Monday, June 25, 2012

When the conversation goes silent

Silence is an interesting phenomenon in a conversation. It's a sort of keystone: everything else leans on the silence and changes according to its quality.  We teach people something of how to talk and sometimes even something of how to listen, but there is no teaching on how to be silent together.

Silence is either the most excruciatingly awkward thing that can happen to a conversation or the sign that the conversation is deep and wide and wonderful. And we shy away from both. We shy away from the wonderful conversations because we are not sure what can measure up to the moments of full, rich silence or because we are afraid that the silence will ring so clear that we will reveal something, somehow, that we didn't mean to reveal. We are afraid because change happens in the silence.

And yet, it's the fear at the top of the roller coaster, the fear of taking the first step onto stage, the fear before the whistle blows and the game begins. The fear that is also a hope that if we can share silence, we can share anything and if we can endure silence, we can never be silenced. We are afraid that we will not be good enough for a shared silence and we are afraid that we will find out that we are better than we thought.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Powerful conversations

Is it possible that you have had a conversation that made a huge impact - and you didn't even know? Maybe you always treat people that way. . . but on a particular day with a particular person, the way you always treat people made a difference. Maybe you were just doing your job - but on that day, for that person, doing your job meant something important. Maybe you were just having a great day, and your smile made someone else dream a little. . .

People will often tell you that power happens intentionally. This is only partly true. Some power is intentional, and all power involves elements of engagement and intention. Often, being intentional both opens up the possibility of power and underscores the actions we take.  Your intention does make a difference.

Other things make a difference, too. Good results can sneak up on you.  This is more likely if you practice having a good relationship with you. Yes, it's nice to be good at rapport but the primary benefit of rapport is that you learn something - rapport gives you new information. The more you practice being open to information and respectful of the impact it has on you, the more  you are likely to put information into the world that makes a difference.

Don't believe me? That's probably because you're thinking about yourself. When you consider conversations where you have received power - a difference that came from words or ideas or connection - you'll find you were often talking to someone who seemed to you to "have it together." The people that make a difference often seem less interested in having power over us and more interested in accurate observation of the way their internal experience is interwoven with their place in the world.

Have you ever engaged in a conversation with someone who is wide awake and grounded and not felt that power was possible?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Where do great conversations happen?

There are two kinds of conversations that are great. The first kind happens when you want it to happen. By this I mean, you choose to talk to someone you expect to have a great conversation with and you set up a context where conversation is likely.  Sometimes this means sitting someplace quiet; sometimes it means attending an event and following up with an opportunity to talk; sometimes it means going for a walk or a drive.  In all of these situations, you are intentional about who is part of the conversation and where it happens.

There's another kind of great conversation. It's the kind you don't intend and don't expect. These conversations happen in rich environments where people are in that interesting state of being enlivened by their work (whether or not it's paid work) and temporarily detached from it (maybe they've stepped out for a bio break or maybe they are doing an errand, for instance). Lots of research shows that creativity happens when lots of different people are in an environment that encourages random interaction.

I remember university this way.  In one respect, we had great conversations because we were set apart in classrooms or residences. In another, we came from very different backgrounds and interests and we had conversations mostly because we had all ended up in the same place at the same time and we all had lots of energy and openness (because we were all 19). Sometimes, we even had amazing conversations with our professors (but not usually while we were in class). Even in a setting where great conversation was an expectation (I attended class in small seminar groups where everyone was encouraged to participate), the best conversations were the ones that just happened.

It's a paradox that science says that this kind of unscientific, unprogrammed conversation is exactly what we need to produce great ideas. It's a paradox that a business which really values productivity must  adapt to make time for what are superficially unproductive moments of random interaction.

It's not a paradox in the arts. In the arts, the best lived life wins. And the best lived life has always had room for great conversation in unexpected places.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Reflections on resources and Father's Day

You can't order fruit salad for lunch anymore. It's no longer a menu item in the places where ladies lunch or executives gather.

From the time that I was very little, my Daddy took me out for lunch on my birthday. We went to real restaurants. Sometimes I wore gloves; always I wore my best dress and my best behaviour.  Most of the time, I ordered fruit salad. The good ones came with ice cream (the less-good had a scoop of cottage cheese in the middle).

In my work, memories like these are what we call resources. They are the experiences that remind us who we are and how good the world can be to us. We enjoy them whenever they come to mind, and we lean on them when the world is not good and we are not sure who we are.

Some of my favourite resources take me back to the family room in the house where I did much of my growing up. I remember sitting by the fire, keeping very still, while my daddy brushed the tangles out of my hair.  There is something quite wonderful about sitting very still and watching the flames while you feel the gentle, rhythmic tug of the brush through your hair.

There were winter evenings when Daddy played the little organ, some classical, some pop, and my favourites, the book of Duke Ellington songs. I would still like to be a sophisticated lady.  There were summer evenings sitting out on the deck and listening to the neighbourhood as the sky turned deeper blue, and finally became dark.

