When I first took on my current assignment I was impressed how much my job was one meeting after another, tending to the multiple responsibilities and points of connection I needed to have within the organization. But a book by Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations, recommended to me by a former colleague, led me to realize that in actual fact my job was one conversation after another. And more, that if I did not do this well – that is, the practice of good conversation – then I would simply not be effective in doing what I was called to this place to do. My working day is, indeed, one conversation after another. Yes, of course, there are times of disengagement to review and write reports, consider submitted proposals, or catch up with correspondence. But whether formal or informal – chats in the hallway or committee deliberations or a video conference call with someone from another organization – my day is one conversation after another.
Since reading Scott’s book, my reflections on this practice of listening/speaking – that is, conversation – has led to a series of observations that I offer in this and a series of postings, for your consideration.
First, and foremost, I suggest that this matters and cannot be taken for granted. In many respects the quality and character of our work all come down to this. And the people we hire or promote within the organization need to be the kind of people who know how to listen, how to speak, how to enter into a conversation that is fruitful, encouraging and fosters both learning and good decision-making.
Appreciating this begins with an assumption: that our speech is authentic . . . both truthful and sincere, both free of error and falsehood but also consistent and congruent with what we see and bring to the table. Those with whom we are in conversation will ultimately either trust us – the fundamental ingredient for working together – or they will have misgivings, whether they are conscious of that or not. In other words, what we seek is to be and work with those of whom it can be said: they are true to the word; their speaking is consistent and they are forthcoming if and as they change their mind about something. What you hear in their speech is what you get. They are not of those, to quote the exquisite lyrics of Paul Simon, who referenced someone in song as “his words don’t connect to his eyes.”
This does not mean they are constantly talking; of course not. It is not that more speech is better speech. No, constraint is an imperative; and as I will stress all good speaking assumes good listening. We listen before we speech. But what I am pressing for here is that there is an integrity and a congruency in our speaking . . . one conversation after another. We are kind without resorting to flattery; we are clear without being crude or saying more than needs to be said and without being harsh. We can be depended on to say what needs to be said, no more than no less. And we are known by those with whom we work as a person of their word.
But then, the main point: with this basic premise, that our speaking is authentic, true and congruent, we can speak of how conversation fosters three things. First it defines reality – naming what is, not what we wish was the case, but what is – as the mental space in which we can then talk about what needs to be done, what decision needs to be made or not made. Good conversation sets the stage for not merely good thinking about a situation but also the right actions or the right decisions, however difficult those decisions might be.
Second, good conversation fosters learning and growth in wisdom. The assumption here is that no one person has an adequate read on the situation, on reality, on the problem or the issue at hand. And so we learn together. We come to an understanding through an iterative process of listening and speaking. Not as an end in itself, but so that we can choose well – so we can do what needs to be done, decide what needs to be decided, on the basis and coming out of a good conversation.
And third, good conversation fosters hope – that is, it encourages. This is not because difficult situations are ignored or that reality is not named or that we only speak about happy things. Rather, we mean this: that the bottom line is never one of despair or cynicism. Good conversation brings hope and restores hope when there is set-back.
I am speaking primarily and mainly about conversations in the workplace where we do meet and talk and listen and speak so that we can learn and decide and resolve this or that financial or strategic matter. But much the same can be said of our homes and our connections with friends in the backyard with an appropriate beverage in hand. We may not be pressed to make a decision; but, the principle is the same: authenticity, true to our word, not over-speaking, fostering connections which may not lead to a decision, per se, but there is strengthening of the connection that is the very fabric of life and human flourishing.