Here is how this often works in an office environment:
First, the person has a firm agenda that precludes listening. She lays out her points with an intent to control the conversation, but sabotages that desire for control by talking over others. Almost immediately, other people shut her out. They want to reach for the smartphone, grab a cookie—basically do anything that gets them away from her noise. Politicians, CEOs, and even managers sabotage themselves all the time this way. They used their vested power to command attention, but never truly control the conversation.
Contrast that with someone who is spectacular at controlling the conversation.
SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell comes into interviews with an engaging conversational tone. As she answers questions, she finds ways to work in messages of vision, safety, quality, and so on that inspire a sense of trust in SpaceX technology—it’s easy to find yourself cheering her, and the company, on to greater heights (pun intended). Part of her success in conveying these messages is that she weaves in timelines, expertise of the team, descriptions of specific events, and a sense of location.
“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” -Carl Sagan
Jackie Stavros is a professor at Lawrence Technological University; Appreciative Inquiry strategic advisor at Flourishing Leadership Institute; and an associate at Taos Institute. Cheri Torres is a Senior Consultant with NextMove and Partner at Innovation Partners International.
I recently spoke with Jackie and Cheri about their work.
“We live in worlds our conversations create.” -David Cooperrider
Torres: Actually, conversation is powerful, period, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. A bad conversation can turn a good day sour, influencing interactions for hours to come. A good conversation can brighten your day and propel you into high performance and a sense of elation. When you think about it, everything arises from conversation. We’re either carrying on an internal dialogue or engaged with others, each conversation influencing what’s possible in the next moment. Conversations influence our health, wellness, happiness, relationships, performance, and what’s possible.
“Sometimes the greatest adventure is simply a conversation.” -Amadeus Wolf
With their importance, why do conversations not seem to get enough attention in business?
Torres: Conversations are such an integral part of functioning in community that we take them for granted. Until recently, there was nothing drawing our attention to their importance. Research in the field of neurophysiology, however, is showing that conversations are integral to our capacity to access the executive center of our brain, the pre-fontal cortex, where higher order thinking, creativity, trust, good decision making, and the ability to connect are possible. Conversations that trigger fear or uncertainly stimulate the release of cortisol, epinephrine, and testosterone, shutting down access to the pre-frontal cortex and stimulating fight, flight, freeze, or appease. A good conversation has the power to shift the brain from threat to safety, simulating a whole different set of hormones—oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These hormones help us reconnect, open up to what others have to say, and rekindle trust. Further research in positive psychology corresponds, showing that positivity in the workplace builds resiliency, high performance, innovation, and collaboration. Organizations that have taken this research to heart and have shifted leadership and management practices are discovering the amazing power of a great conversation – a conversation worth having.
Contrast a destructive versus an affirmative conversation. What are the effects of a destructive conversation? How long do they last?
Torres: In our book, in Chapter 2: What Kind of Conversations Are You Having, we classify four different kinds of conversations. All interactions either add-value or they devalue people and situations, and all conversations are either inquiry-based or statement-based. If your questions devalue a person or situation, we refer to those kinds of conversations as “critical conversations.” If you are telling and devaluing others, we call those “destructive.” Critical and destructive conversations typically trigger a threat response in others, and we just spoke about how that impacts us. The impact of such conversations can last a long time, long after the cortisol has left the system. The reason why? Our memory stores our experience; this person is recognized as unsafe. This of course inhibits working well together.
On the other hand, if you are telling and adding value, we refer to those interactions as “affirmative conversations.” Acknowledging strengths, complementing a job well done, advocating for someone or something are examples of affirmative conversations. If you are asking questions that add value or generate value, we call those conversations worth having. Affirmative conversations will shift the brain from distrust to trust; conversations worth having will broaden and deepen that shift allowing people to bring their full value to relationships in the workplace, at home, and/or in communities.
“Your conversations help create your world. Speak of delight, not dissatisfaction. Speak of hope, not despair. Let your words bind up wounds, not cause them.” -Tao Te Ching
Because I do business all over the world, I have the opportunity to travel and learn unique skills. Unless you want to see quick disaster, it’s important to prepare carefully when meeting with counterparts from other cultures.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Japan. My experience with Japanese business leaders has always been positive. I appreciate the unique culture. On this trip, I was once again struck by the Japanese hospitality, by their respect, deference, and kindness.
If you’ve ever studied Japanese business etiquette, you may know that the norms are very different from Western standards.
Rank and title are more meaningful than in the United States.
Where to sit at a negotiation table, or at dinner, is carefully orchestrated by rank and standing.
Business cards are exchanged with intention. Hold the business card with both hands and show respect to the person with a slight bow to it. Never put the card in your back pocket or casually put it away. Instead, place it close to your heart in a card case.
The group is more important than the individual.
Slurping soup is proper etiquette and shows your appreciation.
Giving gifts is very important and is a ritualistic exchange.
Toasting is important at dinner.
Nodding is customary to show attention and comprehension.
It’s a handbook of sorts, a reference book, filled with clever phrases and questions all designed to help you in conflict situations.
After reading it, I decided to put it to use immediately. I read a few of the phrases before attending most of my meetings. What I found was that I was asking better questions and was a more focused listener.
I recently asked Barbara more about her work.
“Knowing when to fight is just as important as how.” –Terry Goodkind
Practice, practice, practice! Many of us are uncomfortable with conflict to the point where we not just shy away from it—we run from it and give in rather than dealing with it. It takes courage and practice to have conflict muscle, but we also want people to know that not all conflict is “bad.” Having differences of opinion can spur creativity and positive change in organizations and personal relationships.
Talk about the power of listening.
Most of us think we’re really good listeners, but what we really do is, while the other person is talking, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say when they stop speaking. That’s not listening. Listening is putting your own thoughts aside to focus on the words being said but also observing body language and facial expressions to really get what the person is saying. Our ever-increasing virtual world makes listening even more difficult, so whenever possible, have difficult conversations face to face. But if you can’t be in the same place, use Facetime or Skype so least you can see each other. A good listener uses techniques like paraphrasing back what they heard to ensure both people are on the same wave length. Listening takes practice—just like any other communication form. We spend a lot time learning how to speak to be understood or how to write well but not much time learning how to listen.
“If I could solve all the problems myself, I would.” –Thomas Edison
At the risk of sounding too idealistic, there are few things in life that are more rewarding or more meaningful than being instrumental in helping others have better lives. I often refer to coaching as a calling or mission because I believe there is something inside each of us that comes alive when we have an opportunity to be of real service to others. One of the key foundation stones upon which successful coaching is built is conversation – the dialogue you have with the people you are coaching.
But this conversation involves much more than just talking with others about their goals and dreams. As a coach, your job is to create a space in which other people will regularly have conversations that not only uncover new ideas and generate innovative solutions, but that result in entirely new attitudes and behaviors, and that forge commitments to make significant, sustained personal changes.
However, while rich dialogue can uncover new ideas and generate innovative solutions, this kind of interaction alone is not coaching. Where dialogue pursues new ideas, coaching pursues entirely new attitudes and behaviors. Dialogue is the talk; coaching is the walk. How many conversations do you have during an average day? How many of them really matter? The great coach understands why some conversations matter and some conversations do not. Most on-the-job conversations involve the exchange of information, instructions, advice, and opinions and have relatively predictable outcomes. While these conversations are quite suitable for normal business transactions, they are quite ineffectual in the coaching process.
“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.” -John Wooden