What are the Conversation starters
Much of the time, when people chat to each other they’re not thinking about a specific outcome – conversation just seems to happen! But people who are skilled in conversation are far from random when they chat. They hold an intention or intentions, usually unspoken, which influence the course their conversation takes. This can be a specific outcome they have in mind, or it may be something as intangible as a guiding quality or attitude.
When Oprah called some people “radiators”, she was, in fact, describing people who have this special skill of affecting a conversation. They might not give it a name, but in what they say and how they listen they demonstrate intentionality. One person, I would call a radiator once told me, “I just want to leave the other person better than I find them.”
Another said, “I always want to be able to give the other person something, whether it’s interesting information, an enjoyable time, or some sort of help.” This kind of intentionality doesn’t have to be plKiaraed in advance – it’s more an attitude of mind that guides you.
In conversation, you are always sailing into the spontaneous unknown – that’s the fun of it – and at the same time, with your intention, you can set your sail in a particular direction. Whether you are working towards a specific outcome or not, invisible factors – such as your attitude – make all the difference when you want to influence a conversation. The way you view and remember other people profoundly affects any communication with them. If you think that people are basically honest and well-meaning, you get one experience.
If you think they are not to be trusted and are out to exploit you, you get a different one. Similarly, if you view the world as a place where there’s enough to go round and plenty of good things are free, that attitude will create one outcome; and if you believe there’s not enough to go around and that everything has to be fought over in fierce competition, then you’ll get a different one.
Know your intention
Often you have a specific outcome in mind when holding a conversation, for example:
Exchanging opinions and learning new facts.
Obtaining agreement through negotiation.
Selling a product or persuading of an idea.
Influencing the other person’s state of mind, through motivating, inspiring, reassuring, galvanizing and so on.
Often the purpose is about connection:
Making a new friend.
Improving a relationship.
Becoming more intimate.
Accepting, supporting and caring.
Enjoyment may be a guide:
Creating enjoyment for both of you.
Having a good laugh.
Sharing good things.
A conversation goes well when the two parties share a common purpose, even when it’s simple and unstated – to have fun or relax together, for instance. The purpose can change as you progress, but the conversation will flow best if you’re traveling in a similar direction.
If one person imagines the conversation is about having a laugh, and the other wants to share some intense feelings, they’ll both need to make some adjustment to achieve a satisfying conversation!
In a reality television programme about the UK’s National Health Service, two young men, joking and teasing each other, came into the hospital to visit their friend who had had a serious accident.
Hearing that the injured man had damaged one of his testicles so badly that he might lose it, the two young men attempted jokes with him about his private parts, but their banter failed to provoke the usual humorous rebuttals, and the conversation dwindled into an awkward silence. Without their usual habit of banter and teasing, they were unable to find a point of connection. They needed a new language of compassion, but it was an unknown territory and they failed to find it on that occasion.
VALUES AS INTENTION
Your values can work like hidden intentions to guide you. When you know what is important to you, you can sense when a conversation has trodden on your values, and take steps to steer it back on track. For example, if a guiding value for you is positivity, and the other person has been complaining for a while, you’ll want to steer the conversation towards more positive subjects. Or if you have a strong value about trust, and the other person is being economical with the truth, you’ll find ways to challenge this.
Think about actual conversations you have with different people, and take your time to reflect on your outcomes for each – including values or principles.
Tony reflected in this way in his meetings with a good friend he saw for a drink every few weeks. They always had plenty to talk about and he realized that the meetings were about enjoyment, and support too, for they were very open with each other about what was going on in their lives. He realized that intellectual stimulation was one of his outcomes and he enjoyed their conversation most when they were exchanging ideas.
Felix had a strong value about openness and trust. His manager was explaining a cost-saving change in the payment system that was going to create late payments for staff. The change would particularly affect employees who had low pay and little job security. The manager suggested disingenuously that employees would gain through more efficient online systems. Feeling somewhat intimidated by his manager’s confident words, Felix was still determined to keep the conversation moving truthfully.
So, with considerable trepidation but the strong intention, he expressed his concern about the impact on workers and suggested interim payments to soften the impact. His manager blustered angrily that change happens and you can’t cover for every eventuality. But the strong intention of Felix’s words hit home, and eventually, the low-paid employees were helped during the transition.
Knowing your overall outcome allows you to be appropriate in a conversation, and guides you towards a fruitful exchange. It also acts as a barometer to flag up when a conversation has lost its way.
Leading through connection
So, what do you do or say to influence a conversation and steer it towards your desired outcome?
The connection is the magic ingredient of influence. If you connect well with people it takes the smallest lead to influence their state of mind. It’s like walking side by side with a good friend. You naturally find yourselves falling into step, and when that happens the smallest intention on your part influences the direction you take together. Usually, the other person doesn’t even notice a decision has been made as you turn together towards the left or the right.
Once you feel comfortable in tune with each other in conversation, you influence the other person chiefly by the energy of your state of mind. So, if you want the other person to feel motivated, you become enthusiastic yourself, and that quality is transmitted to your partner. If you want him to feel peaceful, you find that calm within yourself.
Sixty-year-old Jenny told me about the day long ago when her father had told her the “facts of life”. He wanted to convey to her that love and sex were good, pleasurable and natural, but was himself so stiff, formal and intensely embarrassed as he attempted to communicate, that she can remember to this day the acute discomfort of the situation.
She picked up on the tension and embarrassment and he achieved the opposite result from the one intended! She contrasted this experience with later fun conversations behind the bike sheds at school where one girl would giggle urgently, “You’ll never guess!” and the others would all crowd around enthusiastically to hear the latest “fact of life”. It was there that she learned what her father had wanted to convey rather than in his stilted conversation.
It helps to be clear with yourself about your intention. That’s not always as straightforward as it might seem and it’s worth spending time to uncover any hidden intentions. If you have words with a colleague in an attempt to heal a rift between you, do you actually want peace and harmony, or deep down do you want your colleague to feel as bad as you’ve been feeling? Life has a funny way of giving you your hidden desires and then somehow surprising you in the process!
It’s useful to pause for a moment before certain conversations and ask yourself, “What do I really want from this conversation?”
Sometimes, people fake connection in order to achieve a particular outcome – a sale for instance, or to gain information. But if you use the arts of connection merely to manipulate a result, people tend to be aware of it at some level and feel exploited. They might not show their awareness at the time as the full impact often hits later, but your underlying intentions are not as hidden as you think.
A friend described to me a phone call that had upset her. She shared a flat with a young woman whose boyfriend turned up from time to time, so she knew him but not well. One evening, a year after she had moved away and lost touch with her flatmate, the boyfriend called her and spent at least 15 minutes asking her with great friendliness how she was and what she was doing.
She responded openly and warmly. Then he suddenly interrupted her and interjected, “Oh, by the way, as I’m on the phone . . .” and proceeded to ask her a large favor that would help him in his business.
The moment he had the information he was looking for, he ended the conversation brusquely. My friend said the penny dropped for her like a stone as she realized that the chatter had just been a “softening up” to get the introduction he was looking for. “I lost trust through that experience”, she confessed.
Connection builds from genuine interest and acknowledgment of the other person: the more truthful the connection, the stronger the potential influence.
→ Connection →
→ Influence →
Creating positive movement
One very effective way to get the best out of conversations is to have your positive sensor engaged. The idea behind the positive sensor is that focusing on what you want gives you more of what you want. When you focus on what’s wrong, what has to be fixed and what needs solving, your attention on deficiency puts the spotlight on negatives, and takes you to past problems and difficulties, thus increasing your chance of failure. When instead you focus on the positive, you look for solutions and make much more rapid progress towards what you want.
