Archive for the ‘Dummy’s Guide to Conversation’ Category
Resist the rhetoric of control
Every person has worth. Every person has something meaningful to communicate to us and vice versa.
But sometimes the guy in the corner office just wants to yank your chain. Sometimes your colleague comes in your cube too close and berates you for something that riles only her. And sometimes these work contexts make you question your worth. Today we call this bullying and officially frown on it, though bosses of all stripes let their primordial managers get away with it as long as they post results.
In the face of the bully’s monologue, we may need to set down our goals of understanding and hearing each other. We may need to pick up tools that will help protect us from the bully. And especially as our culture talks more about innovation, we must recognize that the enemy of innovation is the bully who uses monologue to quell thinking and drive over dissent.
- The hack begins with dropping sycophancy. Just because the VP of marketing is telling you a personal story about his cabin doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to put you in the low place he wants you. There’s no need to continue to play the prop: the underling enamored by all the person in power does.
- Be present. Don’t go to the Bahamas while the bully drives his verbal tank into position.
- Stand. Even if sitting, assume a mentally poised place to challenge.
- Challenge. Is there another way of looking at the perspective the bully shouts? What is the truth here? Speaking fast and loud does not make something true.
- Know two things
- You are a person, too. A person of value.
- That language can be encouraging or damaging. Every communication encounter has a shaping effect on both conversation partners. Don’t let the bully continue unchecked.
- Turn the other cheek. Yes: quite. Back to Jesus the Christ who knew something about handling the bully. He knew the most effective thing long-term was to offer the bully even more. Not in every case, but dealing with the bully from a place of peace and, yes—faith (in God)—may just cut power to the BS generator the bully madly operates. This counter-intuitive step holds much promise for moving forward as a human.
Some reading this may think no modern/post-modern workplace has bullies like this. You could not be more wrong. It is interesting that the tools used to shine a light on the bully’s madness are also effective in ordinary conversations.
How do you handle the bully’s monologues?
Put down your straw man. Back away slowly.
To reduce someone else’s contribution to “just this” or “just that”—some single point—is usually more about getting ready to dismiss the point than it is actually hearing the person out. Reducing the complex to the simple is something our media is very eager to do, and something we Americans dearly desire. But over and again we do violence to our understanding, and more importantly, we do violence to our relationships with others when we force the complex into a box that we can understand.
Into a box we can easily shut.
We short-circuit relationship when we reduce this to that. It is a way of avoiding people and ideas that are different. It is a way of forcing people to be the same as us, even when they are quite different. And often we gather whatever personal power or social capital to shut out the dissenting voice. It is a sort of knee-jerk, instinctual reaction.
Listening takes courage and lots of it, just like a good conversation.
How To Be A Verbal Philanthropist
I always like it in the classroom when the professor says to the student, “Please say more about….” It is a sign of active listening, a phrase which pulls the reluctant student further into the conversation.
“Please say more” is irresistible in its eagerness to hear more of a person’s thinking or reaction or opinion. It is also a demonstration that people and their thoughts and ideas are important. And it is a crazy generous way to engage in conversation. Generous because by nature we rush to fill the space between someone else’s words with our own thoughts.
When someone says to me “Please say more” I feel honored and free and engaged—almost like having been given a gift.
Being a verbal philanthropist doesn’t cost much—just your attention.
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4 ways our words succeed even as they fail again and again
Not so fast: assuming others understand is a bit of a leap.
The best you can say is that someone heard the words you said aloud. Whether they understood those words, whether they gave those words the weight you think they deserve, whether they have any clue about what you really mean—all these are in limbo. It’s very difficult to say if understanding happens in someone else. And I’ve taught enough college classes to know that a direct gaze back has little if any indication about what is going on deep in the whirring cogs of understanding.
Yet the very failure of words to communicate your thought exactly is actually the genius of our species. Because when we see our communication has not worked precisely—or perhaps it has failed to work at all—then we take action. We grab other symbols, we grab a pencil to make a sketch, we grab someone else’s words, we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or point to the stars or maybe we grab somebody by the lapels. One way or another we keep working at making ourselves understood. And as we do that work four things happen:
- We grow in relationship. Time spent communicating is time spent paying attention to each other. And time spent growing relationships, relating to each other—maybe even honoring each other by listening—is prime meaning-making time. Gathered together, these moments become the most memorable in our lives.
- We grow. We grow in communication. We grow in use of different tools, some of which we may find we have particular skill. We grow in understanding of our thought and of what this other person needs. Perhaps we grow in caring.
- Something new emerges. It turns out our original thought was not all that complete. The very act of communicating that thought changed it. For the better.
