conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Opportunity’ Category

If you say a dumb sketch, will others pay attention?

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Engineers aren’t the only ones who love to correct you

I’ve been repeating myself recently to different people and groups within my client’s shop.TheHand-04212015

I’ve been saying aloud the oral version of a dumb sketch. I’ve been telling and retelling the story of how I thought one thing but then in conversation with different experts, came to see what I thought was really not so at all, but something different. I know this is terribly abstract and I apologize: We’re working on a new proprietary idea at the moment, so I cannot be too specific.

I thought X was like Y. But it turns out that X is very like Z. And when I tell that story—of trying and failing and trying—my listeners get it. They learn something. They jump to Z and each gets pretty excited about Z—they had not seen Z before. But now that Z is named and out there, Z may just change everything (and not in a breathless marketing-hype way, but really change how people move forward in this particular industry) (Which I cannot name.) (Sorry.) Each mini-audience put the pieces together and then leaps forward in a way my didactic, linear, word-driven paragraphs did not succeed at.

TryFailTry2-04222015The point of a dumb sketch is to be not-finished. A sketch is the opposite of the heavily produced diagram or slide. The “unfinishedness” of a sketch is the very crux of usefulness as a communication tool. By being unfinished, the sketch invites collaboration and improvement. And people seem to not be able to turn away—at least from the oral version. Failure is built right into my story, and who can resist gawking at a car wreck?

Maybe this is an engine behind John Stepper’s notion of “working out loud.” Maybe this is a key to how we collaborate with each other. We already do this with friends and family, but what if we extend our try-fail-try circle to include many others?

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Dumb sketches: Kirk Livingston

Of Trolls and Engineers and Open-Source Dialogue

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What will it take to think together?

How hard can it be to learn something from a conversation?

Really hard—if you go against what your audience believes or wants to believe. In Mistakes were made (but not by me), Tavris and Aronson make a compelling case that facts mostly don’t get in our way when we form opinions. In fact, cognitive dissonance feeds our ability to continually spin our decisions in a positive light. So citing facts becomes like hanging paper in a room—I see you pasting it up and already I’ve tuned out the pattern.

Also hard if you fear reprisal for speaking your opinion. Given the troll-mentality that affects the best of us when hidden behind our keyboard, why dare express an unpopular opinion if some sort of flame war results? And yet saying what we think—stating aloud how we read the situation or how we understand something—is key to learning. We need to hear ourselves to begin to see room for change.

Also hard if talking with a monologist who piles on detail. Engineers are not the only ones guilty of this. Many of us forget to pause, take a breath, and check that anyone cares what we are saying. Learning conversations require a bit of white space.

Learning by talking is also hard if hurried—and perhaps this is the most common difficult. Who’s got time for the long conversations that take hours to unwind? Long car trips are great for this. So are camping weekends. Mrs. Kirkistan once described to me a three-month conversation she had with a good friend when they drove to San Francisco for the summer. I was envious.

We all need a guardrail at times

We all need a guardrail at times

 

I’ve recently run across a phrase that is new to me but which attracts me very much: deliberative conversations. The phrase seems to suggest a way around the hard bits I’ve described above. This background paper, Deliberative public engagement: nine principles, put out by the National Consumer Council in the UK, seems wildly optimistic about human talk. Take the first three principles:

The process makes a difference

The process is transparent

The process has integrity

And yet, these three, along with the other six principles, describe well the very essence of our best conversations—the ones where we actually learn something, the ones where we change our mind. Shot through this paper is the notion that people need time to sort stuff. And they/we may just need some guidelines to help us move through.

So rather than leaving it at “wildly optimistic,” I might prefer to say, “Yes. These are exactly the requirements each of us has for a truly deliberative, learning conversation.”

Now.

How to make that happen?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Words Build Stuff Between Us

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Words destroy stuff we’ve built

We all know this, don’t we? It’s perfectly obvious.

If words were money (words are definitely not money), we would be aware of our spending to inform or persuade or entertain. And just like people who make a hobby of “going shopping,” spending our word budget every day would be just another normal piece of everyday life for a U.S. citizen (or “consumer,” as business has renamed humans).

And that is actually how words work: We spend them.

With words we buy influence. We give some bit of knowledge or direction to someone else and win something in return. Some bit of psychic collateral. With words we buy context: we proclaim this or that in response to a situation at home or at work. Sometimes those around us agree with our context-setting assessment. Sometimes they don’t. Hint: if you want more people to agree with you, become the boss. Authority has a way of bringing believability with it, whether or not it is earned.

How we spend our words is worth thinking about. For many of us conversation seems instinctual. We say this in response to that. We inform, persuade, entertain with a joke. We do most of this without making conscious choices about our wordly-intentions.

But what if we did think of how we spend our words? What if we invested our words to accomplish some end? What if we invested our words with meaning—which is to say, what if we said things that were pulled from the well of what is important to us? That would make us vulnerable, of course. It would also be a platform for growth. Because when we say what is important, we learn something about ourselves and often a meaningful conversation can follow. The kind of conversation that has a chance of touching us deeply.

Teardown-2-04072015

If you’ve not read Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), now is a good time. Tavris and Aronson have been referred to frequently as the Rolling Stone article on rape at the University of Virginia and news reader Brian Williams were found to have amped up their stories beyond anything resembling truth. Tavris and Aronson talk about cognitive dissonance and how we have such a hard time living with ourselves when our inconsistencies and personal malpractices appear—so we just change the story to coddle our precious psyches. The authors also demonstrate how memory gets built and rebuilt as we change stories:

Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it.

–Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2007) 77

I am advocating for conscious use of words, and for filling those words with stuff that is important to us—scary as that is. I see this as the opposite of small talk. I do, however, acknowledge that small talk is the precursor to big talk.

In my dream world, we use words to constantly build stuff between us rather than destroying relationships by purposely misunderstanding and showing we are better/righter/fitter/stronger/groovier.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

The World Needs You—Ms./Mr. Verbal Processor—Annoying As You Are

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Silence can be nice sometimes, too

I know a few people who process life verbally. I’m not naming names, but to be with them is to sit before an open window through which you hear internal debates, sharp intakes of breath in response to a new stimulus, and general narration about turning left or standing up or “I think I’ll eat a jelly bean.”

People process life in all sorts of ways, of course. I don’t know what I think until I write it down. Others might sketch a response to a life event. Others process a life event over the course of a three-hour bicycle ride. James Thurber could hold 1000 words in his head as his eyesight failed, processing and editing in his brain-pan and seeming to spit out a fully-formed essay or story.

And some talk it out: declaring boldly and then backing up to change direction. And then boldly declaring the opposite. They settle on a position over time (often). Sometimes it’s fun to engage in their internal debate. Sometimes it is maddening to witness the ebb and flow.Rescued-04062015

The ways we process life are not mutually exclusive, we might each do all of the above to figure out what is going on. It may take many conversations and many bike rides and many sketches to, say, process a larger than expected tax refund (ha), or a job loss. Or a death.

But the verbal processor plays a unique role among us. They are the ones who quickly spout a response to a question. They tend to be more comfortable in a group, or , perhaps this: for the groups they are comfortable in, they are even more verbal. The things they say become a sort of conversational/processing rudder against which we agree or disagree. But it is something nearly tangible (as tangible as words ever get) we can react to. The verbal processor does everyone a service by putting something out there for the rest of us to respond to. Their initial, fast response is a word that can rescue us from our solitude. Their quick work can help us avoid sitting passively while inside we are furiously yelling to get our heads around some new situation.

Kudos to the verbal processor.

Their out-flowing attempts to sort things pull the rest of us in as well.

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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.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Seeing may be the trickiest part of drawing

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Instinct and childhood definitions make poor interpreters of everyday life

Take this dumb sketch (Exhibit A). I made it while sitting in the lobby at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Those green trees? Utter fiction. Apart from a few pine trees, there is very little green in Minnesota right now. Green won’t even think about appearing for weeks.

PeopleCTC-03202015

Exhibit A

Yet here we have green trees. I threw a dash of green there because trees are green. Except they weren’t green. They were brown. And scratchy and barren-looking. I commented to a drawing friend that my instinct said “green” from long use of my childhood definition of “tree.” And that slap of green was on before I even thought about it.

The gap between seeing and responding is the troublesome bit. If instinct drives my seeing, I miss pylons and electrical wires and gasoline tank farms and wireless telephone towers. All that industrial accretion I’ve seen one million times—all of it invisible. Even though it is really odd-looking stuff, jutting up into the sky at bizarre angles, like nothing in nature.

I don’t see people too: the clerk behind the counter. The janitor with the broom there, off to the side. I try to become practiced at not seeing the homeless man with his cardboard blessing at the end of the ramp. But that never works.

Mrs. Kirkistan and I volunteer at the Children’s Theater Company. It is simple duty: handing out programs. I was surprised this time by how invisible I became to children. Despite being squarely in their way so they must actively move around me to get into the theater. And when I verbally offer them a program, they twitch, suddenly surprised to see a human directly in front of them.

It’s not that I’m diminutive (I’m not). It’s because the entrance to the theater is awesome, like nothing a kid sees anywhere else. Walking through those double-doors into the dark red cavern with hundreds of seats stretching down and up into space and very strange objects akimbo on the stage—it’s hard for anyone to look away. All of that is purposeful on the part of the theater and adds to the experience.

It’s odd being invisible. And that makes me wonder how many people I miss in the course of ordinary life, simply because I have acted on instinct rather than actually believing the data from my eyes.

Instinct and childhood definitions are poor interpreters of everyday life.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Can 78 bad sketches change your life?

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Don’t stunt your growth by reaching for fame

It’s funny we gauge personal success by numbers of followers. It’s as if we’ve adopted the business transaction as a model for every area of our lives.

Business wants more eyeballs for more attention for more revenue for more profit. And that makes perfect sense for our business goals.

What’s problematic is when we confuse business with what humans need to move forward: Doing what attracts attention and gathers “Likes” is often very different from the stuff our souls need to grow.

Your business factory is not a solid model for personal growth

Your business factory is not a solid model for personal growth

One thing I’m learning from the artists and photographers I’ve been interacting with at Dumb Sketch Daily (currently at bad drawing #78) is that while today’s drawing is (clearly) imperfect, there is always tomorrow’s drawing. And I know what I’ll do different in that drawing. I know I’ll try this technique, or that view, or this topic. I’ll do it again and create yet another imperfect representation of the world.

And that’s OK.

Because the pursuit is about learning to see, learning how to draw, learning how to write. Learning how to tell the truth. Learning how to interact with each other. Learning how to be human. Perhaps even learning how to interact with God.

The goal is not fame, unless you really want to turn this pursuit into a business. But learning itself—whether crowds acknowledge you or whether you plod silently and alone—learning is its own reward.

But I still argue your growth is also a benefit to the humans around you.

And while I don’t think 78 bad sketches have changed my life, I can say with certainty that I see things differently than I did 78 days ago.

 

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

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