Conversations have bound humans since the beginning. Yes, the VERY beginning. Talking with one another. Talking with God.
Conversations are about expressions of our heart. Quite literally, conversations answer the question, “What’s on your mind?”
Society stopped listening. I’m not sure when it happened, but the Internet isn’t the culprit. Digital technology may have contributed to the noise increasingly becoming a one-way conduit, but we had stopped listening to each other long before. Social media and all the associated vehicles that enable us to speak to the world have surely fostered in many of us an inflated sense of self-importance where we feel what ‘we’ve got to say is more important than what anybody else may have to say. But those inner feelings existed before the Internet.
I’m not sure if it’s a lack of humility or curiosity or both, but I remember being frustrated as a teenager during casual conversation circles if somebody dominated the storytelling. Even more so, I grew anxious if nobody provoked somebody to say more about something that struck me as quite interesting. Life clearly belonged to the extroverts. I was likely more sensitive to it because, at heart, I’m introverted. People who constantly interrupt others and people who don’t ask the obvious follow-up question drive me crazy. As somewhat of a joke, it’s why some years ago I registered the domain, “WaitAMinuteWhat.com.”
Wait a minute, what?
I catch myself wanting to ask that quite often when I hear somebody make an interesting remark that is almost immediately followed by something else with something far less interesting to contribute.
People rarely listen. Rarer still is listening to understand. Life has taught me why, too. Most of us just aren’t that interested in what you’ve got to say because we’re mostly fixated on what we want to say.
When is the last time somebody who appeared genuinely interested in you asked you about YOU?
I’ve been fascinated with conversation for as long as I can remember. I love it. Mostly I love asking questions and learning. In spite of the fact that I’ve been podcasting for well over 10 years, I mostly enjoy listening to learn about others. Sure, there are times when it’d be nice if somebody would ask about me, but I stopped holding my breath for that opportunity a very long time ago. 😉
Communications experts and psychologists have produced a variety of models aimed at helping us make conversations more productive. I suspect most are a waste of time, not because they don’t work, but because too few adopt them in daily practice. We gravitate to our normal course of speaking and listening. We do what works for us. At least we think it works for us, which means we feel okay about it.
That doesn’t make it effective. Certainly not as leaders.
At work, most of our conversations are directed by the folks in power. Meetings are led by the person in charge. The agendas are driven by authority. It’s high school all over again where the extroverts take the power and railroad the others to come along on their journey.
For decades I’ve watched it happen in social settings, business settings, church settings and everywhere else people engage in some sort of attempt at communication. Sadly, rarely do they quickly get to the heart of the matter and dive deeply enough where people feel safe to truly say anything – much less to say what they’re truly feeling and thinking. Many of us have never figured out how to have a genuine conversation about heart and meaning. Others of us have forgotten how.
It’s not safe out here. Or in there.
Today conference rooms around the world are filled with people wrestling with a variety of challenges. The purpose would seem to be so better decisions can be made, but that’s disingenuous. It’s a lie. The real reason is a display of hierarchy and power. It’s a formal way to show who is in charge, or who is moving their way up to be in charge. That makes it unsafe for everybody to openly share what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. Best to remain silent, so most do.
Imagine a room where 9 people are seated at a conference room table. Perhaps some others are seated around the room, quite literally with their chairs hugging the wall. Imagine it. There may as many people in the room who don’t even have a seat at the table than those who do. Boy, that’ll make you feel comfortable to speak up, huh? “Listen, bubba, you’re important enough to be in the room, but you’re not important enough to sit at the table…so keep quiet.” And Bubba does.
I have no way of knowing when mankind figured out that sitting in a circle fostered better conversations, but somebody figured it out. If you’ve ever been part of a conversation circle you know how great it can feel. King Arthur likely had the most famous round table. No wonder Camelot was such a terrific place.
Typical meetings that I experience all go pretty much the same way. Somebody in authority or somebody who most seeks authority (power) calls the meeting. People gather in and assume a spot. Some are up close to the person who called the meeting. Others are as far away from them as possible. They say whatever they say and often appear to foster collaboration, but the group knows better. Nobody says anything until a person with whom the caller of the meeting is closely aligned speaks up to validate what was just said. It’s like a Robert’s Rule of having somebody second a motion. And just like that, without any further fanfare or conversation, the motion is passed. The larger portion of the group collectively just wants to get out of this meeting as quickly as possible. Most think the outcome is fairly predetermined anyway.
Enter a jolt. A curveball meeting.
This was always the most natural way I knew to conduct meetings whenever I was leading them because…well, I’ve already told you what frustrated me about conversations when I was just a kid. That frustration hasn’t waned as I’ve grown older.
After saying why I called the meeting and without showing what I may be leaning toward, I’d call on somebody to share what they thought. “Roy, I’d like to know what you’re thinking about this?” Roy is absolutely going to share with the group. When Roy finished I might ask, “Jane, do you have a different opinion or do you agree with Roy?” Jane would answer. And I’d intentionally look for somebody who didn’t necessarily fully agree with Roy. I wasn’t looking for dissension. I was looking to make the meeting safe for candid dialogue and conversation. I was looking for people to feel safe to say whatever they thought, whatever they felt.
Sure, there are meetings whose design is to let the troops know what’s been decided, but we’re talking about CONVERSATIONS. These are dialogues where people exchange ideas, information, thoughts, and feelings.
Leaders have one fundamental duty when it comes to leading conversations – make it safe for people to speak from their heart. You want to hear what people really think and feel. Otherwise, it’s not a conversation.
Be well. Do good. Grow great!