Full and free-flowing conversations should sit at the centre of our relationships at work – and effective leaders help to make them happen.
When the telephone was introduced into late 1880s America, writer Mark Twain observed, with characteristic wit: "Let us make a special effort to stop communication with each other, so we can have some conversation." Fast forward to the world of work today, and his comments seem especially prescient.
It seems that we’ve fallen out of the habit of having good conversations at work. With more communication channels than ever, each clamouring for our attention and real-time responses, this may seem counterintuitive. But it’s clear that the stripped back information-exchange design of the likes of Slack, Yammer, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, instant messenger, text and email are not designed to facilitate Twain-like conversations; in fact, they tend to hinder them.
Somewhere in the relentless drive for efficiency, the idea that a lengthy conversation in work hours is a productive way to spend our time has disappeared. And the 'good old days' of long, random chats over Mad Men-style three-martini lunches is seen as a waste of time. Leaders these days are more likely to be channelling their inner Elvis: “A little less conversation, a little more action.”
But, in losing the art of conversation, we’re in danger of losing more than just a method of communication that seems out of sync with our times. Full and free-flowing conversations can and should sit at the centre of our relationships at work. Carving out more time for a real exchange of views and opinions builds the trust, rapport and understanding that makes our work more meaningful. It also makes us more productive, helping us to take better decisions and to test and refine the ideas that drive innovation.
As leaders, conversation is a critical tool in our communication toolbox, for our own development, our relationships with colleagues and our performance. Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, claims that "our work.. succeeds or fails.. one conversation at a time".
It’s time to find out why. It’s time to rediscover the lost art of the conversation.
What sets conversation apart
Mark Twain’s wry observation about the telephone speaks to the heart of what conversation is all about – or, rather, what it’s not about. Conversation isn’t about getting a simple point across or transmitting a piece of information in a linear, one-way fashion. Rather, it’s a potentially messy process for discovering what others think. More interestingly perhaps, it’s also about discovering what we think too.
For the writer and thinker Theodore Zeldin, conversation brings together “a meeting of minds with different memories and habits”. And when those minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts, they transform them. A good conversation, one that is grounded in a trusting and supportive dynamic, is one where you find yourself saying, and thinking, thoughts which you never knew you had until that point. It involves thinking out loud, discovering we're wrong about stuff, being challenged and often coming up with something entirely unexpected and new.
We can probably all think of a time when, either personally or professionally, we’ve had this kind of life-enhancing or even life-changing conversation with a close friend or colleague. However, the chances are that we don’t tend to think about replicating these kinds of exchanges at work more routinely. Of course, it’s not always appropriate. There is certainly a place at work for those simple email exchanges where we ask a question, receive a fairly conclusive answer and then respond with an equally definitive reply.
But, when creating and discussing more complex, emotional or nuanced issues and topics, the limits of a closed transmission system such as email are obvious. At a basic level, leadership coach Margie Warrell outlines the occasions at work when it's better to have a face-to-face talk, such as when we’re angry or criticising; when we’re cancelling an arrangement or apologising, or when there’s a chance that our words could be misunderstood.
Beyond this, we might also look to Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who described as "dialogical " those conversations where the exchange is just as concerned with the intent of what is being said – not taking things at face value, and letting statements be open to interpretation without a final outcome. For Bakhtin, dialogic conversation is about exploring and creating meaning.
The nature of true dialogue is collaborative and sees ideas flow and bounce off each other, morphing into a mutual discovery. Conversation, then, is about exploration and creativity. Messy it might be, it also has the power to transform, as Zeldin reminds us: “Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards”.
Creating the right conditions for conversations at work
If conversation is so powerful, why does it seem such a rare commodity in today’s workplaces? The fact is that creating the right conditions for conversation is not straightforward.
Writing in 44BC, the ancient philosopher Cicero said that good conversation required speakers to take turns in a spirit of co-operation and collaboration. This is also what sets a conversation apart from debate or argument in which there can be only one ‘winner’. Maybe someone should explain that to Dave in Purchasing, who always wants the last word and is not very interested in what we might have to say.
Being open to this kind of co-operation and collaboration can also be exposing. Susan Scott’s “fierce” conversations are about robustness and passion rather than being menacing or threatening. But they do need us to be courageous, facing up to sometimes unpalatable or uncomfortable realities. A fierce conversation is “one in which we come out from behind ourselves into the conversation and make it real”.
If we’re going to have that kind of frank and free exchange of views, we need a degree of trust between the people involved. And that means, as leaders, that we need to create the right conditions, the psychological safety, that allows us all to step up and have the courage to make mistakes, show ourselves as less than perfect, to feel vulnerable and to admit that we’d benefit from talking something through.
