We get more done in a short conversation than in dozens of email/online exchanges. When we're face-to-face with someone, it becomes apparent quickly what their energy feels like, if they have presence, how they relate in the environment — do they respond or react? What's their level of engagement? How's their ability to listen? Is the exchange leading us to a new place?
To be effective with conversation, we want to do meticulous research, network our thoughts and ideas prior to meeting with someone. Preparation is a sign of respect and professionalism... if we require it of the other party, we meet the opportunity with care on our side.
Take meetings, they should be pragmatic opportunities to seek a particular outcome, not just vague attempts at “getting everyone on the same page.” It's much more effective when everyone is vested in the outcome to achieve greater results.
In Moments of Impact Christ Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon say there are three specific actions that work to move a project, program, and organization or team forward:
- Discover, don't tell — experiential learning is much more powerful than one-sided talking
- Engage the whole person — data-driven decision-making is not the opposite of gut checking
- Create a narrative arc — curate what comes first, second and third in the flow of activities
We do know conversation is a powerful tool, but we're sorely out of practice on how to use it successfully to negotiate on our behalf and get better results. It's not a waste of time when we design better meetings, more fruitful interviews, and more resilient businesses.
Creating the opportunity to see
The most convincing argument we can have is the one we make for ourselves. Rather than trying to convince and convert others, we want to create the opportunity for them to discover the real issue for themselves. We do that through arranging powerful learning experiences.
Using some examples from recent news — experience what service feels like on the other end of corporate policy, as a customer, and see what it looks like for everyone who witnesses. Shifting the context from the comfortable seats at the office to the real life situation and the personal repercussions is a good way of breaking out from a frame of reference and look at a problem in new ways.
To turn commitment into confidence, it's what we do and not just what we say that matters:
“We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this, we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.”
We can intellectualize presentations and promises, but unless we test them in real world, we won't know how it could go. The recent United incident is an example of how rules and a focus on a one-dimensional view of value can lead us astray.
Working sessions that re-create experiences teach us much more than regular meetings. Inertia in organizations is a powerful force, but real life testing can help us disrupt it and get outside our comfort zone.
Combining head and heart
Decision-making is a complex process that needs to take into account data and experience, reason and emotion. This is where the mind is fundamentally different from the brain itself — we make up our mind based on our whole selves.
In Descartes' Error neuroscientist Anthonio Damasio tells the story of a patient, Elliott, who survived a brain tumor through surgery, but whose life turned into chaos despite his tests for IQ, language ability, memory, personality disorders, formal reasoning, more judgement, and spatial orientation being within norm. His life fell apart because of a string of poor decisions.
“He had failed to honor commitments to his family and colleagues, trusted people he shouldn't have, and made choices that appeared random.” Elliott's emotions had been flattened by the surgery. Says Damasio:
Elliott's loss of the ability to feel emotions had so impaired judgement that he could no longer make sound decisions.
Decisions are not just intellectual exercises, they involve the body as well. When we buy things, expensive things like a house, a car, and yes these days even an airline ticket, we look for reasons to rationalize the emotional appeal of our choices with data. Smart organizations address this need.
So we want to make room for emotion in our design of strategic conversations, get cognitive empathy involved. The trade-off is not between head and heart, but evaluating experiences based on a combination of the two. The value metric is the degree to which we involve the whole person.
Typical outcomes of these kinds of conversations include insights on where we spend our energy, which is precious, the timing of our actions, which may be off, and basing our game plan on principles rather than rules, which serve us address consequences better in an uncertain world.
Curating the experience
A working session is different from a meeting because topics and activities follow an experiential sequence. It's useful to follow a narrative arc. Ertel and Solomon cite German playwright Gustav Freytag's construct — we have an introduction, then rising action that takes us to a turning point from which we have cascading action and a resolution.
Deejays use playlists to explore moods and paces, great speakers follow general principles to build their argument. All these frameworks focus on the experience from the audience point of view — the pace, sequence, and its building blocks. This is how conversation should flow as well.
The narrative arc we construct needs to be based on understanding an issue from the point of views of the specific group of people facing it. When we discuss a human challenge, we want to enroll the group of people who are affected to understand the implications of our decisions from differing points of view.
Here's why it's important to have a narrative arc:
it's hard — if not impossible — for a strategic conversation to generate insight and impact unless there are emotionally challenging moments.
The group needs to “feel the burn of real tension.” The resulting experience becomes memorable and triggers a desire to act. When members of an organization feel personally vested in the meaning they create by behaving in a certain way, that's when the strategic part of conversation comes to life to serve its purpose. Behavior creates attitudes, and not the other way around.
But again, we should not assume either/or, we need both — “strategy as thought” and “strategy as experienced,” we need to know and feel.
Conversation is a powerful technology to negotiate meaning, make sense of issues/opportunities, ask better questions, and assess energy, which is a better measure of value. The over reliance on writing and online/email exchanges has many out of practice, especially with learning how to listen. Which is different than monitoring and the reason why so many organizations and brands are still conversationally tone deaf.