When you listen with your positive sensor engaged, you become aware that some people use negative language all the time! You ask them about their friends and they tell you about the ways people have betrayed them; you ask them about holidays and they tell you of a friend who’s unable to go on holiday because of a nasty accident. Instead of getting mired in their problems, set your compass towards the future and positive change, and think how you’ll move the person towards a positive outcome.
Try this out in a conversation with someone. As you listen to the other person, look towards a more positive future, and ask a question that takes the conversation in that direction. When you hear a negative statement, think forward – “Where from here?” rather than backward to a problematic past – “Why did this disaster happen?”
Here are a few examples:
NEG: It’s so frustrating that our departments don’t communicate with each other.
POS: If we managed to improve communication, what might be possible then?
NEG: There’s such chaos at home; nobody does anything to help!
POS: What would you like to happen?
NEG: I know she’s just taking me for a ride.
POS: How else might you look at this?
NEG: The bank’s in trouble and I’m ruined!
POS: What can help you in this situation?
You need to choose your moment for such questions. Sometimes the other person needs a bit of time to tell their story and sense your empathy with their situation before they can accept a question that moves them towards the positive.
Be careful not to discount the other person’s negative statement. Accept that they are expressing their truth, and gently influence the conversation towards the positive.
Here are some other general questions that point the conversation in a positive direction:
What do you want?
What’s the way forward from here?
How will you do it?
What’s possible now?
The word “if” is particularly effective in leading you towards a better future:
If it did work out okay, how would that be?
If you knew the answer, how would you move things forward?
If you did get the job, what is the first thing you will do?
If you felt brave enough, how will you proceed?
You might notice that the last two examples have slightly strange grammar. You might say “If you felt brave enough, how would you proceed?” But “How will you proceed?” suggests positively that you are already brave enough . . . a grammatical sleight of hand.
Each of these questions starts by assuming a successful outcome. Finding questions that move forwards is a skill much used in coaching and cognitive therapy, and you can find many other examples of good questions in coaching literature. Your intention is like a magnet drawing you both towards it. By painting a brighter future, you create something attractive that draws you both in.
Influence can be as gentle as a story
Conversation is one of the greatest agents of change – and the gentlest. Some people see power as hierarchical, but whatever your role you have the potential to create change through conversation. If you keep your eye on your goal, ask good questions and give authentic answers, you often have the leverage to change the way other people see things, even if they are more senior or experienced than you are.
As long as you have an intention, you don’t need to get agreement on every topic or have the last word. In fact, accepting what other people have to say (not necessarily agreeing) and acknowledging their statements where possible helps the other person to feel connected – as long as you are authentic in what you say. Finding positive ways to help the other person also helps you both move forward to a good outcome.
Stories are effective magnets to inspire, influence and motivate people. A good story draws you in, and moves you subtly towards new possibilities.
I had worked for just over a year as a learning and development manager in an organization when I became friends with Maureen, co-participant on a course. Her conversation on the simple subject of a tray changed the direction of my life. We were chatting, and Maureen asked me if I had ever seen those beautiful black lacquered Japanese trays with gold engraving. I said I thought I had.
“How much would you pay for one in a car boot sale, if you spotted it amongst all the clutter”, she asked me.
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe £10”, I hazarded.
“What about if you saw one in a large store in the city center?” she asked.
“Oh, probably £70 or £80”, I guessed.
What about if you saw that tray as the only item on display in the window of one of the exclusive antique shops in London’s Mayfair?
I imagined the tray beautifully displayed and subtly lit, with the gold shining softly.
“I think it might well be a few thousand pounds”, I replied.
“Exactly so,” said Maureen. “It’s all about the right environment.”
I don’t think she ever said, “This applies to you too”, but the story softly implanted itself in me and I understood that was what she meant. I realized that I wasn’t able to fulfill my potential in my current job; and with the picture of that glowing tray in its window often in my mind, within the next three months I’d resigned from my job, and started my own business – never to look back.
Look out for stories you like and collect them to use when appropriate. Remember things that have happened to you, and relive them in your mind as if you are back in that time and place so that you’ll be able to tell them as vivid stories later. Practice telling stories to all who will listen.
If you know any children who would enjoy a bedtime story, borrow them if you can! Storytelling is a skill that blossoms the more you do it. A story can often be influential when direct advice would fail. Its messages are absorbed by the subconscious and work gently and powerfully.
A story can be as short as a single metaphor or simile. A while ago, someone boosted my confidence enormously when she said, “You’re like a light in the dark to me. I’d lost my way, but now I can see where I’m going.”
Influence works quietly in many different ways. Sometimes a particular look or tone of voice can make all the difference to how a statement “lands” on the listener. Your state of mind exerts a powerful influence. A silence speaks volumes. With influence, subtlety is key.
Influence grows from connection and trust. When you meet people for the first time, the opportunity to build trust and create a connection is best-approached step by step. You don’t gain trust by leaping into a conversation with a stranger with instant big questions such as, “So who are you – really, deep down?” or “Tell me, how do you intend to change the world?”
Rather, you gain trust by starting with topics that do not demand too much self-revelation, and then move gently towards subjects that are more personal and matter more deeply to you and the other person. As you proceed, you can always be ready to go back a step if the other person fails to respond.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF CONVERSATION
With a subject as large as conversation, there are clearly many different ways you can communicate, according to context, subject matter, purpose and much else. However, it is also true that each of us has a typical range, and that may not vary currently as much as you might like to think.
Here are three questions for you:
Which three or four words would best describe a typical conversation within your family?
Which three or four words would best describe a typical conversation in a work context?
Which three or four words would best describe a typical conversation with a good friend?
Answer for yourself before you read further.
I asked a couple of people these questions and got the following answers:
FAMILY: Person A – Hurried, bossy, practical Person B – Warm, casual, intimate
WORK: Person A – To-the-point, impersonal, technical Person B – Helpful, supportive, interested
FRIENDS: Person A – Humorous, sarcastic, competitive Person B – Gossipy, emotional, draining
It was a useful reminder of how different our experiences can be with different people!
When you look at your own answers to the previous questions, ask yourself:
What are the differences in the way I talk to different people?
What characteristics of my conversation might I transfer from one sector of my life to another to get better results?
For example, perhaps you are supportive of your children at home but dictatorial at work. Reflect on how you might you use that ability to be supportive in conversation to good effect at work as well as at home. Maybe you are direct and easy to understand at work, yet at home constantly beat around the bush. Imagine speaking more directly at home and how that might change the responses you get.
In this blog, I describe various different kinds of conversation. Each has its own characteristics and uses. You discover how to expand your range to different kinds of conversation, and how to move subtly from one to another, to enhance your relationships and achieve your outcomes with people.
In exploring different models of conversation, you find out how not to get stuck in one kind of conversation and you discover exciting possibilities of connection and deeper meaning that emerge as you shift from one to another. Discussion of the weather is clearly not exactly pillow talk for most people, but how do you get on to intimate subjects?
I describe different models of talk to you and then show you how to progress from one to another to find the kind of talk that is satisfying for both of you and connects you more closely with each other.
I’ve divided the blog into five kinds of talk:
In general conversation or networking, the conversation tends to shift naturally from one kind of talk to another in a free and fluid way. If you have an awareness of how the shifts happen, you can purposefully move an exchange forward when it gets stuck, or shift it to a level that is more gratifying to both of you.
When you meet people for the first time, what do you say to them? Most of us choose a safe and non-intrusive impersonal comment, such as, “How was your journey?” or “Have you been here before?”
“How was your journey?” might then develop naturally into a discussion of the car you drove to get here, how well it performs and its petrol consumption: a fine conversation if you’re both interested in cars.
