We can’t talk about how we could do things better around here We can’t talk about what isn’t working We can’t talk about the countless opportunities we ignore We can’t talk about what hurts We can’t talk about dignity We can’t talk about how to make magic happen We can’t talk to our boss, our employees, our board, our investors We can’t talk about the things we can’t talk about
One of the reasons we feel we can’t talk about things is that we are scared about who might hear—people who have, or might have, power or influence of some kind over us, like our boss (“You’re fired!“) or colleagues (“He’s weird!”)
Even if we’re at a meeting where none of these people are present, we’re unlikely to say certain things if we’re worried that, somehow, what we say gets back to these people.
Which is why one of the ground rules I ask everyone to agree to at the start of my conferences is about confidentiality:
“What we discuss at this conference will remain confidential. What we share here, stays here.”
I explain that you can still talk about what happened in general terms (“Most participants thought that implementing the new regulations would lead to increased airline security.”), but not in a way that directly implicates an individual (“John Smith said that the new regulations were just security theatre.”)
In the fourteen years since I introduced this ground rule, no one has ever refused to abide by it. And, to my knowledge, no one has ever breached this form of confidentiality.
There’s no ultimate guarantee, of course, that everyone will always honor this agreement. When we share something intimate, at that moment we are trusting those around us. Each person has to decide whether they are prepared to take a risk. Sometimes they will remain quiet. But my observations over the years have led me to believe that this ground rule makes the environment safer for many attendees, with the consequence that some of them will share important sensitive things that would otherwise remain unsaid.
We can talk about it, if we feel safe enough. Explaining and obtaining agreement on a confidentiality ground rule can take a minute at the start of an event. In my experience, it’s time well spent.
“There was a frankness you’re not going to get anywhere else.”
“What a unique opportunity!”
“That was eye-opening.”
“We got a one-time look behind the curtain.”
“That was an incredible session.”
“I’m so grateful that session was available.”
Those were some of the comments I heard while waiting outside the door of Room 102 as attendees streamed out after the first peer session at the 21st edACCESS annual conference held at the Peddie School, Hightstown, New Jersey. Sadly, I’ll never know what I missed—and neither will you, unless you were there.
At the start of edACCESS conferences it’s customary for a representative of the hosting school to welcome attendees. Peddie’s Head of School, John Green, did the honors this year. We learned that John was stepping down as head, and had a lot of respect for the work information technology staff performed at schools.
“we school heads are somewhat helpless without you” John Green, head of Peddie School speaking to us techies at #edaccess12
John said he was interested in talking with attendees about what he had learned during his eleven-year tenure.
Because edACCESS uses the peer conference model, we were able to jump on this last-minute opportunity and schedule an hour for anyone who wanted to meet with John the following day. Because Conferences That Work use a confidentiality ground rule, John could be sure that what he shared would not leave the room. Thanks to the conference design, attendees had an impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear candid reflections, ask questions, and get invaluable advice from a retiring school head—something that would never normally be available to an edACCESS attendee.
You had to be there
With the trend towards streaming, tweeting, and live-blogging everything that happens at conferences, it’s important to remember that there are many amazing opportunities that will be routinely missed or avoided whenever conference sessions are unthinkingly thrown open to all and sundry, be it via streaming the session on the internet or by the lack of an explicit agreement about confidentiality. John Green has probably never spoken so candidly about his work to a group of strangers as he did that day, and he will probably never do so again. Those who attended his session reaped the benefit of a conference design that supports safety in sharing with one’s peers while still allowing more disclosure when appropriate.
I’m sorry I missed John’s session. You had to be there. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.
What do you think about the tension between openness and intimacy at conference sessions? What solutions would you use?
A number of people have asked whether EventCamp East Coast (EC²) will be livestreamed. The answer is a qualified “no”, and since this is a different choice from those made at the original EventCamp in New York City and EventCamp Twin Cities I thought I’d explain why.
We’re concentrating on the face-to-face experience of the local audience at EC² for three reasons. Two of these factors are straightforward, while the third requires clarification.
The first reason is philosophical. The conference organizers—Traci Browne, Lindsey Rosenthal, and I—want to create an effective, uncomplicated event. Serving a remote audience well, as was done at the recent EventCamp Twin Cities, adds a significant level of complexity, not only to the organizer’s workload but also to the demands on presenters and the local audience to integrate the two audiences successfully.
The second reason is a matter of logistics. We three organizers enjoy busy professional lives, and possess a limited amount of time to make EC² the best conference we can. Creating an excellent remote audience experience (we wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less) would significantly shift our focus from other important components of EC².
The final reason is event design related and, perhaps, the most fundamental. The Conferences That Work design that we are using adds a default requirement of confidentiality to what happens during the conference. Let me explain what this means and why we’re doing this.
The thought of providing confidentiality at a conference may seem strange or counterproductive, especially these days where event sessions are routinely streamed and videoed for anyone who wants to watch. But in fact, there’s always been a need at some meetings for a commitment to confidentiality.
The classic example for a need for confidentiality is diplomatic meetings, where, to make best progress, participants need to be sure that what is said isn’t broadcast to the world. In this case, the reason for off-the-record conversation is to benefit relationships between the institutions that the diplomats represent.
But there’s another reason why confidentiality can be useful when people meet face to face; the personal benefit of the participants.