MIT Professor, Sherry Turkl has observed a cultural trend led by digital communication and social media that means we often prefer to prepare our thoughts in advance, so as not to be caught out in a ‘live’ conversation where we aren’t really in full control of where it might lead. Especially in digital communication, it’s very easy to switch into a transactional mode in our emails, reluctant to reveal an electronic trail of asking for help or revealing any vulnerability. As Turkle notes, this “makes it harder to fix problems, harder to be mentored. The next test for all of us is to restart these necessary conversations".
She’s right. To rediscover those necessary conversations, we need to be mindful of the conditions they need to take place and flourish.
Serendipity and innovation
The early eighteenth century was a golden age for the British coffee house where intellectuals from different classes and professions mingled for revolutionary conversations over a cup of coffee. These “Penny Universities”, where, for a penny’s admission fee, coffee drinkers could also do business, make contacts and discuss and debate the issues of the day, were so feared as potential hotbeds of sedition that the British Government wanted to ban them. Proof, if any more were needed, of the power of conversation.
Creating similar opportunities for the exchange of ideas underpins some much more contemporary approaches to work and workplace design. Steve Jobs famously redesigned the Pixar office to make it a place that “promoted encounters and unplanned collaborations”, with a central atrium with a cafe to bring together people from different departments. Tony Hseih, the founding CEO of Zappos, also believes "collisions" – serendipitous encounters between employees – are the key to an organisation's success. What might feel like small talk in the moment can have tremendous benefits in the future.
Some of the greatest ideas in business are often a result of serendipity, chance encounters and conversations. Arthur Fry, developer of 3M’s famous Post-It Notes, came up with the idea after talking to a colleague who was working on an unrelated (failing) adhesive project. Insight can also come from conversations with people outside work; some great innovations begin with a simple question. On a family holiday in 1943, Edwin Land took a picture of his three-year-old daughter, Jennifer. She asked why she couldn't see the photograph straightaway. “Why not?” thought Land. The Polaroid camera was launched in 1948.
Not all of us work for tech giants originally conceived at a pavement café in San Francisco, and not all of us can mingle and converse in custom-built atriums, but the principle holds true. Even in 2020’s pandemic-hit working world, with remote working very much a new reality, we need, as leaders, to create those opportunities for conversation, those much-needed exchange of news and views, which can so often be the start of something new and remarkable.
Making time to talk: a leadership must
Not only must leaders create the conditions for others to feel comfortable talking, they must also make the time to have conversations themselves.
When Cees 't Hart took over as CEO of Carlsberg Group in 2015, he was given an access card to a private lift that took him directly to his corner office on top. After two months he realised he wasn’t talking to anyone because of the isolation. He moved his desk to the open-plan office downstairs. "If I don’t meet people, I won’t get to know what they think. And if I don’t have a finger on the pulse of the organisation, I can’t lead effectively.”
Like Hart, the best leaders understand the power of conversation for taking the pulse of their organisations and uncovering some hard truths. Boris Groysberg and Michael Sind, authors of Talk Inc., tell the story of Hindustan Petroleum, India, a company that made the decision to involve all employees with the conversations around its values and mission statements.
Arguably, it would have been both easier and more efficient to hire a consultancy and task them with the job of creating the company's mission and values. Instead, the company ran workshops for employees to have their say and share ideas while the CEO spoke to thousands of staff personally. Later, in 2009, when the entire Indian oil industry went on strike, Hindustan Petroleum's frontline workers decided to stay on.
Conversations can be the perfect way to explore business problems with our teams. Talking things over will inevitably take us somewhere. And that’s a principle that also holds true with interactions outside a company.
When Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent, was deciding whether to give up his job to make smoothies, he and his partner decided to test the water by selling their home-made smoothies at a music festival. They set up a big sign asking people if they should give up their jobs to make smoothies, and put one bin saying 'yes' and one saying 'no' in front of the stall. People could vote with their empties, the ‘yes’ decision reinforced by any number of conversations with their punters. The rest, as they say, is history; today, Innocent sells more than 2 million smoothies a week.
One of the basic functions of a conversation is clarification. The person or people with whom we are talking will often sharpen our ideas, bring the important stuff into focus and illuminate our own thoughts with their insights. For leaders, this is the stuff that money can't buy. Golden nuggets of insights from colleagues and customers can spark a whole new strategy and boost performance.
Talking the talk: how to have better conversations at work
Being a good conversationalist doesn't always come naturally. But we can learn to be better at it through awareness and practice.
Our old friend Cicero knew this. In his essay On Duties, he set down some rules for conversation that still resonates with us today: speak clearly and easily, but not too much – take turns with others in the conversation; do not interrupt – be polite; take serious issues seriously, and adopt a lighter touch for lighter ones; never criticise people behind their backs; do not talk about yourself. And above all – never lose your temper.
Similar conversational ‘virtues’ were also to be found in the French salons of the late 17th century. Like British coffee houses, the salons were breeding grounds for ideas and debate. In fact, in France, a man without conversation was held in deep disregard. According to French philosopher and mathematician Jean d’Alembert, "in England it was enough that Newton was the greatest mathematician of the century. In France, he would have been expected to be agreeable too".