I call such impersonal conversation “Thing Talk”. This kind of conversation can be interesting and informative, and you’ll probably slip into it naturally if you try to make a connection with someone through finding a topic in common. You talk about something outside you both without the need either to disclose or elicit personal information. It’s general purpose and usually pretty safe. It won’t tell you much about the other person, but it makes a good starting point for moving to something more personal if you want.
Some conversation gurus recommend using more adventurous and more personal openings to show that you are an upbeat and interesting person. But plunging in with “So what makes you tick?” or “Do you personally believe in capital punishment?” can easily backfire when you don’t know who you’re talking to. So, beginning with Thing Talk gives you a solid impersonal base to start off from.
What does Thing Talk include?
Things of course: cars, boats, tools, computers, gizmos, house-hold appliances, travel, houses, clothes, garden furniture, embroidery and every sort of widget.
Typical questions might be:
How does your new Skoda perform?
I see you’ve got the latest smartphone. What new features does it have?
A holiday home in Austria! In what area?
Notice that the form of a question, as well as the subject matter, is impersonal. For example, “How does your car perform?” rather than “Why on earth do you like Skodas?”
Topics of time and place:
Been here before? (the classic chat-up line!)
How long does it take you to get to work?
Where do you get the best bargains?
What’s the latest on that Scottish murder inquiry?
I heard the new government bonds are almost sold out already – what do you know about them?
Have you any idea what the new shop on the green is selling?
Activities, treated impersonally:
Have you seen the new Bond movie?
Where’s the next game on the rugby tour, do you know?
• Apparently, the New Year fireworks are going to be the most expensive ever. Have you heard what theme they’ve chosen?
Learning and facts:
Apparently, some autonomous cars are to be marketed this year – the price is still high though, isn’t it?
Have you seen the fresh tactics of our new national football or baseball trainer?
Are you interested in the history of religious art?
This year is the hottest ever recorded on our planet; do you follow the data on global warming?
Humor of a general nature:
Have you heard the one about . . . ?
Did you hear what the Chancellor said yesterday by mistake?!
Did you see that man with red underpants outside his trousers?!
Talking about external matters can be very pleasurable when you find a topic that interests both of you. When you focus on something external, companionship builds around the shared interest without necessarily allowing you to know each other better. It can be an opportunity for fun and humor. It can also be deadly serious, informative or enlightening.
Numerous friendships stretch back decades, where two people know practically nothing about each other apart from the single fact that they both play golf, collect stamps, have an interest in industrial history or whatever their shared interest offers. That, for many people, is the pleasure of it.
Some of the most exciting scientific discov series have been the outcome of conversations between experts of different disciplines. The the discovery of DNA came about through endless conversations between Crick, a physicist, and Watson, a biologist, each coming from a different discipline and viewpoint. Crick used to say that he needed to simplify things for himself through simple questions, and discussions yielded valuable new insights.
After the discovery of DNA, Watson said, “Discovery happens not by accident but by the careful assembling of a group of people who know a lot about a lot of different things.” He noted that a brilliant fellow scientist, Lars Paulin, engaged with the same problem, was hampered in his ability to figure things out by the fact that he was working on his own. The conversation was important to the scientific break-through.
I’ll come back to this idea of important conversations. For now, it’s good to know that conversations about things can be exciting in terms of facts, and less useful in terms of connecting on an intimate level with another human being.
Perhaps the second most common question after “Have you been here before?” is “What do you do?” That’s “Action Talk”. Action questions give you a picture of the person doing things, without them having to reveal what is going on inside their head or heart.
The action question is basically “What do you do?” in all its numerous variations and formats:
What do you do for a living?
What are your main responsibilities at work?
How do you spend your free time?
What do you do on holiday?
Such questions invite personal stories, and many conversations of this kind turn into an exchange of anecdotes. In answer to one of the questions above, the person responds with a story:
“My favorite sport is American football. I play quarterback. My team got to the regional finals this year. It was such a close match – we so nearly won. If it hadn’t been for penalty time and a referee with a blind spot . . .”
Maybe the first person also plays football and has an equivalent football anecdote to relate. Or he plays cricket and comes up with an experience of that game. For the conversation to be interesting for both parties, you need to find connections between your stories. If they have little relation to each other the conversation never really moves on. You’re like two spinning cogs that never manage to engage each other.
Such conversations take good listening, for if both of you are keener to entertain with your own story than to hear the other person’s, it’s not very satisfying. Even with good listening, a whole evening of action stories can pall. The author Neil Postman suggests that it’s all stories now: “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.” He glumly calls his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Storytelling can get competitive too. I was at Pilates, waiting for a previous class to finish, and I listened as one old lady told us about how happy she was that a stray cat had adopted her and now lived in her house. Before she’d finished, someone interrupted with her own cat story about a neighbor’s cat that got stuck up a tree.
The fire brigade was called and played their hose on the cat to encourage it down, but with such vigor that the cat fell, broke its back and had to be put down. Her dire account completely wiped out the first story and disturbed her listeners, so that everyone sidled into the training room with relief when the previous class finished. It isn’t enough to have a theme in common. Stories work best when the narrators acknowledge what’s gone before and don’t try to outdo each other!
THE ART OF SMALL TALK
You can engage very easily with someone you meet for the first time using a combination of Action Talk and Thing Talk. Take this short exchange:
Where are you going on holiday this year? (Thing Talk)
The south coast as usual. We always go to Chichester Harbour – we’ve got a boat there. (Thing Talk) Oh, what’ve you got? (Thing Talk)
It’s a J/92 sailboat; we entered Cowes Week with it this year. (Thing to Action Talk)
Oh, how did you do? (Action Talk)
We were runner-up in our class. Good result! Do you sail? (Action Talk)
Small talk gives you social bonding whilst still maintaining a certain degree of personal distance. Nothing gets too emotional or intimate – it’s conversation with a light touch. Humour belongs here, as long as it’s used to lighten the conversation, not to get personal.
Action Talk has an important place at social occasions. When you want to bring other people into a group conversation, you might introduce them with Action Talk.
Hello everyone, this is Stephanie; she’s doing neuro-research at Manchester University but has just spent the summer cockle picking on the Lancashire coast.
Action Talk can be a good source of information. If you are wondering whether to train to be a political journalist, you’ll find it useful to talk to a current journalist and ask them what they did to get the job in the first place and exactly what they do in their role day by day. If you want to walk the Inca Trail and know friends who’ve already done it, what better than ask them what arrangements they made, what they took with them, and what they did when the weather was bad?
It can also be an important stepping-stone to more personal talk. It may provide a surface structure while other things are going on underneath, such as looks, feelings, and intuition.
Action Talk is about what a person does; Head Talk is about their thinking. If you start by asking someone what they do, and then move on to how they succeed at what they do, the skills and qualities they use, how they view certain situations and the choices they make, you are moving on to Head Talk. It includes:
How’s the best way to tackle this issue, do you think?
What do you think about the decision to go for a new communications system?
What do you think he meant by that phrase?
What’s your opinion of the new recipe?
What do you think of using self-reinforced thermoplastics in the building?
What’s the future of politics in our country, in your opinion?
Skills and know-how:
How is it that you never get lost when you’re trekking?
How did you become such a confident speaker?
How do you stay calm when the pressure’s on?
You move from Action Talk to Head Talk by asking a more personal “how” question about an action, or by eliciting someone’s thoughts and opinions on the subject:
So you play chess in a league? (Action Talk). How did you get to that standard? (Head Talk).
A question of one type doesn’t guarantee a reply at the same level. The responder in the last example might stay with action:
Well, I’ve played five times a week for a decade and more.
Or the person might follow your lead and respond in Head Talk:
I think it’s about focusing and keeping going. I never let myself get put off by losing – even when I lost all the time!
