A Methodology to Support Challenging Conversations

by Sudipti Kumar, Director of Research, EXPLO Elevate

Below we share details on a conversation protocol methodology first developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs called ORID.

The methodology has a variety of applications across different workplace contexts and settings. It can be used to structure a meeting or to unearth information around a particular challenge. In this post we share how it can be particularly useful in addressing DEIJ-related issues at a school, however the tool has widespread applications.

Over the past few months, my colleagues and I at Elevate have read about, and heard directly from many independent schools who have been embroiled in challenging conversations around their DEIJ efforts and are searching for a path forward. Quite a few have implemented plans or strategies to exemplify an “antiracist school” both in theory and in practice, while others seem on the cusp of doing so.

Reactions to schools’ antiracist plans from their constituents has largely fallen in these four main categories:

  1. Excitement that the school is finally taking action in an area ripe for change
  2. Wary or tentative support regarding the school’s current efforts
  3. Frustration that the school may be “saying the right things”, but not actually making the impactful or institutional changes necessary
  4. Outright (and outspoken) anger, largely from (some) parents, in what is now being called the anti-antiracist movement.

These reactions are clearly varied and also deeply divergent. As such, the challenge facing independent schools on how to engage everyone together is complex; there is clearly no easy “solution” to be had. However, our belief is that one vital piece of moving forward has to include thoughtful and open communication. I would also venture to say that this communication has to look and feel pretty different than prior ones, particularly when there are so many emotions involved.

As such, I have been ruminating on how to get folks to talk TO one another rather than PAST one another. Here is where ORID, a structured conversation protocol, comes in. While I am not one to put all my eggs in a “tool” basket, I have to say that this is one where I might just be willing to do that.

I first heard about ORID as part of our recent study around the Lived Experience of DEIJ Practitioners. In a chat with Jenny Jun-lei Kravitz, Director of Equity and Justice at The Pike School (MA), she shared how she and a colleague, Sidney Kabotie, used the methodology at an elite Northeastern university where they were both receiving their M.A. degree, as the school was facing some significant challenges from constituents after rolling out new initiatives and naming themselves an “antiracist institution”.

According to Jenny and Sidney, ORID is an extremely flexible methodology that “emphasizes consensus and collaboration and participation, and so you can apply it to any kind of any kind of issue, where people need to come together to make decisions.”

It was first developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA). At its core, it is a structured conversation protocol that requires people to answer four sets of questions in an organized fashion, either via a one-one interview or in a small group. Below, we share more details on the case for ORID, what it is, and how Jenny and Sidney used it.

Current Challenges in Conversations

In the book, The Art of Focused Conversation, which dives deep on the ORID method, the editor notes how difficult having true conversation has become. In particular, he brings up a few different mental habits that we have that stymie our ability to engage with one another directly (and thus result in us talking past one another), which I think are worth spending a few minutes on.

  • Advocacy: Pleading, recommending, pushing a specific perspective or point of view.
  • Failure to Understand Each Other: Getting our own ideas out without waiting for the other to share theirs. A judgment attached to everything the other person is saying.
  • Tyranny of the Or: The belief that things have to be A or B, but not both.
  • Being Critical: Attacking an idea, usually in a negative fashion. Noting that criticism is important, but by itself can be totally inadequate.
  • Adversarial Mode: Not allowing contrasting ideas to lie together side by side. Two views are presumed to be mutually exclusive.

As I reflected on these mental habits, I recognized myself doing so many of these things in most of my recent conversations. Now I wonder, were these conversations at all? If the goal of a conversation is to exchange ideas with one another in true dialogue, how often am I, or are most people, really doing that? And if we did do it, how many doors could it open?

What is ORID?

ORID is a guided, facilitated conversation that offers an in-depth and exploratory conversation with participants that gives them an opportunity to share honestly as well as provide recommendations on a path forward.

Below, we share what each component of the process includes, as well as sample questions if the overarching concern/question of the school is: How do we best incorporate DEIJ concepts, initiatives, and ideals in the mission/vision of the school as well as in our strategic plan?

O = Objective

  • Examine the data
  • Identify factual information
  • Types of questions that are asked: what do we know about this?
  • Sample types of questions:
    • What DEIJ initiatives has the school embarked on over the past year?
    • What language does the school use or have they recently adopted?
    • What communications have been shared across constituents about these DEIJ initiatives?
    • How involved have you been with the school’s focus on DEIJ?

R = Reflective

  • To understand how we feel in relation to the data
  • Identifying feelings but not analyzing them
  • Sample types of questions:
    • How do you feel about the DEIJ initiatives to date at the school?
    • How do you feel about the language being used across the school?
    • How do you feel about the level of communications from the school on DEIJ?
    • How do you feel about your level of involvement?

I = Interpretational

  • Ascribing meaning
  • Put into perspective
  • Sample types of questions:
    • What if the school had undertaken more or less DEIJ initiatives? What would that mean to you?
    • What if the school had used different language/terms?
    • What if the school had chosen a different approach to embedding DEIJ across the school?
    • What if the school had undertaken a different approach to communicating?
    • What if you had a chance to be more involved? What would that mean?

