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Archive for the ‘Dummy’s Guide to Conversation’ Category

What does fresh hope sound like for cynical colleagues? (How to Talk #3)

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A credible word spoken boldly

Constant cynicism is a downward spiral that saps energy, like the dome light on all night—little by little wasting energy for no reason. Eventually the car will not start. Have a conversation with a cynic and the world looks a shade or two darker.

Offering fresh hope to a cynical colleague is not about squatting at the other end of the emotional spectrum, babbling like a Pollyanna. That is quickly seen as fanciful.



Fresh hope is a word of the moment that is credible and believable. A word about where we are going or what we are doing that becomes meaningful. If not meaningful right now, meaningful later. Fresh hope has a way of stopping the cynic, if only momentarily. But even the cynic finds herself meditating on a word spoken yesterday or the day before. The cynic happily shoots down the platitude, but his trigger-finger falters at a contextual insight from a conscious person processing a shared experience.

Fresh hope requires a bit of courage. Cynicism and general world-weariness is always in style.

But hope? Not so much.

But what’s the point of conversation if not to speak up boldly about what is important?


Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Dubious Conversation Skills: Skepticism and Fault-Finding

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Pivot Your Conversation on Some Fresh Hope

One dubious skill I learned early in corporate life was that skeptics and fault-finders earn respect at a conference table. If you are not presenting the idea (and thus less invested in making it work), you’ll win experience-points with others by blowing holes in whatever the group is discussing. Finding fault won’t cost you much and could win you a more exalted place in the world of that organization. Plus: you need know next-to-nothing about the idea or context to find some loose thread to pull and hope for collapse.

Please walk this way

Please walk this way

Yesterday I sat around a conference table with a group of skilled, opinionated, driven people who had a brand new idea. All around the table were invested because they had been working different parts of the idea for some time. The hero directing the conversation skillfully wove a bit of verbal fabric above us by hinting at how these disparate work groups were—quite possibly—creating some brand new category. I’ll not be more specific because of non-disclosure agreements, but what was remarkable to me was the intent of the verbal dreaming and the way it resonated with a group that could have been contentious.

Yesterday’s meeting reminded me that fresh hope is a disarming thing to bring to a group of seasoned people.


By the way, my book ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? is moving through the publisher’s proofreading department toward an actual physical presence. Chapter 2, “Intent Changes How We Act Together” highlights the work of the late University of Chicago rhetorician, Wayne Booth, who showed three different ways our intentions derail conversations. He ended up developing a way of talking that could unite conversation partners—much like the hero in my story above. You can put your name on a list [here] to be notified when the book is available.

Randomized, double-blind studies indicate that people who put their name on that list live happier, more thoughtful lives. I just made that up. But you can–and probably should–put your name on that list.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How to talk with someone who rarely finishes a….

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You know what I mean


A: Are you one of those people who never finishes a….

B: Sentence? No.

A: Because sometimes I get near the end of a….

B: Sentence?

A: No. A thought. I just assume the other person, you, in this case already knows the word that comes….

B: Next?

A: Yeah. And I figure, “Why bother reaching for that last….”

B: Word?

A: Exactly. I’m just ready to move….

B: On?

A: No. Forward. I want to keep the conversation….

B: Going?

A: Well, more like moving forward. To some definitive….

B: End?

A: Some conclusion. Some well-developed notion. Something that has passed between us that we can agree with or….

B: Disagree with?

A: I’m just ready for the next ….

B: Big thing? Me too.

A: Yeah. I hate those people who go so painfully….

B: Slow?

A: Yeah. Those people who labor over every word, especially when you already know what they’ll….

B: Say?

A: Well, more what they are thinking. So you just sit waiting for the next….

B: Word? But you never really know how someone else will finish a….

A: [–]

A: Yes?

B: Sentence.

B: People can surprise you.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Talk With Those Who Talk With You (DGtC#25)

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Humans just want to connect

Social media, like sales, seeks an ever-expanding public. All tweeters want more followers. All bloggers—same thing. Just like the TV networks of yore, where Nielsen Media Research rated efficacy by numbers (and types) of viewers they brought in. Which just happened to coincide with increasing amounts of cash they could wring out of a sponsor for a 30 second span of monologue.

How to measure audience (and collect cash) continues in today’s social media world as various metrics are embraced and/or disgraced: clicks, views, comments, engagement, time spent on a site.

But real humans in earnest conversation don’t care about size of audience. They care about connecting with a person to tell the important thing they have to say or to hear the important thing a friend or colleague has to say. They want to remark on what is remarkable.


Call me a mystic (please!), but I still embrace the notion that the people peppered through our lives are there for reasons beyond our understanding. And those talking to you—today, right now—have something you need to hear and they need to say. Those people right beside you are worth attending to. For their sake. And for yours.

It’s not wrong to widen your audience.

Just don’t lose sight of this moment with those right before you.

Also see:



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How Buzzwords Prey on the Unsuspecting (DGtC#24)

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Speak up to reclaim your humanity

They’re there. Circling overhead in the hallways between C-suites.

