Is there a 21st century skill more important than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?
As a business owner or manager, what skillset do you feel you need to work on the most right now that will have the biggest impact on your business? Is it technology related? Do you need to master this new automation gizmo? Are you struggling with understanding how to make sense of your cryptic financial statements? Have you been reading about the importance of emotional intelligence for business leaders and you aren’t even sure if you know what that means?
How about this one? Do you feel a pressing need to better your conversational skills? You might be like me and think: “Hmm, well I work from home and my dog and I seem to be getting on just fine. Besides, I’ve really got to make a dent in fleshing out and solidifying my business processes.” So what is it that is so important about having a better conversation?
I was recently challenged by the question while watching a Ted Talk by writer and radio host, Celeste Headlee, entitled “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation.” In it she quoted an article from The Atlantic written by high school teacher, Paul Barnwell:
I came to realize that conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and each other through screens, but rarely do they have an opportunity to hone their interpersonal communications skills. It might sound like a funny question, but we have to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain coherent, confident conversation?
We all have lots of skills, every one of us; some that we worked hard for and some that came naturally. Some of us paid big bucks to attend degree programs and many of us have leveled up by reading how to articles on the internet or through simple trial and error.
But having a better conversation?
Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal…
Think about the people you have to interact with in your professional life. If you’re a business owner or manager you have people working for you that need motivation, instruction, encouragement, and sometimes the unavoidable correction. You have various other stakeholders who are affected by your successes and failures. Then there are your clients and prospects who you need to show the value of your offerings. Conversations are happening all around you all of the time.
It is through conversation that we establish connections and develop relationships. It is through conversation that we come to mutual understanding. It is through conversation that we will eventually sink or swim in whatever we hope to accomplish. Remember, unless you live under a rock or in a cave, it is all about people.
It is Crap
So, up to now, what all have you been taught in regard to being a good conversationalist?
From Celeste’s TED talk:
Many of you have already heard a lot of advice on this – things like look the person in the eye, think of interesting topics to discuss in advance, look, nod and smile to show that you’re paying attention, repeat back what you just heard or summarize it. So, I want you to forget all of that. It is crap.
Here’s the kicker: “There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact, paying attention.”
Ten Ways to have a Better Conversation
What follows are Celeste’s ten ways to have a better conversation. You may think some of these are kind of obvious; you may think some of these are pretty eye opening. I think, when you combine all of them together, and you piece together the greater points in her talk, there is something very lasting and profound here.
Number One: And I don’t mean just set down your cell phone or your tablet or your car keys or whatever is in your hand. I mean, be present. Be in that moment. Don’t think about [the] argument you had with your boss. Don’t think about what you’re going to have for dinner. If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it.
I get it, you’re busy, I’m busy, heck even the employee who is trying to explain the escalating conflict with her coworker to you is busy. But as her manager, she needs to know that she has your attention. It may or may not be as important to you as it is to her but the bottom line is that this issue is really important to her. The person you are speaking with needs to know that you have their attention, you are hearing them, and they matter to you.
You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.
Number Two: Don’t pontificate. If you want to state your opinion without any opportunity for response or argument or pushback or growth, write a blog.
Dang – I think this is supposed to be a blog that I’m writing…
You need to enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn. The famed therapist M. Scott Peck said that true listening requires a setting aside of oneself. And sometimes that means setting aside your personal opinion. He said that sensing this acceptance, the speaker will become less and less vulnerable and more and more likely to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. Again, assume that you have something to learn.
That is a pretty powerful idea here – something that absolutely will help build trust through the feeling and knowledge of acceptance.
Number Three: Use open-ended questions. In this case, take a cue from journalists. Start your questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. If you put in a complicated question, you’re going to get a simple answer out. If I ask you, “Were you terrified?” you’re going to respond to the most powerful word in that sentence, which is “terrified,” and the answer is “Yes, I was” or “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you angry?” “Yes, I was very angry.”
Let them describe it. They’re the ones that know. Try asking them things like, “What was that like?” “How did that feel?” Because then they might have to stop for a moment and think about it, and you’re going to get a much more interesting response.
