Even though most of us know intuitively what a good conversation feels like and how it unfolds, the vast majority of conversations at work are okay at best, and the rest of them range between boring, inconsequential, depressing, and demeaning.
In spite of what most of us know, most meetings and far too many of the less-formal conversations at work just don’t generate excitement, or learning, or even clarity. And that’s being kind: I’m not even considering the meetings that waste time and generate anger, frustration, and patently wrong decisions. And worst of all is how few conversations tap into the “hidden talent” that everyone carries around with them every day in the form of experiences, insights, ideas, and intentions.
But the barriers that get in our way are actually very basic, and very understandable. Describing them and sorting out their impacts is the first step to overcoming them.
What Gets in Our Way?
Why do good conversations elude us? I suggested several months ago (“Why are Good Conversations So Elusive?”) there are at least five major factors that get in our way:
- Individual differences in the way we experience the world, and in how we process our experiences.
- Organizational Hierarchies –differences in organizational power and authority, functional focus, and task responsibilities.
- Conservative Organizational Cultures. Too many corporate cultures today value conformity, risk avoidance, and politeness – all traits that discourage candor and focus more on processes than on outcomes.
- Stress. Everyone is being asked to do more with less, and for less. We just don’t have the time to catch our breath, slow down, and pay attention to others’ ideas. And when we’re stressed we’re even more closed than usual to other peoples’ ideas or suggestions.
- Society. The richly connected world we live in today discourages meaningful conversations in a surprising number of ways. We can interact with many more people, in many more places, than ever before. However, those interactions tend to be through short text messages (Twitter, email) or brief phone conversations.
Because it is so central to our current work experience I want to focus particularly on stress and how it impacts our conversations at work.
Stress is a much more complex phenomenon than most of us realize. Certainly we can all agree that too much stress is unhealthy; it can produce strong emotional reactions ranging from anxiety to anger to depression, and it usually changes the way we react to other people or to conversations. Highly stressed individuals typically have a short temper, react strongly and defensively to criticism, and are loath to take any risks at all.
On the other hand, a complete absence of stress isn’t particularly healthy either. People who do not feel any pressure to perform can become apathetic, lazy, uncaring, and disconnected from the world around them.
In fact, one of my former teaching colleagues believed that stress can be addictive; by putting our students under enormous pressure to perform (or at least not to embarrass themselves in front of their peers and the faculty) we were in some sense “training” them for the business world they would soon be entering.
But if that was all there was to it, we were just providing them with basic survival skills. In fact, my colleague was worried that we were conditioning our students to believe that high levels of stress were a natural state of affairs. They were willing to stay up all night to write papers, adopt poor eating habits, and become overly dependent on adult beverages and wild parties for release.
When people are stressed they usually become impatient with others. They have no tolerance for wasting time in meaningless meetings. And they are so wrapped up in their own concerns that they do not listen well, and they certainly don’t take the time to pay attention to the needs of their fellow workers.
The reason I am focusing on stress and the bad habits that accompany it should be obvious: the economy has been through several decades of downsizing, low profits, global competition, and intense technology innovation that have left every major organization short of resources, scrambling to do more with less, and constantly seeking to do things faster and cheaper.
Talk about a formula for stress! While I hate to make broad generalizations, it seems clear to me that over the past two decades there has been a distinct upward tick in the performance expectations that permeate every major organization today. There is not only a generic sense of increased pressure to perform, but much less job security for many of us.
No wonder good conversations are so rare!
Contact me for a free consultation about how you can create workplace conversations that are both memorable and meaningful.