Fostering great conversations depends upon having a good understanding of the goal of the conversation. It is a simple principle, really: without a clear understanding of the end, the movement toward the end will be random and chaotic. If it’s reached, it will be by luck, not skill.
But this raises the intractable problem of discussions: they can have any number of goals, each of which depends upon the particular circumstances of the class or group. In a business environment, a working group may want to come to a better understanding of a problem facing the company, and develop solutions. A company may want to generate new product ideas. A small group from church may want to develop a sense of community among its members. A school might want its students to understand a text or issue better.
Despite that difficulty, there are several goals that are, I think, common across environments. Here I am not interested in how to reach these goals, but simply identifying them. Pentecost: “It is the business of education,” says Dorothy Sayers, “to wait upon Pentecost.” While Sayers is using Pentecost in a special fashion, the point is that real learning occurs when an idea is confronted in its power–when it affects the hearer in such a way that the hearer has to respond (even if the response is a strong rejection of it). While clearly enigmatic, and in some ways uncontrollable, the understanding of an issue, idea, or text gained through “pentecost” is one of the chief goals for academic and religious discussions. Aporia: Like Pentecost, aporia is a tough concept to articulate. Roughly, it means something like confusion or an awareness of ignorance. In business or in academic settings, it is best described as a clear understanding of the problem or question under consideration. Good ideas are hard to come by–they take time to develop and formulate. As such, it can be helpful to aim discussions at aporia in order to help everyone simply understand a question better, allowing them to work on solutions on their own.
Creative ideas: While this process often begins with a brainstorming session–a time for people to throw out ideas without having them critiqued at all–the best ideas are usually worked out in discussion with each other. The advantage of discussion for the creative thinking process is that it focuses multiple minds on one solution or idea. In that collaboration, new creative thoughts emerge. This is, I think, the principle behind much user created content on the web. In a work, religious or academic setting, discussion is essential to finding new ideas.
Building community: Establishing community–which I leave intentionally loose–is clearly a desirable end for business, the church and even academics. People do their best when they work together, and people work together best when they have some knowledge of each other. Discussion is effective at building community and establishing relationships because it forces people to talk, face-to-face, about issues that are important to the group. While such conversations need not be personal, in these interactions relationships will be formed. To this end, I have sometimes “wasted time” in class settings having a discussion about the football game, or something of interest to the members of the class in order to help them establish these relationships.
These goals are by no means comprehensive (reader additions are welcome!). Later, I will address developing a strategy for your work group or classroom that is long term, and more goals for specific sessions will (I think) emerge.
Want to have Matthew speak to the leaders of your church, youth group, business, or school about leading discussions? Contact him at Matthew Dot L Dot Anderson At Gmail Dot Com. Rates are negotiable.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.