With the latter response, you get to know more about this chess player as a person. Hearing about his resilience, you might start to wonder about how resilient he is in other parts of his life, or what that ability to focus says about him. You are building a fuller picture of him as a person, and this gives you the chance to understand him better and to develop the conversation in other directions if you choose.
The easiest step from Action Talk to Head Talk is to ask someone how they do something.
So you play chess? How do you keep all the possible choices to move in your head?
How do you stay so calm when everything’s falling to pieces around you?
EXCHANGE OF IDEAS
In addition to enjoying the interchange of capabilities and skills, you learn more about people’s inner worlds through Head Talk. You gain access to their cognitive skills, their mental maps and strategies, their abilities and their personal opinions. Once you have made an initial connection and both feel comfortable to express thoughts and opinions, questions such as those previously listed can open up rich avenues of intellectual conversation.
Intellectual stimulation and debate go back 1500 years to the tradition of critical inquiry described by Plato, which questions, asks for reasons for choices and explores abstract themes.
Before our age of information, the intellectual conversation was a major source of learning too. Jane Austen was surely speaking for herself when her heroine Kiarae Elliot in Persuasion declares, “My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a lot of conversations.”
In our own day, Head Talk is particularly valued in the workplace, and people who excel at it are considered intelligent. Young people who are lucky enough to learn the art of debate at school and have the opportunity to try out their ideas and opinions have a ready advantage later in the world of work.
EXCHANGE OF OPINIONS
One element of Head Talk is especially alive and well today, and that is the expression of opinions. At meetings and parties, in pubs, coffee shops and in the media, we hear endlessly: “I think this”; “Well I think that”; “Well, no, it’s like this”; “I think you’ll find it’s like that”. Such remarks are not always qualified with “I think”, “in my opinion” or “in my view” either, but are more often aired as unsubstantiated universal statements.
When you exchange opinions in a personal conversation with someone, you reveal information about yourself, and you get to know the other person as they share their opinions honestly with you. Friendships and strong business alliances grow through shared opinions and lively debate:
Banks are entirely to blame for the economic crisis.
Yes, and the government is trying hard to convince us otherwise.
I hate intensive farming!
I agree – it’s ruining the countryside.
I hold that there’s more truth in a novel than in a newspaper. Oh, I don’t think so – real life must reveal more truth, mustn’t it?
Opinions are a common method of persuasion in sales. Notice the absence of “in our view” here:
This is the best heating system on the market.
This phone would rank highest in any survey you cared to undertake.
It’s simply the best sports car in the world, no question.
Wit is one of the delights of Head Talk. Clever plays on words, jokes, banter and raillery all contribute to the to and fro of conversation, and often signal that people are comfortable enough to mock and tease each other. Without empathy, however, it can easily be misjudged, and often keeps people at a distance from each other.
Shakespeare, as usual, a good judge of human emotions, has Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing indulge in witty banter with each other in order to connect – at a distance. Their romantic relationship only blossoms when the banter stops.
Heart Talk is about discovering what matters to people. You ask a question and – if they feel safe and comfortable – they tell you what’s important to them, what gives them motivation and energy, and what gives their life meaning. They tell you how they feel about it.
Questions in this mode include:
What really matters to you about working with teenagers?
What’s important to you about your job?
What would this opportunity mean for you?
What does it mean for you to give up your job to care for your father?
Why did you start working in prisons?
How do you make the children feel valued?
Feelings (it’s all about feelings . . .):
How do you feel when you’re skiing in fresh snow up in the high mountains?
How does it feel when your team’s working well together?
When you ask such questions, tune in to what people might be feeling and give them space and time to answer. Conversations of the heart usually grow organically out of everyday conversations when you’ve built trust. When you ask someone about what they care about and they know that you care, they will answer you from the heart.
Karl asked his friend Mary what she had done in the summer, and she replied that she’d been walking in Scotland. He asked, “Why Scotland?”
She told him it was somewhere she went all the time. There was something about the way she said it that gave him the feeling she was deeply fond of the country, and so he asked gently, “What is it about Scotland – for you?” She paused. “I’m not sure,” she said, “It’s . . .” She seemed to struggle for words for a moment. “It’s a place where I always feel happy. Whether it’s the wide, open spaces, the quiet, the mountains . . . I don’t quite know. I just know that I breathe that crisp air and a calm comes over me; I feel I’ve come home.”
The way Karl asked his second question gave Mary the impression that he was genuinely interested in how she felt, so she answered him from the heart. If a work colleague, not particularly interested, had asked brightly, “What is it about Scotland?” she would have answered with Thing Talk or Action Talk. “Oh, you know, the scenery is magnificent, and I enjoy walking in the hills.” The colleague would then not have learned as much about her as Karl did.
When feelings and values play a major part in a conversation, you reach a stage where conversation becomes especially enjoyable and worthwhile to both of you. Some people talk about a conversation that has a “buzz”. It’s the kind of conversation that happens most often between intimate friends, but it can also happen with strangers if both of you are open enough to touch on meanings and beliefs and find that you share values.
Asking people what they enjoy is a great way to discover their values, and can be asked at any stage in a conversation. The next time you meet someone for the first time, if you decide to ask “What do you do for a living?” follow it up with, “What do you enjoy about it?”
Note the kind of reply you receive. Try these and similar questions too:
Why do you love building websites?
What do you enjoy about being by the sea?
What’s the best thing for you about horse riding?
If you ask with genuine interest and empathy, you’ll probably hear an answer that tells you what matters to the person:
Websites? I find problem-solving exciting and satisfying – there’s always an answer if you look hard enough!
The sea? I feel free by the ocean. It’s always changing, and it gives me a strong sense of the wildness and power of nature.
Horse riding? Horses are the gentlest, most intuitive animals – I appreciate their understanding and empathy.
The enjoyment question is great for speed dating! Ask a Heart Talk question with empathy and you’ll not only find out more about the another person, but you’ll probably draw closer too.
The language of feeling can be a great emotional support for people. If the other speaker in a conversation uses feeling language, they will sense your support if you use feeling language too. You will completely fail to connect if you leap immediately to practical responses with Thing Talk and Action Talk before you have acknowledged what they are feeling. If, on the other hand, you reply first from the heart, the other person will appreciate your support and be more ready for practical solutions in good time.
How not to do it:
I’m feeling a bit sad now my daughter’s gone.
Go for a brisk walk; that usually takes one’s mind off things.
Someone looking for emotional support is usually capable of finding their own solutions to problems. Their immediate need is to share what they are feeling and sense that you care. The language of logic is more likely to irritate than to prove helpful at a moment when someone is full of feeling.
Incidentally, you can miss each other in the opposite direction too. “Sorry, I missed my train,” said Stephen casually to his coach as he arrived late for his appointment. “How do you feel about missing that train?” his coach asked in a deeply sympathetic voice. Stephen was instantly irritated and snapped, “Not every-thing’s about feelings you know. No one’s died – I just missed my train!”
If you want to become closer to someone, there will always come a time to leave behind talk of doing and thinking and engage in conversation about things that affect you both more deeply.
Take the simple question a close friend might ask, “How are you?”
You could stay away from feelings by telling the friend what you’ve been doing:
I’ve been working 18-hour days, persuading my mother, at last, to move into a care home, and at the same time getting the new policy bedded down at work against considerable opposition.
Such a response is likely to lead to more talk about difficulties at work and awkward relatives. But if the question is genuine and heartfelt, a more personal – and truthful – answer would touch on sadness and being overwhelmed, and bring a closer understanding between you.
Pearl couldn’t understand why she found it so difficult to find a partner to share her life with. She was outgoing and met people often in her work and leisure activities. Pearl’s friends thought they knew why. Firstly, Pearl loved an argument, so whenever she got into a conversation with someone for the first time, she pushed her point strongly, determined to win the debate at all costs, and treated the other person as an adversary.
