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The biggest obstacle to a good conversation? The conversation going on inside our own head...

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What makes for a good conversation?

Better still, a great one?

  • Whether the outcome was as we planned? This might work for a performance appraisal.

  • Did we meet an expressed need? On the face of it a good thing, but dangerous if we see our role as a fixer because we deprive others of opportunities to learn and grow. And what about the need that wasn’t expressed?

  • Did the conversation result in a commitment to action? That might be helpful in a coaching situation.

  • Did we get beyond small talk and the sharing of facts and opinions, to explore feelings, needs and beliefs? This can be exhausting if that’s all we do, not to mention somewhat threatening at the supermarket till after a long hard day.

  • Or do we reserve judgment until we see a tangible effect of the exchange? A successful project, a problem resolved, changed behaviour? How long do we have to wait?

Consider these two scenarios

Scenario 1

I've noticed in a couple of Zoom chats over the last few months with friends and the wider family that occasionally the other parties spend time looking into their laps with their thumbs and fingers moving. It doesn't take a genius to know that they are messing with their phones. I am tempted to ask if they would rather be somewhere else.

Scenario 2

I once arrived at a conference early and whilst picking up a coffee I complimented the server on their smile. It was genuinely one of the nicest smiles I have ever seen and I hope what I said sounded real, rather than creepy. The impact of that exchange was immediate and obvious. She grew taller, held her head higher, her eyes became even brighter and it just seemed to lift her spirits.

Why do these matter?

Does scenario 1 mean that I am the most boring person on the planet?

Does scenario 2 count as a good conversation? It can't have lasted more than 30 seconds but I would suggest there was a quality to it. It had a positive effect not just on the person behind the counter, but for me too; it emphasised what a force for good we can be in the lives of others if we just take time to notice them and give them our full attention.

The power of full attention

Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, sums it up this way:

The greatest gift we can give another is our full attention

I have recently re-read Nancy Kline’s book, Time to Think, in which she says something similar:

The most dignifying thing one person can do for another is to create an environment, if even for a moment, in which they can think for themselves.

Incidentally, the book is a must-read for anyone involved in coaching and mentoring, or managing others. In fact, if you talk to anyone at all, there’s stuff in here you should know!

But who are you really paying attention to?

Of course, most of the interactions we have with others last longer than 30 seconds, whether it's our boss, folk we manage, those we coach, or the person coaching us, a friend, our partner, or our children. And in a typical day there are lots of things that compete for our attention, such as the latest ping announcing another email, a new thread in social media, another Covid news update, or interruptions and demands from colleagues, and the general business of life itself.

All this and more conditions us to switch from one task to another with increasing frequency. It’s no wonder when we try to engage meaningfully with someone that our mind seems like it’s been invaded by a tree full of monkeys. The biggest distraction therefore is often what is going on inside our own heads. If we are trying to think about how to respond to what the other person is saying, or searching for examples to share that might be helpful, or what our next question should be, or even what’s for dinner, technically we are listening to ourselves rather than to them.

Training our attention muscle

Here’s a couple of things I’m working on to improve the quality of my conversations. I'm sure you will have other suggestions. Why not share them in the comments below?

  • Trying not to finish other people’s sentences, which is a form of stealing. My wife will be grateful!

  • Avoiding the phrase, ‘I can imagine how you feel.’ Chances are I can’t.

  • Substituting ‘How can I help?’ with ‘What do you need?’ The latter keeps the focus on the other person, not on me.

  • Being more comfortable with, and encouraging, silence in a conversation because that’s when the real thinking takes place.

  • Using prompts such as ‘Tell me more,’ or ‘And what else?’ Because there’s always more.

By offering our undivided attention to someone, we can bring meaning and purpose to any encounter, but it needs to be an intentional act.

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