I remember standing in the kitchen as my dad explained to my mom that saying "oh shit" was a required part of learning to golf. And I remember walking under a hot, hot sun through the valley, knocking golf balls into the river instead of over it. Whenever I see an unzipped zipper on a golf bag, I hear his voice "Neatness counts."

In a few hours, much of the clan will assemble here for barbecued ribs and cake and we will celebrate Father's Day together.  We are a lively family and we love to celebrate.  There will be lots of talk and lots of food and lots of laughter.  Maybe we will remember all the walks we have taken together, family walks with the dog, or walks on beaches.  We are always going places.

Sometimes, it's nice to sit still and to go to the places stored in memories, the resources I can count on whether the world is sunny or dark.

Thanks, Daddy.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Preparing for a difficult conversation

People often look for advice at the wrong time.  When faced with having a difficult conversation, they are ready to hear advice on how to have a difficult conversation. A better time for the advice would be before the difficult conversation became necessary. Because the best first step in having a difficult conversation is to have lots of interesting, productive, great conversations.

It may be harder than it used to be to have good quality conversations, or it may just be that we have different excuses than our parents did for not having good conversations.  Either way, great conversations take time and attention and curiosity and a willingness to engage with a different point of view.  With the possible exception of mild curiosity, all of these are usually absent from social media "conversations." There's a difference between shouting your opinions to the world, lurking and listening, and participating in dynamic, engaging conversation.

Conversation is one of my favourite things in life. I really, really love to sit with someone and clear the space to be curious and positive about what they will say and what I will say. One of the great things about conversation is that we learn about ourselves by engaging with others. We hear ourselves say things we didn't know we knew or making connections we have never made before. Under the influence of conversation, great ideas happen.

If I have had at least one great conversation, I consider a day well spent. If a day passes without at least a short, deep, engaging conversation, then I am sad and frustrated. It's that simple for me: conversation is not the air I breathe, but it is the nutrient that keeps me sane and energized and hopeful.

If you feel the way I do about conversation, then difficult conversations represent opportunities.  To be sure, they are difficult opportunities, the kind you wish sometimes you had the sense to avoid. (Oops. I meant that I sometimes wish I had the sense to avoid them - maybe you feel differently.) They represent an opportunity like a personal best in sports or a mountain to a climber, or the Arctic to an explorer. They require full-out effort and skill and luck helps. But they offer  terrific rewards. When you make it through a difficult conversation, you will have stretched and learned and demonstrated your commitment to whatever it is that motivated the conversation.

So, if you want to be able to look forward to difficult conversations as potentially rewarding challenges, begin by looking forward to easier conversations. Talk to people - sometimes strangers, but often friends and acquaintances. Clear space so that quality conversations can happen, and also be open to quantity conversations - the sharing of nonsense and trivia and daily routine that allow us to open connections through which conversations might become possible.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How do difficult conversations begin?

You are the expert on the difficult conversations you have to have.  I do have some thoughts on how you got there, how to avoid many difficult conversations, and how to get started with the next one that really is necessary.

Let's start with the difference between difficult conversations with people you have previously had great conversations with, and conversations that are difficult because you don't have shared experience of great conversations.  Difficult conversations don't happen without history and context (generally this is what creates the difficulty). There are two kinds of things that matter about a shared past experience: the points of common good and the anchors to other conflicts. As you enter a difficult conversation, you have a choice about what part of the past you want to carry into the room.

This doesn't inevitably mean that finding shared experience of resourcefulness is a good way to go into a difficult conversation.  But it is certainly worth checking in with yourself and discovering if there are resources in this particular relationship that would help you have this particular conversation. If there are (there usually are) then pay attention to those.

It's also useful to prepare for a difficult conversation by pre-handling the anchors to other conflicts.  We've all had one of those conversations that included the phrases "you always" or "you never". These almost always lead to opening old wounds and fanning the embers of old arguments. Ask yourself: do I really need to go there? Does it help?  Be careful how you answer. It often seems like focusing on the negative gives us the energy to make a necessary break. This may be true: it may also be an illusion. Anger is a rush and it can get things done.  It can also leave a really ugly aftermath and fuel more difficult conversations.

The biggest edge that comes from examining your past shared experience before beginning a difficult conversation may be that you have a chance to observe the way your own emotions change and flow.  You'll notice that good memories stir up one set of responses while a focus on past conflict prepares you for more conflict: your heart beats faster, your breathing gets shallow, and you can feel the adrenalin, even when you are just remembering.  Remembering both resourceful times and past conflict gives you a chance to practice monitoring and adjusting your own state.