They move in a dense cloud between boardrooms and conference rooms.

They are those words of the moment that seem scalpel-sharp. But when you stop to define them, meaning vanishes. These are the words Dilbert makes fun of most every day.

That is the way of buzzwords and lingo of the moment. Whether you are a business or a church (wait—what’s the difference?) or a university or a think tank: you have a set of words insiders use to show they are insiders. And especially in our early meetings with new clients or the new VP, we trot out these words to show we really, frankly, know our stuff.

The problem with buzzwords is how easily they come to mind. Just like any cliché, buzzwords pop to mind free of conscious thought. And to your conversation partner those words give the appearance of a genuine thoughtful reaction. But any SEO specialist will tell you that tossing a buzzword into a headline ups your clicks. Same with conversations: say the thing you heard the CEO say and, presto, you are in the club.

Do buzzwords make you less human? No. They just make you sound robotic.

Please point us back toward connection

Please point us back toward connection

Frequent talks with clients move toward “dumbing-down” versus “simplifying.” Those are not equivalent concepts. Dumbing-down takes out gradation and difference and nuance to present a black-and-white version of something. Simplifying hints at gradation and difference and nuance to make a piece of the complex easier to grasp. Mark Twain simplified complex stuff and generations talked about it.

Dumbing-down does not respect the audience. Simplifying recognizes that smart people are smart in different disciplines. And smart people can understand all sorts of stuff.

Buzzwords are a kind of dumbing-down that takes concepts off the table by hinting that we all know this so it is beyond discussion. Because of buzzwords many useful conversations never happen.

What if we consciously worked toward vulnerability in our business interactions? It’s scary, this notion of revealing you have no clue what the boss just said, but could she explain it again using words like other humans use?

Be the thorn in the side today, the vulnerable fool who insists on clarity.

It’s a way of ordering the chaos of your workplace.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

How LinkedIn Helps Before You Are Between Jobs

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Generate The Thing Between

LinkedIn is a powerful tool for connection. But lots of people, once they land the job, put connection on the back burner. Some take it off the stove entirely—and that is a mistake, especially in this economy. I know this because many friends and colleagues are on radio silence most of the time. Until rumors of layoff float by. Then it’s connections galore.

Don’t let connections go dormant.

Don’t let connections go dormant.

Connection is something that happens long before you have a need or want to generate a sale. In fact, connection is not about the need or the sale, it is something entirely different. And we make LinkedIn frenemies when we mistake connection for a sale.

For those who understand the importance of connections outside immediate work and building relationships widely, there is a great joy in getting to know people and simply seeing what might happen. It’s not even an introvert/extrovert thing. It is a possibility thing. Maybe it is a thing for dreamers, but I think not. It is for anyone who starts to wonder what is possible outside the structure that encases their days.

This openness to others—this beckoning to others, this waving them close—is the early move toward collaboration. It is the ordinary conversation that starts to generate new things between you, seemingly by magic. It is the beginning of finding common ground that eventually leads to “Wait—what could we do together?”

Curiously, openness to others has a way of working backward into our present job so that we start to see new ways of working, collaborating and connecting.

When teaching college students about professional writing, I try to help them understand that the best jobs are the ones not advertised. The best jobs open and shut before ever posted on a web page or printed as a classified ad. Those jobs are available only to connections. Those jobs are almost incidental to the connection: friends see what you do, how fun you are to work with. Their synapses fire and they say to themselves, “She might be perfect for this need we have.”

Maintaining and growing connection is not for a someday need or someday sale. It is a piece of being human and carries a glory all its own.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

…The…Slow…Talker…. So Boring.

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What can you learn from the slow guy?

Q: My colleague is the slowest talker in the world.

Each sentence he forms takes forever and we can all see where he’s going long before he gets there. I’m tempted to take up knitting whenever he makes a point in a meeting. We all finish his sentences.

Is that so wrong?

Not every conversation is electric quick.

Not every conversation is electric quick.

A: Some people want to be sure of what they are saying. For some people the internal editor stands with a bullwhip as words cower by the tongue. It could also be your colleague is intimidated by your work team. Do you or your team tend to jump in to argue or quickly quibble about word choice?

Consider counting to ten (or 50) when your colleague speaks.

And consider not finishing his sentences.

Being heard is a basic courtesy we offer each other. When we slow our listening to the pace of our conversation partner, we extend a bit of tangible grace and we demonstrate this person has value—no matter how boring they are. Maybe waiting in expectant silence will begin to change our slow-talking colleague. Maybe he will begin to feel more confident and less like he’ll be mugged for his word choices.

But even more importantly, waiting and expectantly listening trains us to listen for more than words, with more than our ears, to more of what might be going on. We’re used to instant, but not all of what we have for each other lends itself to instant. People need to process words and experiences and thoughts. If we rush them to the end, we likely speak for them, with our words, not theirs.

If your slow-talking colleague drains you with his long pauses and predictable boring comments, consider limiting time with him, just to save you both hassle. But when with him, give him time.

You may be surprised.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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