Creating Meaningful Conversations
Esalen Team
October 27, 2020
"When I started working on the book in earnest this year, I thought it would be about how we lost our way in dialogue, but eventually I learned that using creativity and commitment, we could indeed have the hardest conversation. And the world needed to see that. People needed to know it was still possible." —Fred Dust

Fred Dust, Esalen faculty and Former Senior Partner of IDEO, was not immune to adjusting personally and professionally this year as the pandemic captured the global spotlight. In fact, it inspired him to write a new book, Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication, which will be released Dec. 1.

In it, Fred culls from his lifelong experiences and has given birth to a remarkable resource for people to become more deliberate and purposeful in making conversations work.

“It’s easy with this pandemic to be always on,” Fred says. “But there’s a lot that makes this especially dangerous for our emotional health. Pause, mourn, celebrate even, but don’t hand yourself over to the machine, any machine. We can still make creative conversations, even when we're far from one another.”

Fred used 2020’s shelter-in-place measures as a springboard for deep creation and wrote several of the principles found in his book in just an hour. “We’ve been using them now [predominantly online] to guide our way for the last eight months,” he says, “and the conversation has been amazing, just, inclusive, even exuberant.”

Fred admits that the genesis of the book actually began when his mother had a stroke several years ago. The stoke left her aphasic and Fred began to realize that listening—truly listening to someone—is real work.

“Then came the last election and the increased divide in America,” he adds. “Back when I started working on it in earnest this year, I thought it would be about how we lost our way in dialogue, but eventually I learned that using creativity and commitment, we could indeed have the hardest conversation. And the world needed to see that. People needed to know it was still possible.”

Fred spent many years brokering communication between colleagues and clients, particularly at IDEO. He believed there had to be a way to design the art of conversation itself with intention and purpose, but also invite it to be artful and playful.

One of the more memorable sections in the book highlights five principles for making conversations online, which are outlined below:

  1. Assess and Commit … or Don’t: “Ask yourself if this is a conversation you should be in,” Fred writes in the book, pointing out that for more than a decade we have shifted into a “more is more” mentality, and an “always-on” work style. He posits that that mentality doesn’t translate well to remote work, writing: “I recently attended a two-day, nine-hour-a-day board meeting on Zoom that I would characterize as a crime against humanity."
  2. Break the Rules, All of Them: If it’s online, it’s not an in-person gathering so Fred says don’t treat it as one. The challenge isn’t a technical one, i.e., ‘let’s get everyone on Zoom,’” Fred writes. “Instead, it’s a question of what the ideal work and collaborative process is. You can entirely redesign the conversation to best suit the new circumstances and the new opportunities.” To that end, because the pressure of an in-person gathering has been removed, a convening can become anything—more sessions that are shorter or even more sessions with fewer people. You get to decide.
  3. Adapt the Medium to the Work: If and when you break the rules about what a “convening” is, we can also rethink our use of technology, too, because in the 21st century, we have much more media platforms at our fingertips. We are not limited to, say, just videoconferencing tools. Fred says: “Using a Google Doc in real time can make editing and the related conversations feel as fulfilling as sitting face-to-face. I’ve had long afternoons working in a Google Doc with my editor. By the end of the day, it felt nearly as fulfilling as sitting together and talking about the book.” He adds that what is particularly powerful about allowing more and varied media into the mix is that it employs different voices, talents and ways of thinking that may not occur face-to-face.
  4. Aim for Simplicity and Elegance: “In a virtual context, clarity, purpose and simplicity matter more than ever,” Fred writes. “If it was hard to ‘cut someone off’ before, then it’s even harder now. It’s not about eloquence, it’s about elegance.” He also reminds readers that a simple short story can establish clarity around meaning in online meetings and asks: “Is the story you’re telling making a point? Is it making the point you want? Is it even a story?”
  5. Design Humans In: In the ever-evolving virtual world, Fred says it is more important than ever to design with humor, joy, even love. “Take a moment to share fears, yes, but, maybe more important, take a moment to acknowledge what is good. I’ve been using new opening prompts—for instance, take a moment to share the one thing you would be in nature if you could be anything. That kind of opening question actually triggers serotonin. It may feel dorky, but it works. Turns out, feeling dorky is part of being human.

When asked if there was one main principle that typically goes overlooked when it comes to making conversations in the virtual world, Fred points to No. 5: Design Humans In.

“Too often nowadays, we forget to make way for humanity in our conversations,” he explains. “But course-correction can sometimes come from the smallest gestures. For instance, sometimes I’ll pretend I’m a little more forgetful than I am, so I can call on an individual who isn’t being ‘seen’ in a Zoom call and ask them to help me out. At the Rockefeller Foundation we’ll often design in these randomized two-people coffee chats as little breaks. I was just in one with a global leader and a Nigerian entrepreneur that was so gracious, supportive and humanizing.”

In a year where a pandemic and racial injustice took center stage, Fred sees one thing as being most vital now, in terms of people making real connection: “Go hardest first,” he shares. “Start with love!”

But he is quick to add that this is the perfect time ask ourselves: "Where can I help and where am I not helpful?"

“If you know you're not going to be helpful, remove yourself from those conversations,” Fred says. “There's real power in not participating, bowing out, stepping back. You’ll make the conversations you're not in better and you’ll make time in life for the conversations that matter most to you.”

To lean more about Fred Dust’s work or to order his book, click here.


Esalen Team