Early in my business career I was fortunate to work for a wise, experienced senior executive who was masterful at leading conversations that mattered. As a newly-minted MBA graduate I was at the bottom of the totem pole in a family-managed business.
My boss had been hired to upgrade the company’s management practices, employee benefit programs, and overall productivity. He tasked me with building ties to the leaders of several business units and engaging with them in conversations about the company’s future.
I was significantly younger than almost all of those business unit leaders. That was actually a good thing, because I clearly posed no threats to them, and as a newcomer to the industry it was easy to present myself as someone who wanted to learn the business (which was certainly true).
Over time I was able to establish myself as someone who cared about the business, respected the managers I got to know, and wanted to help make things operate more smoothly. I found a number of small projects that I could help with – setting up a sales training course, developing an affirmative action program, drafting several all-company memos for the CEO, and orchestrating a series of weekly brown bag lunches that brought small groups of employees into direct conversations with the CEO and several other senior executives.
I don’t want to brag, but I believe it is fair to say that my efforts had a positive effect on the company’s culture and the leadership’s commitment to management development. It was a long-term, “gentle” process that depended extensively on trust, integrity, and candor at all levels in the company.
As I reflect on that experience and look ahead to 2015 and beyond, I believe there were several things that made those conversations meaningful, both for me and for the executives I was connecting with.
First, I was eager to learn. As a beginner in the company and the industry I knew there was much I didn’t know. So I was genuinely interested in hearing about how those executives organized their work, what their experiences had been, and what they believed it took to be successful.
Second, because of that interest, I was more focused on listening than on talking. I believe I conveyed that focus through the questions I asked and my subsequent silence as I waited patiently to hear their responses.
Third, I learned to ask open-ended questions, and then to ask for more detail without in any way being challenging. I was simply curious to know more. And there’s nothing more compelling – and more personally gratifying – than to have another person genuinely interested in your ideas and experiences. The best way to extend a conversation and to genuinely connect with someone is to keep asking more clarifying questions.
Have you heard of the “Five Why’s” approach to getting to the root of an issue? It’s a central technique in the Six Sigma quality management approach. Simply put, just keep asking “Why?” over and over again to get to the root cause of a problem. The approach is generally attributed to Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese industrialist and inventor, and the founder of Toyota Industries Company, Ltd.
The fourth factor that helped me connect with those executives was what the brilliant psychologist Carl Rogers called “reflective listening.” It’s both a mindset and a technique for feeding back to the other person both the content of what you’ve just heard and the feelings or emotions that the other person is currently experiencing. Reflective listening is a powerful way of conveying that you have truly heard and are empathizing with the other’s experience at a very deep and personal level.
I was recently invited to a dinner meeting that
brought together about a dozen incredibly interesting people, most of whom did not know each other in advance. Early on we were standing in the living room of our host’s home, liquid refreshments in hand, getting superficially acquainted (name, where we lived, what our jobs were, and so on). Then one of the other guests came up to me and asked a very provocative but open-ended question: “If I really knew you, what would I know?”
Well, I found it impossible not to respond at a very personal level, and the ensuing conversation was far more profound, engaging, and meaningful than anything I’d ever experienced with a stranger (he also shared some very personal information about himself). And then as he turned to another guest and asked the same question of her, I did the same thing with someone else I didn’t know.
Within a few minutes every conversation in the room was being launched with that question. By the time we sat down for dinner, we were talking like old, trusted friends. And we were talking about things that mattered – deeply. It ended up being one of the most energizing evenings I’ve spent in a very long time. And I believe today that I can reconnect with any one of the people I met that night, ask them for help or advice, and be rewarded immediately with a caring, meaningful response.
So while many of us are now calling this an “Age of Networked Intelligence” (see “Creating Through Collaboration” for more on that label), I’ve become convinced that networking – having instantaneous global access to other people and information – is only a rudimentary capability.
Yes, the technology enables us to have that incredible access, but access isn’t what ultimately matters; the meaning is in the connecting, and connecting is a deep interpersonal process that involves respect, curiosity, trust, integrity, openness, and a deep commitment to engage with others at a very personal level.
What do you do to connect in a meaningful way? What gets in the way of having more conversations like my dinner meeting?
Contact me for a free consultation about how you can orchestrate corporate conversations that create connections and produce breakthrough organizational performance.