When was the last time you felt like you had a quality conversation? You know, one of those discussions that really interested you. Where you walked away feeling like everyone really engaged and was heard. Now consider, when was the last time you felt like that after a conversation with someone who had a different opinion to you?
It’s hard to really engage with ideas that don’t align with your world view. Or to speak with someone who expresses their ideas in a way you find challenging. This can also happen during a conversation on a topic we’re unfamiliar with. Often we shy away from these interactions and avoid them at all costs.
We are in a time when people are feeling more and more divided – both physically and philosophically. We receive so much information through highly curated social media feeds and online algorithms which narrow the scope of ideas we are regularly exposed to. And much of our communication with peers and colleagues is now conducted online, through emails, tweets, replies and mentions in collaborative work tools. These are brief, by design.
Yet, we are also continuously learning the enormous benefits that come with having diversity of thought and backgrounds at all levels within our organisations. So now it is more important than ever to find ways to overcome any discomfort or challenge that comes with connecting outside of our comfort zone.
Connecting through conversation
In our recent blog titled “How biased are you?” we looked at the impact of unconscious bias in the workplace. In particular, how these patterns of thought affect our assumptions about, and responses to, others. One of the ways for overcoming this is to actively seek connection with a diverse range of people.
Quality conversations are one of the simplest ways to connect with people. It is for this reason that a TED Talk by Celeste Headlee titled “10 ways to have a better conversation” really struck a chord with us. She outlines her ten steps to having more productive, inspiring, engaging conversations, particularly with those who we may not ordinarily speak with or agree with.
What is a quality conversation?
Cambridge dictionary defines a conversation as “talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged”.
A quality conversation is more than just two people talking. It is about a genuine exchange of information or ideas, where all parties are engaged and present in the conversation and open to receive the information and ideas being shared.
In her TED talk, Celeste states that “Conversation requires a balance between talking and listening and somewhere along the way we lost that balance”.
What is the value of quality conversations in the workplace?
Good relationships are built on good communication. A good conversation can create connection, understanding and trust. In the workplace, you often need (and should be seeking) respectful, professional relationships with a range of people. This includes those who may not always share your views, or who you wouldn’t ordinarily interact with outside of work. In fact, these are often the people we most need to have quality conversations with.
When conversations are genuinely two way, they allow the sharing of information, knowledge and ideas. If we approach these conversations with openness, everyone has the opportunity to grow, learn and expand their ideas.
Conversations can also provide you with support, encouragement, or even inspiration! Ensuring that everyone has a safe space to talk something out, to ask for advice or work something through can be very beneficial.
Finally, conversations can ensure facts take the place of assumptions. They can remove the opportunity for speculation. In the absence of conversation, people are inclined to “fill in the gaps” themselves about the abilities, ideas or intentions of others. It is important to never underestimate the benefits of clear communication and quality conversations.
How can we have better conversations?
So, if quality conversations are so important, how can we ensure we’re having more of them? This is where Celeste Headlee comes in. She acknowledges traditional advice given for conversations such as making eye contact or repeating back what you have heard as examples. But as she so simply states, “There is no reason to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention”.
She outlines the below 10 steps to better conversations. She implores us all to pick at least one to master and we’ll be on our way to experiencing more quality conversations:
- Don’t multitask – this is the reminder to be present in the conversation. Don’t think about other things and be half in the conversation. If you’re in it, then be all in.
- Don’t pontificate – be humble! Celeste asks us to “enter every conversation assuming that you have something to learn”. Set aside your personal opinions to allow the other person to speak more freely. They will be more open with you and less defensive.
- Use open ended questions – start questions with who, what, when, where, why or how. Avoid ‘leading’ questions, and don’t assume you know what they will say. She gives the example of asking “how did that feel?” as opposed to “did you feel terrified?” You are likely to get a much more interesting, thoughtful response, and one that might surprise you.
- Go with the flow – how often does it happen that you have an idea or a story that comes into your head as you listen to someone speak? That will naturally happen in a conversation, but Celeste’s advice is to let them come and go. Don’t hold on to your clever question or interesting observation if the conversation has moved past it. Don’t stop listening to make sure you don’t lose your train of thought. A good conversation builds on itself.
- If you don’t know, say you don’t know – Imagine you’re “going on the record” and be careful and thoughtful about what you profess to be an expert in. Be clear on the difference between fact and speculation. Her sage advice is that “Talk should not be cheap”.
- Don’t equate your experience with theirs – in our efforts to show we understand, or to build rapport, we can be tempted to respond to someone’s personal story with our own version of something similar. But it is never the same. And as Celeste points out, it is not about you. You don’t have to take that moment to prove yourself. We are reminded also that conversations are not an opportunity for self-promotion.
- Try not to repeat yourself – because Celeste’s advice is that “it’s condescending and boring”. Especially in a work context, we can tend to decide on the point we want to make and then just keep rephrasing it over and over. Just sticking to the ‘party line’ isn’t going to lead to a genuine exchange of ideas.
- Stay out of the weeds – and by this Celeste means the little details within a story that don’t need to be discussed or clarified to add meaning to the discussion. Details such as place names, dates etc. are not usually what people care about. People care about connecting with you. And taking the time to step through this micro level of detail, or to recall it, can halt the flow of ideas and meaning.
- Listen – this is the most important one! Celeste identifies this as the most important skill you can develop. But as she points out, it can be hard! It takes real energy and effort to listen, but if you’re not listening, you’re not really in a conversation. She also reminds us of Stephen Covey’s insightful observation that “most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with the intent to reply”. The key to a quality conversation is to enter it with the intent to understand.
- Be brief – be thoughtful about your input, make sure you’re allowing the topic to be covered sufficiently but not allowing it to drag on and become uninteresting.
Celeste Headlee has given us a simple outline of practical things we can work on to improve the quality of our conversations. Both in life and in work.
If we as individuals can work to improve in this, we will open ourselves to opportunities for personal growth and learning. We will improve our ability to make deeper and more diverse connections. And we will just have more interesting discussions and interactions.
If we can all focus on truly listening to others, being open to their thoughts and approaching each conversation as though we will learn something from it, imagine the gaps we can bridge.
If you love the idea of better conversations, we recommend you watch Celeste Headlee’s Ted Talk:
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