Genuine Conversation in a Noisy World

Some of my most precious memories surround long, deep conversations – on quiet afternoons, over coffee, during long walks. Sometimes they are exchanges to get to know someone better; sometimes they are about hopes and dreams – the type of conversation that takes your past and shapes it into a new future. Superficial conversations consume 99% of our day.  As human beings we need less small talk and more deep conversations that enhance our lives, challenge us, teach us, and change us in some meaningful way.

“The kind of conversation I like is one in which you are prepared to emerge a slightly different person” – Theodore Zeldin

Truly great conversations are vital to understanding others and the world in new and better ways - whether it is a customer, a friend or a family member. As a leader learning the art of true conversation can strengthen your leadership and employee engagement by getting to know employees and co-workers better at the core. To truly understand the hopes and dreams of those you lead creates an environment of trust. To know a customer beyond the “sales pitch”, to know their personal hopes and dreams, problems and struggles – you change the conversation from selling to solving problems. 

“When two people talk with mutual respect and listen with a real interest in understanding another point of view, when they try to put themselves in the place of another, to get inside their skin, they change the world, even if it is only by a minute amount, because they are establishing equality between two human beings.” – Theodore Zeldin

Most of the advice written on the art of conversation focuses on what to say, how to open a conversation to get attention, to persuade, to uncover objections (with the intent to persuade), topics to avoid, how to be more interesting, and how to show interest. 

Very little is written about how to listen – the real secret to a great conversation. Rather than “show interest” why not “be interested.”

A truly great conversation is not about anyone’s agenda. And yet we live in an agenda filled world, a world filled with sales messages, persuasion – subtle and not so subtle. Even at times our news media, rather than reporting news, has an agenda. This makes real conversation to learn and to understand so much more significant and valuable. 

Four – not so easy – ingredients to great Conversations:

Listen, really listen

In our fast paced, self-absorbed culture we frequently hear the first few words and then begin to formulate what we want to say. We often miss the point entirely. Listening is hard work but so worthwhile. It takes focus. It takes mindful processing of the words the person says as well as what they aren’t saying. The words they don’t use, the body language they are demonstrating are all important non-verbal clues to the whole message. Listen for understanding, not responding.

By deeply listening you hear the total message – not just the first part – the conversation is much more meaningful and in-depth. It also eliminates misunderstandings that can cause us to damage a relationship far more than benefit it through assumptions about beliefs rather than understanding beliefs. When it is your turn to respond, you are replying to the entire message with a deeper understanding; not just responding to the first line or what you thought you heard while you were thinking what to say next. 

Excerpt from a speech by Tom Friedman, journalist and author:

“…being a good listener is one of the great keys to life. The ability to be a good listener is one of the most under-appreciated talents a person or a country can have. …..You can get away with really disagreeing with people as long as you show them the respect of really listening to what they have to say and taking it into account when and if it makes sense. Indeed, the most important part of listening is that it is a sign of respect. It’s not just what you hear by listening that is important. It is what you say by listening that is important. It’s amazing how you can diffuse a whole roomful of angry people by just starting your answer to a question with the phrase, “You’re making a legitimate point” or “I hear what you say” and really meaning it. Never underestimate how much people just want to feel that they have been heard, and once you have given them that chance they will hear you.”

Ask Questions

Questions are crucial to a great conversation. They help open up a conversation or clarify what you might not understand. They can also build trust because they show you care more about the other person than what you want to say. They build a deeper understanding and build trust.

Don’t judge

Our minds were created to think fast – just 13 milliseconds to process an image; just seconds to make a judgement about our first impression of someone. It is a protection device that can protect us but can cause us to dismiss some people and ideas too quickly. When two people have a conversation, they both bring a life time of experiences to the conversation, more than the other person could ever know, no matter how well they know each other. Letting go of the quick impulse to judge allows us to learn and explore new ideas, to understand concepts that don’t fit the life experiences we have had. 

“The other person is always right.  Always right about feelings. About the day he just experienced. About the fears (appropriate and ill-founded) in his life. About the narrative going on, unspoken, in his head. About what he likes and what he dislikes. You’ll need to travel to this place of ‘right’ before you have any chance at all of actual communication.”   - Seth Godin

Be Real, Be Authentic

Great conversation requires two or more people willing to open up, to be honest, be authentic, be real. A deep conversation simply can’t happen when someone is trying to be someone they are not.

It requires trusting another person with your thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Many are not ready for this type of conversation – especially an employee or a customer who may assume there is an agenda or scheme behind the conversation.  It takes time to build trust.

Some of the best conversations can be with relative strangers. At times we are too emotionally invested in hopes and dreams of those we know well to have the deepest level of conversation. Executive coaches or people we trust, yet don’t know too well, can provide a viewpoint on our thoughts that would have been overlooked by those who carry years of knowledge about us. Some of the best insights I have ever received came from people who have little or no knowledge of my life outside of our conversation or friendship. At times their conversations helped me discover the insights myself.

“Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.” – Theodore Zeldin