- We realize we need each other to move forward. Whether in our project teams at work, or in discussions about some ancient text, or in philosophy class, or discussing a web page design, or our daily exercise regimen—name any endeavor, and it benefits from being talked about. Even a silent retreat feels complete after we form words to tell our spouse or friend what we learned.
I hope 2013 is a year of growth for you in using words, especially as you work around their fatal flaw to communicate your passion.
Our Words Always Boomerang
Early in Dr. Luke’s account of the nascent church, a central character was named Peter. Peter was a guy who processed things aloud: he had a mind-mouth connection that sometimes got him into trouble. But in Dr. Luke’s account, Peter’s verbal processing framed what was an entirely new situation. Peter grabbed pieces of the Law and Prophets and combined them with what he observed to sort out what they were all experiencing. In doing so, he freed many to participate in the ongoing conversation. The resulting conversation was nothing less than explosive.
Walk with me: what happens when we release our perception into a conversation? It’s not the case that anything we say comes true. (Despite what Minnesota Senator Al Franken said as Stuart Smalley) But there is something in the mechanism of “saying aloud” that allows an audience to hear and respond. That audience may be other people. That audience may be the one speaking the words. Our audience can agree, disagree or whatever. But the words are out there, itching for response. Hearing our own explanations often has a much more profound effect on the speaker than anyone we are talking to. That’s why the teachers and professors I know all say they learn so much every time they teach a class.
My favorite leaders often use that mind-mouth connection to process out loud what the team is experiencing. It’s a kind of shop talk that results in meaning-making right in the work place. I can think of several of those out-loud-processings from people I respected that changed my perception of an organization or situation forever.
Conversations Are Peaks You See From
Monty Python funnyman Michael Palin has a series of travelogues that have entertained the Kirkistan household recently. Palin’s trip through the lands that were once Yugoslavia brought back memories of that brutal war even as the screen showed a land seemingly resurrected from all-out destruction.
Get the series from Netflix.
Palin does more than just comment on what he sees. Around Sarajevo, he traveled with a team going over the land inch by inch (literally, almost using a toothbrush) to clear mines that remain. Palin also traveled with a team of puppeteers doing shows at local schools to warn kids not to walk in the woods. A walk in the woods brought a high likelihood of getting blown up by a mine. No one walks in the woods around Sarajevo.
The videos are from 2007 and I hope it is safer today in Sarajevo.
Not long ago I wrote about dialogue as a place. A conversation yesterday reminded me of how quickly I can find myself in a different land, suddenly seeing things from an altered perspective—a sort of mountain top view. A view I had not anticipated, but that revitalized me deeply. I was talking with an author about her experience of writing for an academic audience versus writing for a more popular audience. She mentioned her faith that an audience will show up. To me that statement is a mark of true faith.
Our conversations are not unlike the people Palin meets. Even if we are talking with those we think we know, we can be surprised by the different perspective that suddenly dawns on us. Perspectives that can change everything. But, like Palin, we need to be on the lookout for the new thing. Can we cultivate an openness to seeing things differently? And can we honor how the person before us sees things differently?
Tell Your Old Story in Today’s Conversation
Not so many days ago a New York cop bought some boots for a homeless, shoe-less guy. The photo went viral because it was remarkable—stuff like that doesn’t usually happen. The telling of the story warms the heart and we want to share it.
Communication-types talk endlessly about stories and narrative and narrative arc. All this literary-criticism lingo has made its way from academia through the land of communication and advertising and out into mainstream speech of the news anchor, for instance. Behind all this talk is the simple notion that people respond to stories.
Because people respond to stories, we give assignments to our outward facing employees to snag potential customers and engage clients with precisely those stories that feature our product or service in a key role. Maybe the product saves the situation. Maybe the service is a vehicle of freedom. Certainly the product enriches the identity of the people using it.
But what about inside the company? Where are those engaging narratives in our ordinary, daily conversations? Does story have a place in our workdays? Should it?
One medical device company I worked for held a company-wide meeting around this time of year where patients came on stage and told stunning stories of how they could now walk (or stand or eat or breathe) again. They talked about how their lives were changed by the very products we all worked on.
And we all got weepy.
But ordinary, daily conversations produce no such tears—how could they? We’re all about work and getting stuff done, after all. We’re not here to tell stories. But some smart bosses are telling larger stories. Some meeting leaders are starting with the narrative arc that includes patients being healed and lives restored. Some team members are embedding in their discussion how their product makes it easier to turn solar energy to electricity—and why that has meaning for today’s work. Bringing those stories to the mundane conversations can seem like a cynical, manipulative ploy—but only to those intent on cynicism and manipulation.
It’s time to bring those stories back into our conversations. Not as ploys. Not as manipulative levers. But because of our universal need to make meaning. Especially to make meaning of our daily work.