Practice. Think of a difficult conversation you need to have, and observe the changes in yourself as you think of it.  Then let  you mind go to shared experiences of strength or community.  Notice that your state changes again. Now think of some of the past experiences that make you dread this difficult conversation, especially the ones that involve the other half of this conversation.  Whenever you feel that your emotions are rising and your reason is slipping, simply go back to recalling shared neutral experiences (boring routine is great). Then work back to resourceful memories before returning to challenge yourself with memories that fuel anger or anxiety.  Follow this pattern until you have sorted through what will help you and what may throw you off as you have this difficult conversation.

In future posts, I'll talk more about difficult conversations.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The economics of conversation

Full disclosure: I don't actually know much about the discipline of economics, although I have recently read some of the work that engages behavioural economists.  What I know is mostly what we all know: that here in North America we cannot compete economically unless we can win the competition for the best ideas. And the best ideas now seem to be the ideas that we produce collaboratively. Authors like Jonah Lehrer (Creativity)  and Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) have been popularizing research that shows we do our best thinking when we engage with other smart people - even when we're working on different things.

This seems to hinge on an ability that we don't teach and may be neglecting to a point where we lose it. The ability is conversation: the exchange of ideas and imaginings and feelings. The idea of conversation comes from those long, wonderful talks where two or more people are face to face and mind to mind. But that kind of conversation doesn't happen the same way through electronic screens.

Interesting that the word screen simultaneously means that thing through which we communicate electronically and that thing that blocks off or hides or filters what passes between one space and another. Screens allow some elements of conversation to pass between people and block many more. Without the idea of conversation between people who occupy the same physical place, it's hard to know how people can engage in electronic conversations for stimulation, collaboration, and challenge.

I feel strongly about this. I believe in rich, warm, engaging conversation. I believe in working through conversations that are difficult because they involve hard choices or exploration of unfamiliar situations. I believe that people need to talk to each other in a way that makes everyone smarter or more connected or more alive. I love great conversation.

The work I do teaches other people to appreciate and improve their conversations. I love this work.

I believe the world needs more of this work. There's a lot of bad writing around - writing that is incongruent or unsatisfying or incomplete. Some of it is in entertainment and some in what might be called 'public discourse' - the wide open field of the web and the media. Some of it is in academics. There's enough bad writing to go around. Bad writing wouldn't be so bad if it didn't occur exactly where we expect to find models of great conversation. If the people with a script writer can't have great conversations, how will ordinary people sitting with email know how to construct words that carry meaning that connects?

It seems likely that we don't know how to talk to each other in the big, fancy, expensive ways because we are getting less good at just chatting with each other in person. More and more work is arranged to enable formal discussion or trivial discussion instead of promoting great conversations. More and more social life happens in texts and tweets and status updates. None of these are capable of the deep, wide flow of conversation.

When was the last time you were part of a great conversation? I am very, very lucky because I have them almost every week. I work hard at creating the space where conversation can happen - even though it is expensive and often seems unproductive. I believe that every moment when people are fully engaged and connected ultimately pays off. I say believe, because I can't prove that this is true.

Still - when people call the skills of conversation "soft" - I wonder. I wonder what they think will happen as these skills become soft and flabby and unpopular. I wonder how they think we'll sustain our economy without the skills that make collaboration and innovation possible.  To me, these are hard skills (hard to learn and hard to practice) that will be very hard to lose.

So yes, I'm a little bit fanatic about this one. And I'd love to have a long chat with you about it - maybe over a tea or a beer . . .

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

How to tell a story

Many people ask for the chance to learn more about how I tell stories.  Mostly, they are thinking about the  folk and fairy tales from all over the world that I love and share with classes and, sometimes, in conversation.  Generally, they are not sure exactly what happens when I tell a story, but they know they like it and they believe it has some power.

Here are three ways to tell stories that have power.

1) Choose a story that has power for you. You might notice this power as emotion, as energy, or as a vivid quality to your imagining of what it looks like, sounds like and feels like as it unfolds.  It is less likely that you are aware of the "meaning" of the story - if the "meaning" you want can be summed up in a few words, use those instead of a story.

2) Tell stories to share, encourage or inspire. Don't tell a story to convey a moral - if you want to lecture someone, just give them a lecture. Stories work by allowing listeners to enter states in which they can find the ideas, solutions or choices they need to make - they don't work as thinly-disguised attempts to guide other people's choices.

3) Tell stories that respect your connection with listeners: don't spend hours preparing a story and then forget that the story is just a bridge to connect you to your listeners and your listeners to a state of mind that allows them to think or feel better. When the story is more important than the connection, the story loses all the power it might have had.

You might think that you don't know how to do these three things. The truth is that you are already doing them whenever you make a strong positive connection with someone by sharing events that involved a particular group of people and led to a particular result or state of mind.  You already know that some things you imagine seem more real than others. You already know the difference between hearing a story meant to manipulate you and a story meant to make you more resourceful. You already know the difference between someone who is using a story to sound powerful and someone who is telling a story that has power for you.  Your experience is full of examples.

So you already know that you are capable of telling powerful stories. Find someone you want to inspire, and practice.