D = Decisional

  • Recommended actions
  • What should we do?
  • Sample types of questions:
    • What do you recommend the school do next?
    • What is realistic and achievable in the next year?

A key element of this method is the fact that “objective” comes first. It can often be the case that people come together to debrief and immediately move to what worked and what didn’t without discussing the event itself. When people do this, they assume that everyone is operating on the same information/data. However, this can lead to disagreement because the objective facts have not been unearthed.

It can often be the case that people come together to debrief and immediately move to what worked and what didn’t without discussing the event itself.

Imagine, for example, that a school sends out a letter naming that they are diversifying their curriculum to include more BIPOC authors. If a group of parents are brought together to discuss reactions to the letter, the initial question should be – what was written in the letter? Starting with “what did you think about the letter” could obscure the objective facts of what was written in the letter. It immediately moves to reflection, and as such, one parent may be thinking something completely different about the contents of the letter (e.g. that the school is removing certain authors to make room for others) from another (e.g. that the school is expanding the overall list of books to include more BIPOC authors).

Another important and vital component of the methodology is that it holds significant space for emotions and feelings, which are critical to decision-making processes, particularly if one is focused on being human-centered. Jenny and Sidney brought this up as core to the work they did, as well.

While this piece has centered heavily on DEIJ, the tool has applications across any aspect of school-based issues that require transparent communication. For example, if a school were considering eliminating the department head role, both the facts (what is being considered?) As well as the emotions, (how does this make you feel and what meaning do you ascribe to it?) are critically important so the people at the center of the organization feel empowered and not sidelined in any way, shape, or form.

An Example, from Jenny and Sidney

Jenny and Sidney’s work using ORID was based on a higher education institution that had recently declared themselves as “antiracist”. As part of this effort, the university had developed a diversity and inclusion leadership program to generate diversity and inclusion leadership scholars.

As M.A. candidates at the institution, Jenny and Sidney first noticed that it seemed like the move to calling themselves antiracist felt like more of a “PR stint”. They also saw that current data-gathering efforts on the part of the university had been “reduced to numbers and pieces of information that were separated from the people behind them”. According to Sidney,
“there was a loss of humanity – it almost appeared like individual people were processed and run through a machine and then it was messaged back out in this extensive report in the language of academia.”

This did not sit well with the community, particularly people of color who were frustrated that actions did not seem to correspond to initial ideas and planning when the school had named their antiracist ideals. As such, Jenny and Sidney set out to use ORID as a data gathering mechanism to help folks who had participated in the rebranding of the institution and in the planning to “connect deeply with their emotions”.

“The spaces of decision-making are foundationally rooted in relational experience and process, but this is not given appropriate attention in institutional norms, where outcomes are prioritized over process.”

-Kravitz and Kabotie

Jenny notes that their intent was to “use this methodology so participants could better understand their positioning with one another, so that they could work together to move to a place where they could do that decision-making work together and enable that work towards those goals and that vision, that they all hope to attain.” They wanted to find a way to empower them to connect deeply with one another, and enable the right methodology for the work moving forward and continually.

As facilitators, Kravitz and Kabotie both stressed the communalist approach and the fact that in native american and indigenous life, the mind and the heart are inextricably intertwined. As such, data collection should focus on the emotions AND the facts.

Based on their conversations across leadership, Kravitz and Kabotie came up with a set of themes as well as recommendations for the institution, which largely focused on using the methodology in an ongoing fashion to generate consensus-based decision making.

A powerful excerpt from Kravitz and Kabotie’s summary report:

“The spaces of decision-making are foundationally rooted in relational experience and process,
but this is not given appropriate attention in institutional norms, where outcomes are prioritized
over process. Adjusting focus towards gathering inclusive input from all stakeholders in ways
that meaningfully tap into the full capacities of peoples’ senses, emotions, and insights enables
decision-makers to feel that their contributions are acknowledged enough to take personal
ownership of the outcomes, and decisions are less likely to require constant revisiting to
generate more buy-in.”

How can ORID help schools today?

As I think about where many schools are today in their DEIJ efforts, I wonder about how ORID can be used as an entry point to not only give people a chance to share how they are feeling, but also to help drive decision making from a collectivist mindset. What if those with opposing views actually were able to come and sit together and go through this structured protocol together? In fact, what if a person from each of those four reaction-based groups we named at the beginning sat together and went through this structured protocol with a skilled facilitator? What types of recommendations for decisions may come out of these conversations? It doesn’t mean the school HAS to do the things that are recommended, but may it be a path forward? May it be an opportunity to truly listen to one another without judgment and anger? May it allow for emotions to be shared in a constructive way rather than a destructive way?

The Art of Focused Conversation has many examples of how and when the methodology can be used. These range from using it to preparing a short presentation to evaluating an event to giving feedback.

Clearly, ORID requires thoughtful facilitation and a setting of clear guidelines upfront. Perhaps one of the most important things is that the wisdom comes from the group and that there is no individual “teacher or leader”. At Elevate, we seek to facilitate many of our listening tours during strategic planning processes using this methodology. Human-centered approaches are at the core of the work we all do with one another. A tool that helps us acknowledge and center that, is one that should be celebrated.