Archive for the ‘Dummy’s Guide to Conversation’ Category
Check out my guest post on the Essential Partners blog:
Why are some things worth saying?
Next to the sound of your name, nothing grabs your attention like somebody saying they were thinking about you. You listen closely to what comes next because it holds a personality clue.
Go on—please continue to tell me what charming character trait/hideous character flaw you thought of.
It turns out the stuff that bubbles up through memory is the most critical content to say to your wife at dinner, or your kids at Christmas. Or your colleague. Interestingly, we remember this thing as we face our person. The reminder pops when your wife/kid/colleague makes that casual remark they always make about that pet topic. And then gears turn deep down in your brain-pan and the reminder careens drunkenly down the thought-chute to your mouth. And you can hardly swallow that bite of House Lo Mein, so tremendous is the pressure to say this thing.
Because you know they will laugh. And it will be a moment—a shared delightful moment.
I’m a note-taker. Constantly writing in books (books I own, mind you). Regularly setting reminders in Evernote. Forever reaching for a scrap to jot something. And I refer to my notes. But increasingly I wonder whether my notes harbor the best topics for conversation. I wonder this for the same reason that school lectures are so very tedious: Hearing from someone’s notes or pre-thought ideas is so boring. The very opposite of remarkable.
It’s the stuff we remember as we sit in conversation that matters most and makes a difference. We take notes and write things down to remember for later, but the most critical stuff bubbles up on its own–that’s the remarkable stuff. Maybe our note-taking has raised the importance and we are more likely to remark.
So by all means make your notes—especially as the holidays bring friends and family you’ve not seen for some time. But remember that the magic happens in the moment of conversation, which is a moment of connection. Chances are good your remark will be different from the note you made.
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Don’t Make Everything a Crisis Communication
Regular old talk has a way of lining things up. Steady, routine conversation between spouses, friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues can have a gentle, restorative quality.
Does that sound like an overpromise—especially given the mundane nature of so much of our talk?
It’s true in this way: like keeping roads open for traffic. We depend on open streets to drive to the grocer or to pick up our returning student from the airport. And sometimes we use those roads to race our pregnant wife to the birthing center.
Hard conversations are hard because of some urgency. Something needs to be said right now or else bad things will happen. Often we put on our formal language when we intend to communicate some crisis point:
- “I’m disappointed in…X” is a way corporate managers temper the screaming in their skulls.
- “We need to talk….” Is the time-honored way spouses bring up all sorts of unpleasantness.
But if those conversational roads have been open for traffic for some time, and relationships have been established, sometimes those formal words need never make an appearance. Talking about things can be handled on the fly, in normal conversation, in small bits. That’s because trust builds with the word traffic. And those conversational roads can carry quite a lot of weight.
Talking is a wonder.
Who would have guessed?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
Make a human happy—speak to be understood
No matter what organization you are in, there are choices to be made about how you talk with the people around you. No matter what gathering you attend, you speak to communicate or you speak to impress.
We’re never rid of rhetorical flourish and persuasive intent, but can we at least work at speaking to be understood?
You don’t have to be obscure, you know—choose your own space on the continuum.
Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston
Are explosive words better from an authority or friend?
I am convinced that where people gather: a classroom, a department, a congregation, discussion is a more effective use of time than all of us listening to monologue. Many teachers explore the flipped classroom, where their time together is in discussion and the preachy monologues and lectures slide to a different time, place and pace. In general I am attracted to collaboration and many voices speaking. I keep hoping coherence will show up.
We may want to collaborate, but obstacles arise. We may want to be walking catalysts, but something stands in the way. Unsaid obstacles can block collaboration. And sometimes we need to have hard conversations, the kind where we not only disagree, but our different positions are emotionally charged. To assert my position will cut at my conversation partner’s position and vice versa. There may be anger. There may be tears. There may be power-plays. This conversation could be explosive.
The late Wayne Booth advocated a kind of listening-rhetoric: listen intently enough to your conversation partner to faithfully tell their position (without denigration) while still holding to your own. This would not be the place for win-rhetoric, where your goal is to beat your message into someone else. Emmanuel Levinas might say we have an obligation to watch out for the person before us—this conversation partner. In fact, he might advocate that this person before us is our first priority. Martin Buber might say we continue to hold that person in high regard as a person, inviting them to consider this different perspective rather than trying to force our viewpoint. Even Jesus modified the law with love and compassion (he actually said love was the fulfillment of the law).
- Say we take the listening seriously as we approach the hard conversation.
- Say we take seriously our commitment to the growth and personhood of this conversation partner (stay with me here). And we recognize this person as a person (versus an employee or student or lesser-being).
Given a kind of love for the person before us, we say the hard thing. And the explosion happens. No guarantees, but that blow up can be a worthwhile communication event. Good things can come from that, hard as they are.
Personally, I shy away from these explosive conversations.
But is shying away from a potentially explosive conversation doing a disservice to the thing that needs to happen between us?
Image credit: Kirk Livingston
What to do: Engage colleagues or just put up with them?
Between David Rock and David Bohm there is a lot of good advice about helping people have productive conversations. Rock’s “Quiet Leadership” is all about helping your friend find the answer she already knows, which is particularly useful for folks with leadership responsibilities. Bohm, on the other hand, was an omni-thinking physicist with deep curiosity about ordinary life connections. Bohm (and Rock, for that matter) are two of my conversational heroes.
Here’s Bohm on how it is that something new gets created between two people (italics added):
Consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering the difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the continual emergence of a new content. That is common to both participants. Thus, in a dialogue, each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are already known to him. Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together.
–David Bohm, On Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 1996)
Every day affords some catalyzing opportunity, often hidden in a very ordinary exchange.
How will you leap in to catalyze today?
Dumb Sketch/Timed Gesture: Kirk Livingston