Art of conversation

What if we were taught HOW to have a conversation?

When was the last time you had a great conversation?  What did it feel like?  How long did it take before it dawned on you that ‘this is a great conversation I’m in‘? One of the least explored and underrated aspects of life and business is the conversation.  It gives us the same richness of experience that we find in literature, movies, family vacations, delighting clients and the feeling we get when a well thought-out plan comes together.

Great conversations live in the realm of ideas, not events or personalities.  Great conversations answer the questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ not ‘what, where, or when.’  It is in the how and why that insights are formed and lessons are learned.  There’s the feeling of connecting with someone that goes beyond the usual “how are things?” Just like a great book or movie, you walk away thinking ‘I wish this weren’t ending…‘  and that is because you become part of the action or drama.  You are not just experiencing things on an intellectual level (‘Yes, this plot is very good.  The characters are believable’) but you are feeling it (‘Oh man, I can’t believe this is happening!’).

In one of my MBA courses at Chicago Booth, I teach the concept of asking “high-gain questions.”  These are questions that cause the client to think and reflect, not just react and thus the information “gained” is much more valuable to the salesperson.  Same with conversation.  The better questions we ask, the more insights we gain.

How do you know you’ve just been in a great conversation?  Or in business terms, what are the “outcomes.”  You feel like you’ve learned something you didn’t know, or at least gained a valuable perspective.  You feel a reciprocal respect for your partner.  You are looking forward to sharing an insight with the next person you come across.

Image property of the New York Times

In thinking about the art or skill of conversation, how does technology impact your ability to actually converse as opposed to just connect? This topic is not a new one. There have been countless articles and studies published in recent years that name technology as the culprit in struggling family relationships and the changing landscape of sales, among other situations. The New York Times published a thought-provoking Opinion piece in late April that took one step beyond past articles on the subject by encouraging readers to think about why technology might hinder conversation and what they can do about it in their own lives. Sherry Turkle, the author of the piece, writes, “There we are so busy communicating that we often don’t have time to talk to one another about what really matters”. Within a sales context, how can you connect with a prospect if you have not trained yourself to quiet the distraction and actually listen to what they want or need?

Engaging in a meaningful conversation that goes beyond the “what, where or when” requires the discipline to listen and converse (not just connect).

UPDATE:  There’s no doubt that technology has shifted the way that we interact with each other and how conversation actually happens. Sherry Turkle has recently published a book called, “Alone Together” and explores the ways in which this shift has changed. This NPR Fresh Air podcast on the subject will help you think about how technology has impacted your own way of communicating with friends, family, and coworkers.


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