Secondly, she never expressed what she was feeling, but always acted as though she was successful in everything she did, so that people who met her sometimes commented afterward that they found her a bit cold. Pearl would have said that she hated to feel vulnerable, so didn’t want to show her weakness to others. But that lack of expression of feeling cut her off from people she wanted to draw close to.
Often shyness prevents people from expressing their feelings to others, and that fear increases in the very situations where they most want connection. When you fear that showing some part of yourself will cut off the connection, you actually achieve through concealment the very thing you fear.
Fortunately, the opposite is also true: when you allow yourself to be vulnerable by showing your feelings, the removal of your mask allows people to get to know the real you. Your expression of truth brings you closer to other people.
Spend a day becoming more aware of the language you hear and use.
1. Listen out for the words, “I feel” from other people, and note the context, and the impact they have.
2. (Harder to spot) Notice how many times you yourself say “I feel”– “I feel worried, I feel relieved, I feel upset, I feel excited”. Note also that the word “feel” is sometimes understood but not actually said – e.g. “I’m worried”, “I’m excited”.
3. Deliberately use the words, “I feel” in a conversation in an appropriate context, and notice its impact and your reaction to using it.
Note that “I feel that” doesn’t count as Heart Talk, as that phrase introduces an opinion, not a feeling. For example, “I feel that we’re running late” or “I feel that you ought to apologize to your partner.”
Look at the Heart Talk questions earlier in this blog, and see how you might adapt them in conversation to increase connection with someone. Here are a few more openings to guide you. Try them out.
What do you enjoy/love about . . .?
Why do you like/love/enjoy . . .?
Why/how is . . . important to you?
What matters to you about . . .?
What does . . . mean for you?
How do you feel when . . .?
What do you feel about . . .?
When you want to connect with someone on this level, it’s all about how you speak. If you ask the questions above in a clipped and business-like tone, you’ll get Head Talk or Action Talk in return. If you ask as if you care, the other person is more likely to open up to you with Heart Talk.
Be especially aware of your voice tone when you start a question with “why”. Use the word with gentle curiosity, otherwise, you sound like an inquisitor!
There is a risk in sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings with other people. What if they should misunderstand, or scorn you or – heaven forbid – laugh at you? T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock dreads to speak to a woman of love: “Do I dare?” he asks himself, “Do I dare?” What if he were to read love in a woman’s behavior and she should respond, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” What loss of face and embarrassment!
But isn’t there a bigger risk in losing out on real connection and closeness with others through closing off your feelings? The great thing about conversation is that you can go step by step, testing the waters as you go – a small feeling statement here, a minor revelation there, and carry on only as trust builds between you.
There is nothing more powerful than emotional truth in building connection, and people are most influenced through feelings. When we hide emotion, we hide access to this influence. We talk about telling the truth, but emotional truth is more profound and more powerful than factual truth.
Have you ever had the heart-warming experience of talking to someone and feeling accepted and understood, and therefore able to be yourself – indeed, able to discover more who you truly are?
SEEING SOMEONE FOR WHO THEY REALLY ARE
Soul talk becomes possible when you are fully present and experiencing what is happening in the here and now. Too often we are disconnected from our current experience – dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. We experience the magic of soul connection when we are fully present and “see” each other in the full sense of the term.
Through being seen in conversation we learn about ourselves, and gain confidence in who we are. Everything about us flourishes when we are truly seen by another human being. Even if you are habitually self-critical and don’t view yourself very positively, when you speak with someone who looks beneath the surface and sees the core of possibility in you, you begin to see what they see and start to feel good about yourself. You gain confidence that while remaining authentic you can relate to people and gain their trust.
When you converse with someone on this level, you connect with them beyond what they think, feel and do, often beyond the actual words you use. But, using words, you can ask questions that speak to the person’s sense of inner-being:
Who are you at your best?
How is writing part of who you are?
What is your sense of yourself when you’re playing the piano?
Who do you sense you are when you’re engaged in doing what you love to do?
All these questions are versions of “who are you?” and if you are to answer them authentically, your reply will always have the sense of being, “I am . . .” – “I am at peace”; “I am fulfilled”; “I am a guide”; “This is me.”
I was chatting to a friend who loves mountain climbing, and as he spoke about his experiences, I understood that there was an activity where he truly found himself. So I asked him lightly, “Who are you when you’re up there in the mountains?” and he replied:
It’s a testing environment, and I feel scared at times, but there’s nowhere else I feel so much myself – so alive, so connected to nature – connected to everything. It’s just me and the mountain, and every cell in my body is vibrantly alive. That’s the real me, I guess! You know, free, brave, joyful . . .!
I felt privileged to share that intimate revelation.
Other people find it hard to find words for such experiences. Some will come up with a simile or metaphor to express what they are trying to say. Carmen was explaining how she had found her vocation in teaching: “Teaching’s what I was born to do,” she said.
“Who do you feel you are as a teacher?” I asked.
She replied, “Who? That’s an odd question. I suppose I see myself as a kind of magnet, attracting the children towards exciting discoveries. Not forcing them, or making them do stuff – rather drawing them in by making things fascinating. Yes, a magnet, that’s me!”
People come up with amazing metaphors sometimes. A business coach who participated in one of my courses suddenly had the image of the yellow Teletubby Laa-Laa in the British television programme for pre-schoolers. In the programme, Laa-Laa likes to sing and dance and is caring too. The trainer laughed with surprise when the image suddenly popped into her mind.
But she found that it was spot on. The image expressed the lightness and fun that she brings to her clients in a job she cares deeply about and takes utterly seriously. Every time she thought of the image of Laa-Laa she felt a rush of energy and enjoyment that she recognized as the best of her.
Sometimes when we know someone really well, we stop truly seeing them, and instead see only our partial habitual version of who they are. Someone I was coaching confessed to me once, “The one place I don’t have conversations is in my family. My kids don’t talk to me, and my wife talks but says nothing.” They ended up with empty conversations that they both interpreted in habitual stereotypical fashion without really seeing each other:
WIFE: I thought we might go shopping on Saturday. (Interpreted by the husband as her stock “let’s spend your money” conversation.)
HUSBAND: I had a hard day today.
(Interpreted by the wife as his stock “you don’t work as hard as I do” conversation.)
SON: I’m going out.
(Interpreted by both husband and wife as the typical “escaping from responsibility as usual” conversation.)
Seeing always requires us to see afresh as if for the first time.
Next time you are in conversation with someone you know well, imagine that you are meeting them for the first time and notice details you are not usually aware of. Pay exquisite attention to everything:
Their movement and gestures, their body balance.
Subtle changes in their mouth and skin.
Their eyes – look deep into their eyes.
The form of words they use.
Their tone of voice.
Every time you find yourself drawing a habitual conclusion or thinking a habitual thought, question yourself, “Is that really true? How else might I see this?”
When two people have reached this level of connection with each other, the possibilities are rich. It’s as if, having seeing who you are, the other person then begins to intuit who you can be, and you both get a sense of larger possibilities and potential.
In this connected space, you move from “I” and “you” to a sense of “we”. You find yourselves understanding each other’s intention, and experience an elation that comes from the sympathetic vibrations between you.
In this space you can explore fundamental questions about life and its meaning, not in the sense of exchanging opinions or stating fixed ideas, but with a mutual acceptance of uncertainty and paradox, and the possibility of holding on to different realities and possibilities and different levels of meaning at the same time.
In such converzations you both delight in not knowing and dance in the moment. It becomes possible to ask deep or spiritual questions without any sense of awkwardness or irony. You’re able to generate larger connections and deeper meanings beyond a single person and create something more than the sum of your parts.