Perhaps the most well known example of events that provide this kind of environment are the 30 years of Renaissance Weekends, where participants “CEOs, venture capitalists, business & social entrepreneurs, Nobel Laureates & Pulitzer Prize-winners, astronauts & Olympians, acclaimed change-makers of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street & Main Street, Republicans, Democrats & Independents” agree to the following policy:
All participants are expected to respect Renaissance Weekends®’ tradition of the candid and welcome exchange of diverse opinions, safeguards for privacy, confidentiality, and non-commerciality, and family ethos. Comments, behavior, or public references which could compromise the character of Renaissance Weekends® are unacceptable.
In my experience, all peer groups can benefit from this kind of environment. For example: more than once I’ve been told by different doctors I know that they regularly meet with a small group of their peers to confidentially discuss professional issues. In each case, the doctor I was talking with said, in effect, “There are some things that I can only talk about with other doctors.” The Conferences That Work format extends this kind of possibility to any peer group, and I believe that providing this opportunity can be important to any group of people with a common interest.
At every Conferences That Work event I’ve run, there are some sessions where the attendees decide not to share the proceedings publicly—in a few cases not even with other participants at the event. A common example is a frank discussion of the pros and cons of commercial tools and services available to attendees. And it’s not uncommon for a session or two to delve into work- or industry-related issues where attendees are looking for support and advice from their peers. Although these sessions are in a minority, it’s impossible to reliably predict in advance whether a specific session will turn out to require confidentiality.
All sessions at Conferences That Work have a recorder assigned to them, who makes notes or otherwise records the session. Because of the default requirement of confidentiality, unanimous agreement of the session’s attendees at the end of the session is needed for the recording to be made public.
In conclusion, it’s likely that the recordings of most of the sessions at EventCamp East Coast will be made available publicly, but they won’t be streamed live. So if you’re interested in fully experiencing EC², please join us on site in Philadelphia! I hope this article has explained why we’ve made these event design choices, and I welcome your comments and questions.
Think of the last time you were with a group of people and made a stretch to learn something. Perhaps you admitted you didn’t understand something someone said, wondering as you did whether it was obvious to the others present. Perhaps you challenged a viewpoint held by a majority of the people present. Perhaps you proposed a tentative solution to a problem, laying yourself open to potentially making a mistake in front of others. These are all examples of what I call risky learning.
Whatever happened, was the learning opportunity greater compared to safe learning—the passive absorption of presented information?
Traditional conferences discourage risky learning. Who but a supremely conﬁdent person (or that rare iconoclast) stands up at the end of a presentation to several hundred people and says they don’t understand or disagree with something that was said? Who will ask a bold question, share a problem, or state a controversial point of view, fearing it may affect their professional status, job prospects, or current employment with others in the audience? People who brave these concerns are more likely to be exhibiting risky behavior than practicing risky learning.
Yet it is possible to provide a safe and supportive environment for risky learning. Here’s how we do it at Conferences That Work.
First, and perhaps most important, is the commitment attendees make at the very beginning of the conference to keep conﬁdential what is shared. This simple communal promise generates a level of group intimacy and revelation seldom experienced at a conventional conference. As a result, participants are comfortable speaking what’s on their minds, unencumbered by worries that their sharing may be made public outside the event.
Second, because Conferences That Work are small, there is an increased chance that attendees will be the sole representatives of their organizations and will feel comfortable fruitfully sharing sensitive personal information to their peers, knowing that what is revealed won’t ﬁlter back to coworkers. Even when others are present from the same institution, the intimacy our conferences helps to develop amity and increased understanding between them.
Third, our conference process makes no presuppositions about who will act in traditional teacher or student roles during the event, leading to ﬂuid roles and learning driven by group and individual desires and abilities to satisfy real attendee needs and wishes. In an environment where it’s expected that anyone may be a teacher or learner from moment to moment, participants overcome inhibitions about asking naive questions or sharing controversial opinions.
Finally, Conferences That Work facilitators model peer conference behavior. When they don’t know the answer to a question they say “I don’t know.” When they need help they ask for it. When they make mistakes they are accountable rather than defensive. Consistently modeling appropriate conduct fosters a conference environment conducive to engaged, risky learning.
Ultimately, each attendee decides whether to stretch. But Conferences That Work, by supplying optimum conditions for risky learning, make it much easier for participants to take risks and learn effectively.
Why do you go to conferences? I asked this question in the interviews I conducted while writing Conferences That Work. The most common answer? Eighty percent of my interviewees said they wanted to network/connect with others, slightly more than the seventy-five percent who said they came to learn.
Traditional conference sessions provide mainly one-way connection from the folks at the front of the room to everyone else. Opportunities for person-to-person connection are relegated to times outside the official schedule, like mealtimes and social events.
Peer conferences are different; they are designed to facilitate and support meaningful connections in three ways.
First, peer conferences are small—less than one hundred participants—which simplifies the task of getting to know a decent proportion of the people present, and leads to intimate conference sessions where discussion and sharing is more likely to occur.
Second, the opening roundtable offers a structured and safe time to learn about every other attendee, providing valuable ice-breaking information for striking up a conversation with people you want to get to know.
And third, the confidentiality ground rule, agreed to by every attendee, generates a conference environment where sharing—whether it be of information, discovery, or even expression of emotions, of pain or joy—is encouraged and safe.