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Beyond Davos: The Importance of Conversation

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With some of the greatest minds in the world together in one place, the well-publicized discussions and debates taking place at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week can surely light the spark of change.

However, it is only through the repeated echo of those ideas in the months and years to follow -- voiced in conversations within much smaller groups -- that will lead to action and produce meaningful solutions.

With the 2014 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum now underway, business and government leaders from around the world, along with social activists, have gathered in the Swiss mountain ski resort to engage in conversation with the common goal of sharing the best thinking on how to address some of the world's most pressing problems. Roughly 2,500 attendees have come together to address the WEF mandate of "The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business."

Specific topics run the gamut: global politics, monetary policy, healthcare around the world, money and influence, business and ethics, education, global food supply, the digital future, political turmoil, and social unrest affecting countries and continents... just to name a few.

I recall being introduced to Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, more than 30 years ago in offices above Rue du Rhone where I worked in Geneva. Having launched the WEF 10 years earlier (1971), Professor Schwab was increasingly ambitious, yet always eloquent in his aspirations for what the WEF could be.

As we look at it today, there can be little doubt that this annual event in Davos -- coupled with regional and topical meetings held at other locations around the world -- has more than met Professor Schwab's fondest expectations.

The WEF Annual Meeting itself is a singular event. All the media are there. Regularly, blogs hit the web with online news and opinion reporting and leading traditional media -- print and broadcast -- post their reports daily. Some, like HuffPostLive, have set up a studio and broadcast in real-time from Davos with interviews of WEF attendees, such as Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna talking about the "individual" in health care, and Matt Damon, the actor and activist addressing global water issues.

There are those who would discount the importance of global meetings like this. For his New York Times column on January 20, entitled "Notable in Their Absence from Davos," Andrew Ross Sorkin had talked with some of them. Sorkin wrote:

The annual parade of boldface names at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is always striking ... But just as notable are the luminaries who consistently avoid Davos, despite repeated invitations.

While there certainly are leaders who might decide not to go for a variety of reasons -- ranging from a Davos agenda that may seem too large to the inconvenience of travel into the Swiss mountains -- the numbers who go outweigh the naysayers.

The reason is simple: Those who go to the World Economic Forum want to have a voice, often have new ideas, are eager to hear the views of others, and the best see it as an opportunity to get a conversation started. Perhaps a few will also take their skis on the high speed Parsennbahn train to tackle the challenging trails from the top of the Alps.

No one is naïve enough to assume that a speech given or a comment made in a panel discussion is enough to bring about change.

What's needed is conversation -- real conversation, not where one person does all the talking but rather where there is give-and-take. Working with others and encouraging some form of action require a dialog that is more intimate and at times more personal, made possible only in small groups.

A crucial step is finding common ground. To do that, there must be a full and open airing of ideas, facts, figures and opinions. There must be an appreciation for the thinking and reasoning of others. Without relying on pre-conceived notions.

This kind of respectful conversation may well involve arguments at times, simply because some views are held fast and opinions may be hard to change. But that's okay because authenticity produces the kind of dialog that can be the starting point to focusing on common ground.

With common ground, there can be trust. It will build over time.

And with trust, just about anything is possible. People start working together, finding solutions, and implementing change.

After all, this is just common sense. It is what works best in our private lives and works best in our public lives too.

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos is a very important start. The leaders there, though, have much more work to do, extending well beyond the time when the last CEO and world leader has left behind the village and the peaks of the mountains.

Having set the discussion in motion at the WEF, those same leaders now have the obligation to keep it going by generating important conversations that, on a smaller and more intimate scale, echo the search for solutions to some of our most troubling problems.