Now this may sound like a once in a lifetime conversation, but whenever we open ourselves to another person, whether romantically or in collaboration or friendship, we can both give and learn and make a difference – even create something important together. When two people meet in this way, they don’t just exchange facts and opinions; they influence each other’s thoughts and create new ones together. Influence works in both directions, and both come away transformed.
Moreover, in creating a strong connection, it’s as if we gain access to a deeper source of human thinking. Einstein stressed that humans are part of something bigger, “the whole called by us universe”, though they experience themselves as separate. “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” he said. “It is the source of all true art and science.”
Jung describes a layer of the unconscious mind where a man’s mind widens out and merges into the unconscious mind of mankind, a level where “we are no longer separate individuals, we are all one”. When two minds come together on this level, miracles happen.
Progressing through talk-types
In the normal flow of a conversation, you will naturally step in and out of different kinds of talk. If you want to connect better with someone – become more intimate, improve a relationship, make a new friend or gain better mutual understanding – you can steer your way purposefully through different talk-types to achieve your intention.
If at any stage the other person fails to respond to your subtle invitation to move to a different kind of talk, you can gracefully stay with your current type of conversation, or try something different. You can move through different talk-types surprisingly quickly when you want to, even with a stranger, though your progress will depend on the response you get at each step of the way.
Here’s an abbreviated conversation in a work context showing how you can move through talk types to become more closely connected to someone. Both speakers engage in taking the conversation to a deeper level.
Hello, I’m Sasha, have you been here before? (Thing Talk) No, it’s my first time. Pretty crowded, isn’t it? (Thing Talk) What do you do? (Action Talk)
I’m an environmental engineer. We’re currently working on a large building project in Dover, but have to translocate some great crested newts before the building can even start. Fun job! (Action Talk – a hint of Heart Talk at the end)
Wow, I didn’t realize great crested newts were important! How do you go about it? (Head Talk)
Good question! Well, it’s about understanding exactly what they need to thrive so that when they’re moved, they do well in the new location. (Head Talk) I enjoy it actually – it’s subtler than it seems to keep great crested newts happy! (Heart Talk)
What do you enjoy about it? (Heart Talk)
Well, these creatures are seemingly not very important, but they’re rare, so they matter. I like to feel that I’m the person to rescue them – I’m saving the planet by caring about the little critters if you like! (Soul Talk)
The world’s an amazing place . . . And you’re right – it’s often small things that matter most – I find that too. (Soul Talk). Unlike this discussion, many conversations jump about with people responding at different levels.
Have a go at detecting what’s happening in terms of type-talk here:
1. “How do you feel about having to move to London just when you’ve settled here?”
“London offers huge opportunities in terms of shopping and entertainment.”
2. “What do you do at weekends?”
“Dancing! I absolutely adore it. I never feel more myself than when I’m moving to a strong beat!”
3. “How have you been?”
“I tidied up the kitchen cupboard today – the ants have got in again.”
4. “What do you think about the conflict in the Middle East?”
“It troubles me deeply, and it makes me realize that going out to help in war-stricken countries is my mission in life.”
Here are the answers:
1. Heart Talk question; Thing Talk answer.
2. Action Talk question; Heart Talk and Soul Talk answer.
3. Heart Talk question; Action Talk and Thing Talk answer.
4. Head Talk question; Heart Talk and Soul Talk answer.
The more you can become familiar with talk types, the more easily you will flow purposefully between them, and influence the direction of your conversations. Sometime when you’re in a meeting or in a group of friends, step out mentally for a few minutes and spend some time listening to the conversation.
Distinguish the different kinds of talk.
Notice how some people restrict themselves to very few types of talk and how that affects the conversation.
Notice any obvious mismatches – when, for example, one person confines their talk entirely to action, whilst the other person always expresses feelings.
Notice which remarks increase connection and which don’t.
Don’t worry if you struggle to categorize every type of talk accurately. The main thing is to notice how different ways of speaking create different effect, and help or hinder a conversation.
Voice tone and body language are great tools for moving from one type of talk to another. You can use them subtly to invite the other person to enter a different territory without giving a lead as strong as actually saying something in words, and the other person can accept or not. If you speak about a subject in a “no-nonsense” voice, the other person knows that you are engaged in Head or Action Talk.
If you ask a question speaking with feeling from the heart, the other person is likely to engage their feelings. You know the other person has responded to the invitation if they follow your lead. If they don’t follow, the relationship is not harmed, you just continue on the current track.
Use your voice and body language to say the words, “What’s that about?” in different ways, and notice their different effects. Imagine that a friend tells you they are feeling stuck at work.
I’m really stuck at the moment.
What’s that about?
(Firm voice and gesture invite the speaker to focus on practical causes and action.)
What’s that about?
(Lower empathetic voice and open body language invite the speaker to express her feelings.)
What’s that about?
(Gentle high voice expressed with genuine lightness and ease encourages openness and transparency.)
What’s that about?
(Slow words from a place deep within encourages the other person to search deep within.)
I’ve heard people declare, “I mean what I say and I say what I mean”.
If only it were that simple! What if I were to take you by the shoulders, shake you and yell, “I love you!” How would you interpret those words? Or if I folded my arms, tightened my jaw and said in a high clipped voice, “No, I don’t mind! I don’t mind at all!” Would you take my words at face value?
How you say what you say has a significant impact on how other people interpret it – quite apart from the actual words you use. People always make meaning of your expression and body language.
You hear people lament sometimes, “But I told him I wasn’t upset!” sounding deeply hurt even as they say the words. The words are the surface structure, and the meaning is a much less obvious deep structure. Being hidden under the surface language, the meaning of what you say has to be “interpreted” by the listener via your expression, breathing, tone of voice, body language, pauses, and a host of tiny clues. Words don’t have fixed meanings.
So when you think about expressing yourself in a conversation, you need to take into consideration various different factors beyond the actual words you say; and the first of these is the sound of your voice.
BE HEARD AND UNDERSTOOD
The first possible misunderstanding in conversation is thinking that in saying the words you have communicated with the other person. You haven’t communicated anything unless they’ve heard and grasped what you’re saying. People don’t always let us know if they haven’t quite caught our words, and if the effort to understand is too great, people just give up.
With English-speaking call centers now often based in India and elsewhere, there’s much talk about the difficulties of understanding accents today, but accents are certainly not the whole story. I couldn’t understand a coachee who came from Aberdeen in Scotland and constantly asked him to repeat himself.
Eventually, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s my accent, isn’t it? You need to learn Scottish!” His accent was strong, but that wasn’t the main problem. He also talked very fast, didn’t open his mouth and constantly mumbled and hesitated. So we worked on those issues. When he slowed down, articulated better and varied his delivery, I could understand him perfectly well and enjoyed his accent.
So the first voice principle is to be understood. Here are some basics to help you:
Speak at a steady pace. Slow down even more if your accent is unfamiliar to your listener.
Take good breaths to power your words and give them flow.
Relax – your voice will work much better if you’re not tense.
Open your mouth when you speak. Articulate the consonants clearly, and shape the vowels. Especially enjoy long consonants, as in magic and wonderful; and long vowels, as in vaast and cooool.
Emphasize the most important words in each sentence – the ones that really matter to the sense.
Vary your pitch. It’s much more difficult to understand the meaning if every word has the same emphasis and tone. It’s boring too.
SPEAK WITH FLOW
If you fear that you are not articulate, practice speaking in whole sentences and expressing your ideas clearly. To get used to a flow of words in everyday life, practice answering with more than a simple yes or no when people ask questions. Get used to making a sentence each time. Here is an example with three possible answers that are all more than just yes or no.
Do you like fish?
Yes, I do.
Yes, I love every kind of fish.