When it comes to conversations at work, we can learn a lot from those French virtues, the kinds of conversational characteristics we’d all do well to emulate ourselves. We may not be able to deploy esprit (wit) every time we have a conversation with a colleague, but there’s a lot to be said for enjouement (cheerfulness), even when we don't agree with what's being said, or complaisance (obligingness), showing respect at all times and not always having the last word.
Here are some other examples:
Politesse (decorum):sincere good manners
The formal etiquette and decorum of 17th-century France may seem a long way from the average 21st-century office, but, when overcoming our tendency to talk – a lot – especially about ourselves, we’d do well to bear the impeccable manners implied by politesse. This includes being a good listener, not dominating the conversation – being mindful of Cicero’s core principle of taking it in turns to speak.
Scientists at Harvard have discovered that parts of the mesolimbic dopamine system light up when we talk about ourselves, the same part of the brain that lights up in response to sex and drugs. Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as conversational narcissism. He describes two classic responses in conversations: a shift response (shifts attention back to you) and a support response (supports the other person's comment).
Here's what it might look like:
Colleague: I'm so stressed right now.
Me: Me too, I'm overwhelmed.
Colleague: I'm so stressed right now.
Me: How come? What's going on?
We might channel some politesse next time our shift response threatens to kick in; switch to a support response instead.
Galanterie(gallantry): being curious about others' ideas.
As we’ve already seen, conversations are about being curious. Brian Grazer, the producer of A Brilliant Mind and Apollo 13, credits much of his professional success to meaningful conversations. When he was a junior law clerk for Warner Brothers, one of his main jobs was delivering documents. He decided to use this as an opportunity to talk with some of the most powerful people in Hollywood, telling their assistants that he had to hand over these documents in person.
That was the start of what Grazer now calls “curiosity conversations”, where he asks people across industries to meet him for an hour. In his book, Face to Face, the art of human connection, Grazer wrote that, when meeting people, “I have no other motive than to learn something from them that will broaden my mind and alter my understanding of the world”.
As Grazer found out, good conversations cannot be rushed. They need time, space, energy and empathy. In open-plan offices, we're often distracted with half-baked chat where we can neither concentrate fully on our work nor have a meaningful conversation. Setting aside regular, specified times for conversation can be a good antidote. Sherry Turkl suggests that companies might set aside one day a week for free-flowing, relaxed conversations, perhaps framing them as ‘conversational Thursdays’ as opposed to casual Fridays.
Grazer-style curiosity conversations also have much to recommend them. Consciously setting up conversation with interesting people – from within and outside our organisations – is a sure-fire way to spark ideas.
Flatterie (flattery) – using open questions and asking for advice.
Coaxing and nurturing conversations with colleagues requires careful attention, especially when there is a status imbalance. As we’ve seen, without trust, that feeling of psychological safety, conversations at work will necessarily be inhibited.
Instead, we need to be open and easy with others, encouraging contributions from across the board – a real sense of wanting truth to speak to power. Leaders need to give everyone the sense that speaking up is encouraged and will be worthwhile: set the right expectations; give people time to consider issues in advance; encourage active participation by asking questions; be seen to listen and take on board new ideas – and, of course, give credit where credit is due.
Japanese car firm Toyota reinforced humility among its leadership team by insisting memberts wore the same uniform as the production team on the factory floor. This made it easier for the leaders to have important conversations with their teams. Employees are actively encouraged to make suggestions on how the company should improve and innovate.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, journalist Rebecca Knight acknowledges the difficulty of getting our colleagues to be candid, even in the most open of environments, but she also sees it as critical for success. She outlines some tips for nurturing those conversations:
Zero in on the source of the silence
Silence usually means people are holding back. Find out why and reinforce the fact that ‘crucial conversations’ are part of what make the organisation tick.
Give people options
Not everyone will feel comfortable speaking up in public, so give people the opportunity to have their say in other ways, such as one-to-one meetings.
If we can’t walk the walk ourselves, we have no hope of expecting others to do so.
Create an ownership culture
If people feel they have a real stake in what happens, they’ll be more likely to contribute.
Make it routine
Find opportunities for regular conversations and interactions. Making it routine will make it just another part of the culture.
Most of us, at some time, will have resorted to communicating with a colleague by email or similar precisely because it seems the easiest, quickest (least messy?) way to send a message. And, sometimes, that’s the right decision. But if that’s the only way we communicate with our teams, we’re effectively closing ourselves off from the relationship and trust-building power of face-to-face verbal communication and also the mind-expanding and idea-enhancing opportunities that conversation offers. At a time when we have more ways than ever to exchange information, it’s more important than ever to take the time for conversations that might even meet with the approval of Mark Twain himself.
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