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(This article is also posted on The Future of Work…unlimited blog)
Last week I reported on my recent interviews with several smart people about what makes for a good conversation (“A Debate is Not a Discussion, and a Discussion is not a Dialogue“) .
Today let’s dig a little deeper into the underlying factors they identified. Here are the seven dimensions of effective conversations:
1. A good conversation is purposeful.
Sure, we often engage in small talk, or in conversations we know are relatively trivial. But when the subject is something we care about, and we have a clear and explicit goal (informing, learning, sharing, persuading) we tune in more intensely and we engage more deeply.
2. The participants are genuinely interested in the topic being discussed.
I believe one of the reasons so many of us find cocktail parties and networking events so boring is that we just aren’t interested in the banal conversations that usually characterize those kinds of events.
One very effective way to destroy banality is to be aggressive about becoming interested in something about the person you are talking to. Ask meaningful questions – questions that dig into what the other person cares deeply about.
3. The participants want to learn something new.
If you approach every interaction with another person (or a group) as an opportunity to learn, you will experience many more meaningful conversations than someone who thinks he knows it all already, or is only interested in showing how smart or well-informed she is.
I am reminded of a cartoon I saw many years ago. A young man proclaims that he finds life boring. His female companion looks him in the eye and responds “How do you think life finds you?”
4. The participants are “in the moment.”
How many times have you sat in a meeting where many of the participants had their laptops or smartphones open and were clearly reading and responding to emails? Multitasking has unfortunately become almost a way of life in many organizations. But what is the unspoken message when a participant’s attention is directed away from the current conversation towards something else?
Being “present” means giving your undivided attention to the conversation, listening actively and thoughtfully and – presumably – thinking carefully about what you are hearing.
5. The participants feel (and express) respect for each other, and for their differences.
With respect comes a willingness to listen non-judgmentally, and a desire to learn from the other participant(s).
No two of us are alike. There is only one of you, and only one of each of the other participants (see “xx” for more about that basic reality). The uniqueness of every human being creates a marvelous opportunity for learning – learning from others’ experiences, from the way they view the world. But it all starts with respect – and a recognition that while each of us is unique in many ways, we do have similar needs and emotions.
Listening with an open mind to someone else’s views, or opinions, does not in any way require agreeing with those perspectives. But it is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand another perspective if you are unwilling to hear it out and to tease out its internal logic.
6. The conversation is filled with stories.
Stories are by far the most powerful means of sharing experiences and passing on important lessons. There is something incredibly compelling about personal stories; they often create a genuine sense of “being there” for listeners and thus of having had the experience being described.
Stories also offer insights into who the storyteller is and why he or she feels the way they do about the topic being discussed. Learning about someone’s childhood, or a harrowing experience, helps you to understand that person and their personality more than almost any other kind of information.
7. The setting is appropriate for the conversation.
Most organizational leaders I know hardly ever think about the physical place where they hold their formal meetings and other conversations. In most cases their regular meetings are always held in the same place – whether it’s the Board Room, the conference room down the hall, the employee lounge, the coffee shop across the street, or the team room that is home to the current project.
Yet the conversational setting has a huge impact on the nature, tone, and “feel” of any meeting. As I have already suggested several times, place matters – more than most people realize.
There is much more detail, accompanied by plenty of stories, about the characteristics of powerful conversations, in Making Meetings Matter. Buy it today!
Contact me today for a free 30-minute strategic conversation about how you can make all your meetings and other corporate conversations both productive and popular. Please download this brief overview of my new service offering for making meetings matter to explore what’s possible.