We’re moving into a season where we tell lots of old stories: When I was a kid Christmas looked like this. When we were first married, we did this for the holiday. Way back when a virgin had a baby. In a stable. And everything changed.
Be the drama queen in your part of your company or organization. Take center stage and demand attention. And tell the remarkable story you heard.
Stories help us make meaning and are worth passing on.
Image Credit: Politix
3 Realizations that Change Everything
It would seem this person controls my future, given that she signs off on my paycheck every two weeks. And she is the barrier between me and climbing the ladder. And all that baggage swirls around my head every time I talk with her. But there are a few fundamental realizations that can help power useful conversation.
- Talk is and always will be human to human. No matter what power levels come into play, the bottom line is that conversation is about two humans uttering words. And humans have equal value. So reject power-plays and the assumed rights and privileges of authority to talk over or down to you. How to do that? Persist in your questions and answers—all the while being respectful. If Marty Buber were in the next cubicle, I’m not sure what he would say about power distance, but he would maintain (maybe in his affected tone) that I-Thou relationships are to be honored from employee to boss, even if the boss thinks of you as a tool. Marty might argue that you not throw your bosses’ low opinion back at her. Instead, respect that she is a human of equal value, and try not to put too much weight on her biweekly signing of your pay stub.
- She does not control your destiny. She is only your boss at this job. And this job is not everything, even in a down and down-turning economy, you have choices. As anyone who has been laid off or changed jobs knows, change may have immediate negative effects but unseen positives gradually resolve—positives you would never have guessed at.
- Be the person you are meant to be. This is more than saying “I’m OK. You’re OK.” And this is also more than saying “Be yourself,” though I generally agree with both (with caveats). This is about garnering a vision for the person you want to be at work and having the balls and hope to respond that way right now, even though you haven’t achieved it.
Look: jobs come and go. But let each job and the people you interact with help shape you into the person who can do the work only you can do.
Postscript: I was blessed to have three terrific bosses during my tenure at Medtronic: David Laursen, Julie Foster and Noreen Thompson. Each of them encouraged the three points above and were/are simply delightful people who saw potential at every step. So—no sour grapes here.
How to Not Feel Bad About Voicing Your Opinion
I’m working on it. (so back off.) (darnit.)
But I’m learning lately that every voice really does matter—no matter what condescending tone your client or boss or the VP takes in today’s conversation. Even when she sighs and says “We’ve been over this,” know that if it bugs you, you need to bring it up. And the know-it-all in Purchasing doesn’t really know it all—he just sounds that way. So raise your point. If what you hear doesn’t sit well, say so and tell why. Reject verbal manipulation and say what you will. Be civil. But say it.
That inveterate letter-writer said to speak truth in love, and he was right (again). Each of us hears only what we want to hear most of the time. And it only gets worse over the years as our blinders sit more firmly over our eyes and ears. We don’t see or hear what we don’t know. We’re not even looking for it. But we need to hear it, and sometimes we desperately need to hear the big obvious thing everyone is trying hard to not say. Our words are most effective when they carry with them true care for another person. “True care” as opposed to the catty smites that characterize so many of our public forums.
Say it because your conversation partner will get over it. Or not. It is true that sometimes our words can end friendships—but that is less likely when our words also communicate care.
And beyond our need to hear from outside ourselves, a lot of critical human work gets done within the moving parts of a conversation: affirmation, understanding, self-understanding, mutual-understanding, reframing a situation, brand new ways of looking at things. That list is long.
But none of that happens if we don’t say what we are thinking. So stop worrying about disrupting the day of the self-important windbag. Much bigger things are at stake.
How to recognize an awake moment and what to do about it
I heard this again the other day. Clearly this points to a glitch in The Matrix.
I was talking with a friend from a company we both worked at a lifetime ago. I mentioned a client I had been working with and he said, “It’s funny you say that.” He had just had a conversation with someone at the company and the firm had been on his mind.
“Not so strange,” you counter. “You both worked at the same company, it’s likely you had similar work trajectories.” Agreed. That is likely.
But it happens often: you mention something you read or see or hear. Or someone you know or talked with. And the person you are talking with makes a connection with something they recently heard or thought, or with someone they recently talked with. There is a leap of awareness and understanding. And out of that emerges a way forward.
Maybe it is just like what Trinity said about déjà vu: it’s an indicator something is changing. That sounds reasonable to me. In this blog I’ve been tracking how our conversations affect us in the most unwitting and unexpected ways. I wonder if “it’s funny you say that” is something of an open door through which we actually indicate we are consider/reconsidering/rethinking something. Or that we’re open to any of the above. And there is the possibility something much larger is happening behind the language we so easily pick from the moving racks of words in our heads.
Something to think about.