No, I’m not very fond of fish, to be honest.
To make a conversation flow, try adding a question back to the other person as part of your answer:
Do you like fish?
Yes, I do. I think I prefer it to meat. What about you?
Are you speaking at the meeting?
Yes, I’m speaking about the Africa Project. You were involved in organizing the finance for that, weren’t you?
If you find that you tend to hesitate and stumble when you speak, practice the following:
1. Ask yourself a question (or get a friend to ask you); for example, “Explain your work role to me”, or “What have you organized for your holiday this year?”
2. Answer the question out loud. It doesn’t matter if you hesitate or ramble a bit – this is your first reply.
3. Now ask yourself, “What were my main points?” Marshall your thoughts and give the second answer, shorter than the first one.
4. Ask yourself again, “What’s my main thrust?” This time make your answer even shorter and more to the point than before.
Gradually, you will find you get used to organizing your thoughts before you speak, to achieve greater eloquence and flow. This is a useful exercise not only for conversation but also for interviews, speaking in meetings and any occasion where you are called upon to express yourself without preparation.
GETTING RID OF USELESS FILLERS
Some of us pepper our conversation with little filler words and sounds like, you know, sort of, erm, well, what I’m trying to say is, um, you see, er . . . They can be persistent, and it’s quite difficult to eliminate them if you just try consciously to cut them out of your speech, as they slip in even before you’re aware of them. By focusing on other relevant elements of your speech the fillers will disappear on their own. For example:
Give yourself space to think before you reply. A thinking pause is good! Many people stumble because they rush into words before they’re ready. Take a deliberate full breath before each thought. Many filler sounds slip in when you run out of the air and take an extra snatched breath halfway through a sentence.
Use your air freely as you speak – don’t hold it back to make it last longer. Take a proper breath each time and breathe where you need to. Using lots of air gives your speech energy and direction.
Once again, slow down! This steadies your mind and gives it longer to formulate what you want to say. The more comfortable you are in your own shoes, the easier you will find it to be fluent. So relax, chill and give yourself a pat on the back to encourage yourself every time you manage a fluent sentence!
EXPRESSING INTEREST AND SOUNDING INTERESTING
Your voice has a much bigger role than merely shaping the words you want to say – its tone can express interest, passion, determination, excitement, uncertainty, caring and much more. It has enormous potential to express what you really intend and feel and to bring life to a conversation.
I was tremendously excited to be going to visit my daughter in Australia. I told a friend. She replied in a monotonous voice, “That’s great. I hope you have a good time.” I quickly passed on to other things, feeling unheard. Later, I told another friend my news. Her voice rose in enthusiasm. “Oh, that’s so exciting for you! That’s great. When do you go? I bet you can’t wait!” And through the liveliness and energy of her sound, I felt truly heard.
This is where little words come into their own. When I heard my friend’s high pitched, “Oh”, I heard that she shared my excitement. “Ooh” in “Ooh, I’ve just remembered something” gives a sense of urgency to the statement. “No!” in response to surprising negative news shares the speaker’s emotion without taking over the conversation yourself.
You may have one tone of voice that you use for everything. It will greatly help you connect in conversation if you are able to vary your voice according to what you are thinking and feeling. This is partly about learning how to use your voice in different ways – maybe from a voice coach or a course on voice – and partly about allowing yourself to take a risk and be more open, so that others can see and hear what is actually going on for you – your pleasure, anger, determination, passion and joy.
It’s good to remember that people can only connect with what they see, hear and feel – in other words, they only have externals to go on. They are not inside your head and heart. So when, for example, someone hears your voice, they interpret your message through your voice, whatever words you use.
If you say, “I care about you!” in a sharp voice, they interpret “sharp” and feel uncared for. If you say, “I want you to stop that immediately” in a high wavering voice, they interpret “wavering” and don’t take much notice. The Persian poet, Rumi, talks about “the enormous difference between light and the words that try to say light”.
It is so easy to betray meaning even when you don’t intend to. I heard a neighbor in the summer holidays ask her teenage daughter: “Are you going to stick at home or go out and get a job?” “Stick at home” was spoken in a dull low voice, and then her voice rose to an upbeat “get a job”, making it absolutely clear where her own preferences lay.
The sound is particularly important for building a connection. Many people would say that they notice people’s appearance more than their voice tone, but voice impacts strongly beneath conscious awareness. If a business-woman is calm, efficient, smart, emotionally intelligent and has a shrill voice, she probably won’t be seen as leadership material because of her voice jars with people’s idea of leadership.
Other reasons may well be given for the judgment, but her voice is key. Someone who mumbles is usually considered weak. You can be wonderfully empathetic, but if your voice is harsh, most people won’t consider you so.
The ability to adjust your voice subtly to tune into another person gives them a sense of connection with you more than almost any other factor. It’s well worth working on your voice to give yourself more flexibility and variety in how you speak to people.
Expressing you – body language
“She let her walking do her talking, She’s a brilliant conversationalist.” – T. Graham Brown, lyrics to Brilliant Conversationalist
You don’t need expansive gestures to converse, and in many cultures – China and Japan, for instance – people gesture little. But that does not mean that the body is not intimately involved in communication. Every actor knows that you use your whole body to express yourself, from the look in your eyes to the position of your feet. Everything about you says something:
Your posture suggests confidence and ease, openness and stillness – or the opposite. The balance of your body shows how grounded and calm you are. Gestures underline the sense of your words, support the voice and help you to explain abstract concepts. According to research by the psychologist Jana Iverson, they even help you to think.
You move more when you get animated and become still in quieter calmer moments.
Your breathing changes with your mood, faster for heightened emotion, slower for calmer moments.
Your eyes speak volumes – friendship, trust, fun, humor, seriousness, sadness, wisdom – they are truly the windows of the soul.
Your face expresses your thoughts and emotions as you frown, raise an eyebrow, tighten your lips, stiffen your jaw, soften your look or smile radiantly.
Your skin color may change as your state of mind changes – from pale when you are detached to colored when you are emotional or embarrassed.
Give your body language a workout. Imagine you have lost your voice temporarily, and need to communicate some information. Imagine how you would do this without your voice, using just your body – posture, gestures, movement, breathing, eye movements and facial expressions as described previously. Think up your own scene, or try one of these – all in silence!
You explain to the waiter that your coffee is cold and you’d like it replaced with a hot cup.
You thank your host warmly for his hospitality and explain that you can’t say it in words as you’ve lost your voice.
As someone steps into the room, you tell them in no uncertain terms that they cKiaraot come in and that this room is private.
In this exercise, most people are aware initially of the gestures and facial expressions they make in the effort to be understood. But notice too how much you use feelings and movements inside your body to convey your meaning. You won’t feel as much movement as this when you use your voice as well, but if you normally keep your body still, reflect on how much more you might use your body to add to your meaning.
Your body is always highly involved in your communication, even though sometimes the movements may be imperceptible.
You might think that body language is for the speaker to think about rather than the listener. But as a listener too, your body movements are vital to show the speaker that you are listening and understanding. The movements can be small, but without them the speaker will probably feel as if they are speaking into a vacuum. When you feel connected to the other person and relax, you move naturally.
Notice these and similar movements when you listen:
Your head leaning a little as you listen.
Nodding your head very slightly to show you agree or understand.
Shaking your head slowly in sympathy.
Smiling at times in encouragement.
Using your eyes and facial muscles to respond to what you are hearing.
Changes in your breathing as you respond in different ways.
Expressing you – your emotions “There can be no transforming of darkness into light or apathy into movement without emotion.” – Carl Jung
Voice tone and body language are the outward and visible signs of your inner energy, which is fuelled by your emotions. Emotions play an important part in conveying your meaning to the other person. If you keep your emotions locked away, you make it much more difficult for the other person to understand you. Yet many of us are so used to hiding our emotions that we do it instinctively, and so create a distance between ourselves and other people.