If you can gain understanding about how a person really feels about something while you are having a conversation, they will sense it and feel like they matter to you. They will also be more likely to listen and hear what you have to say as well.
Number Four: Go with the flow. That means thoughts will come into your mind and you need to let them go out of your mind. We’ve often heard interviews in which a guest is talking for several minutes and then the host comes back in and asks a question which seems like it comes out of nowhere, or it’s already been answered.
That means the host probably stopped listening two minutes ago because he thought of this really clever question, and he was just bound and determined to say that. And we do the exact same thing. We’re sitting there having a conversation with someone, and then we remember that time that we met Hugh Jackman in a coffee shop.
If you allow these thoughts to stay at the forefront of you mind that means you’ve stopped listening. That story of meeting Hugh Jackman at the coffee shop will come back and you can share later, when it is relevant and meaningful.
Number Five: If you don’t know, say that you don’t know . . . Talk should not be cheap.
If you are worried about looking like a buffoon because you don’t know the answer to something you think you should know the answer to I can guarantee you will look like more of a buffoon if you try to fake some answer. No one is fooled.
Number Six: Don’t equate your experience with theirs. If they’re talking about having lost a family member, don’t start talking about the time you lost a family member. If they’re talking about the trouble they’re having at work, don’t tell them about how much you hate your job. It’s not the same.
It is never the same. All experiences are individual. And, more importantly, it is not about you. You don’t need to take that moment to prove how amazing you are or how much you’ve suffered. Somebody asked Stephen Hawking once what his IQ was, and he said, “I have no idea. People who brag about their IQs are losers.”
Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.
Number Seven: Try not to repeat yourself. It’s condescending, and it’s really boring, and we tend to do it a lot. Especially in work conversations or in conversations with our kids, we have a point to make, so we just keep rephrasing it over and over. Don’t do that.
When someone feels like they are being condescended to then a huge part of the conversation is already over. What is said will most likely not be remembered, what is felt will definitely be remembered and probably won’t be forgotten.
Number Eight: Stay out of the weeds. Frankly, people don’t care about the years, the names, the dates, all those details that you’re struggling to come up with in your mind. They don’t care. What they care about is you. They care about what you’re like, what you have in common. So, forget the details. Leave them out.
Number Nine: This is not the last one, but it is the most important one. Listen. I cannot tell you how many really important people have said that listening is perhaps the most, the number one most important skill that you could develop. Buddha said, and I’m paraphrasing, “If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” And Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened his way out of a job.”
The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.
Why do we not listen to each other? Number one, we’d rather talk. When I’m talking, I’m in control. I don’t have to hear anything I’m not interested in. I’m the center of attention. I can bolster my own identity. But there’s another reason: We get distracted.
The average person talks at about 225 word per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. So, our minds are filling in those other 275 words. And look, I know, it takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone, but if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation. You’re just two people shouting out barely related sentences in the same place.
Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply.
An article entitled, “Active Listening,” from Farnham Street opens with:
The sense that we are not being listened to is one of the most frustrating feelings imaginable. Toddlers scream about it, teenagers move out, couples split up, companies break down.
One of the main reasons this breakdown in communication occurs is that listening (like reading, thinking clearly and focusing) is a skill which we rarely consider to be something requiring knowledge and practice.
When it comes to marketing and promoting your business listening is more important than ever. As business owners, we have a naturally tendency to only want to tell people what we have and how great it is and why we think they need it – and we almost always do this without ever hearing specifically what their needs or problems are.
If we actually take the time to listen we are more likely to come up with an even better and more meaningful solution.
Number Ten: Be brief.
A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.
Go Out There and Have Really Great Conversations
In closing I will quote Celeste one last time:
We’ve all had really great conversations. We’ve had them before. We know what it’s like. The kind of conversation where you walk away feeling engaged and inspired, or where you feel like you’ve made a real connection or you’ve been perfectly understood. There is no reason why most of your interactions can’t be like that.
Steven Covey coined these two profound gems:
Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Let’s talk… 😊
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