One of the most important skills in working withe the public is, I believe, one of the most often overlooked. People whose work is public facing — community benefit organization leaders, public agency heads, journalists — need to be able to theme what they hear.
Put simply, this means “making sense” of what they hear, but it’s a bit deeper than that.
People don’t talk in sound bites. They don’t necessarily have coherent frameworks through which they view the world. In talking about difficult issues, their comments may be all over the map. Put a group of them together, and it can feel like anarchy.
The great public leaders are able to take these divergent strands of conversation and theme them — to extract the handful of important themes running through the conversation. The truly great ones can do it on the spur if the moment, there in the room during the conversation. This can take the discussion to a whole new level, as people see these threads and can then build off of them.
Much of my career has hinged on the ability to theme what people are saying. I listen in a focus group for the important elements to include in a discussion guide. In a strategic planning session, I listen for the places where the group thinks they have agreement but really don’t. In a marketing meeting, I listen for a clients needs — both the ones they acknowledge and the ones that, perhaps, they don’t.
I can only remember one time where I was taught anything explicit about themeing. It was all on-the-job. I was talking about this with a colleague the other day, and he said the same thing. Some people just seem to pick it up. Few organizations try to teach it.
I think this should change. It is one of the most useful skills you can have — at a minimum, it allows you to take better notes.
Here’s a way to get started. It’s a very loose exercise — on purpose. The best way to learn themeing is just to do it. A lot.
You’ll need tto get together a few friends (4 or more) in order to do this:
- Get your friends together and ask them to talk about a public issue. You are going to listen and take notes. If you need an idea, try talking about health care using this discussion guide. Or talk about poverty using session three (starts on p.12) of this one. Spend about 60 to 90 minutes on the discussion.
- As people talk, take notes. You can take part, but make sure you are paying enough attention to get the notes down. Pay attention to key points that people bring up. Listen for:
- Where people get stuck
- What people’s starting points are
- What values are underlying their statements
- Trade offs they would be willing to make
- Where there is agreement
- What people are not saying
- At the end of the conversation, and no more than four hours afterward, write yourself a memo of no more than 1.5 pages, recapping what you saw as the major themes. It should be in bullet form, something like this:
- This group was highly concerned with the cost of health care, especially with routine costs. One man said ‘The nickel and dime you to death.” Catastrophic costs were a concern too. “Five days in the hospital, and it cost $30K,” a woman said. “Thank God I had insurance.”
You’ll end up with a series of bullets that recap the major themes of the conversation. Show it to your friends and ask if you captured the session fairly.
This sounds like an odd exercise, I know. But try it. Most people who do it find it fun to really be pushed to think through and organize what they hear. I can remember the first time I listened to and themed a conversation, it was like a light bulb turned on.
Once this kind of listening — and recapping for yourself — become second nature, you’ll find all sorts of uses for it.
And, you will find your ability to really hear people and act on what you hear to increase exponentially.