where we are headed, how we’re going to get there and what content or resources are needed. The skills to make this happen can be modelled, learnt and practised.

What the collaboration looks like- governance arrangements for example -is critical, but immaterial if we don’t have the skills to build or hold a collaborative conversation.

So, tell me. What skills do you think are needed to set up and hold a collaborative conversation? I’d love to hear, please share in the comments below.


Here’s a few ways to hone your collaborative skills and abilities. Get a copy of my white paper. Get tips & tools in my weekly blog. Get started on my Collaborability Workout program.