INFLUENCING WITH YOUR EMOTIONS
Emotions are highly influential. Once both of you are at ease in conversing with each other, emotions become “sticky”, and the other person catches your emotional energy. If you become passionate, the other person catches your passion. Your joy makes them joyful, your excitement energizes them and your stillness calms them. This is exactly how you inspire others – through feelings.
This only happens, though, if you genuinely feel those emotions yourself and allow the other person to witness you feeling them. And here’s the rub. For many of us, we have to feel very com fortable with another person before we allow them to see our emotions. Otherwise, we feel vulnerable and the risk seems too great.
An intelligent awareness of emotions is extremely useful in conversation. Let’s look at some of the ways here. When you are at ease, you put others at ease. Your emotional calm allows others to find a sense of calm too.
When you adapt emotionally to what is going on – i.e. show concern when someone is anxious, react in a lively way when someone is excited, and show strength when someone is aggressive – you get onto the other person’s wavelength and they feel understood. This helps the conversation to flow.
When you are able to read a mood, you are able to judge situations better and have more choices in how to respond. When you listen, listen to sounds as much as to words. Not everyone expresses emotion in the words they use.
The journalist Tim Dowling writes of taking a photo of his 18-year-old son all dressed up for the first time in a black jacket and tie ready for his school leaving the party. He takes the shot in the very same spot where his son had posted in his new uniform on his first day of primary school, years before.
Tim lines it all up, and his throat closes with emotion without warning. He blinks several times to get his swimming vision to hold still. “I’d better do another one,” he says. The words tell you nothing, but every parent of an 18-year-old would hear in the choked sound all the brimming emotions of the parent of a child on the cusp of adulthood. (The Guardian Weekend, 13 July 2013)
Expressing the real you
Connection at a deeper level happens when both people are authentic. To connect closely with someone they need to see you as you truly are, not as someone you are not. The greatest gift you can bring to a conversation is yourself. This is the most important and probably the scariest thing for you to know.
If you feel anxious or critical or not good enough, you pretend, thinking it won’t be noticed. But pretense puts up a barrier between you and other people, and they notice that something’s amiss. Your thoughts produce feelings; feelings leak out into voice and body language, and people pick it up.
Being yourself is not the same as selling yourself. Some presentation gurus recommend high-octane self-presentation of an image of power whenever you communicate. Though it’s good to feel alive, a presentation that is obviously a performance often creates resistance in listeners.
I recently watched a promotional video for Toastmasters, which showed a woman giving a speech in which she convinces everyone that an elaborate lie she is telling is the truth. It’s a tour de force and she is heralded as a great success. But, impressive as the feat might be, she fails to connect with her listeners. We can stand at a distance and admire her skill, but we don’t warm to her or give her our trust.
If you have the courage to be imperfect, you give others permission to make mistakes too, and then you can both be at ease. Letting go of who you think you should be, you open the way for kindness to yourself and others and they connect with the real you without your mask. It means not numbing yourself against the bad, but staying aware, sensitive, open to feeling, even if you find yourself blushing with self-consciousness or trembling with fear.
If vulnerability frightens you, know that it frightens everyone. Keep breathing and let time flow on. You are the most powerful and most alive when you are yourself. Being yourself you can connect in conversation with anybody. You can step into the unknown, and enjoy the wonder of discovery with another human being.
Sailing Through Tricky Waters
Sometimes the going gets tough. A conversation gets confusing or stuck, or you don’t like the direction it’s taking. You feel you’re not dealing with a real person or you suspect that they’re playing games with you. The other party gets difficult and you encounter conflict. In this blog, I look at some of the ways you can deal with problematic conversations.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU’RE STUCK
Find a positive state of mind
Maurice’s senior manager walked up to him at the conference and asked him how things were going.
“Fine,” answered Maurice, slightly embarrassed. “Good, good, that’s good,” muttered his manager after a short pause. “Everything’s okay then?”
“Er, yes, yes, it’s all going well, thanks,” stuttered Maurice.
“That’s good then, that’s good,” replied his manager, and he shuffled off. Afterward, Maurice exploded to his friend. “Honestly, what on earth was I meant to say? I felt so stupid! He just stood there and didn’t say anything.”
What do you do when the conversation splutters and dies or never actually gets going?
Remember that your brain is affected by how you feel. Maurice let himself feel intimidated. Keep breathing, it’ll help you think, and encourage yourself by remembering times when you have felt good and been in control.
Remind yourself of equality in conversation. If you have internal blocks such as “He’s senior to me, it’s his call,” or “He’s going to think me stupid,” you’ll feel daunted. Reassure yourself that you are an equal partner at this moment.
Remember that any simple question or remark can move the conversation forward – for example, “How are you finding the conference?” or even a weather remark: “Great day for the conference isn’t it?” or “Good to be inside on a rainy day like this, isn’t it?”
Stop faking it
Sometimes people get stuck because they decide to hide their ignorance and then can’t keep up the pretense.
Jake was talking to a client:
CLIENT: Of course, we’re now using telepresence
videoconferencing – so much more sophisticated.
JAKE: Yes, it’s definitely superior, isn’t it? (Thinks: What on earth is it?)
CLIENT: Which system do you favor?
JAKE: Well, I er, we er, . . .
So you’re stuck. It’s better to use the confident ignorance strategy – that is, to reveal that you don’t know but without being apologetic about it. For instance, “Tele-presence? That’s new, isn’t it? How are you finding it?”
At the other end of the spectrum from the awkward silence lies an equally disabling inability to stop talking – you start wittering and your words run away completely out of control. The tendency to witter comes from nervous tension – just as silence does. In this case, instead of shutting down your brain’s ability to think, the anxiety shuts down your ability to listen. So, to avoid those gaps where you might be expected to listen, your subconscious rushes you forward and your words tumble over each other.
If you have this tendency, then catch the following habit: “Stop, breathe, speak low and slow”:
1. As soon as you start to rush, say firmly to yourself “Stop!”
2. Then relax your shoulders and body and take a good breath.
3. Then slow down and speak with a deeper voice.
When you do this, you become calmer and your ability to listen to improves.
Know the rules of the game
Sometimes a conversation doesn’t work very well because the other person plays by different rules than you. The answer is often than to join them in their game! Ninety-year-old Harold received a phone call from his friend Roy who was in the hospital. Harold’s daughter heard about the call and asked her father how Roy was.
“He didn’t tell me,” replied Harold.
“Well, didn’t you ask him?” enquired his daughter. “No, I didn’t like to pry,” responded Harold. “He’d have told me if he wanted me to know.”
His unspoken rule was that you don’t ask questions. If you waited to be asked a question to tell him something, you’d wait forever!
Harold’s son-in-law was fed-up with being “talked at” every time he met his father-in-law. So he tried breaking in with his own subjects and was pleasantly surprised to find that Harold was very happy to listen. He’d assumed that Harold had no interest in other people, when in fact he was just reticent about asking questions.
Some people ask questions, some don’t; some dislike being interrupted while others expect it and enjoy the energy of mutual interrupting. Judge the moment; be attentive to the other person’s reaction and find out what works.
Flexibility is exactly what you need when a conversation becomes difficult. Basically, if it’s not working, do something different! If your contributions to a conversation are always statements, try a question instead. If you mostly find yourself asking questions of the other person, practice creating statements instead.
The more you can adjust your behavior without losing your sense of who you are, the better you make a connection, even in trickier circumstances. If you can speak tough to match toughness, and gentle to match gentleness at the appropriate time, the other person will feel you’ve got the measure of them and be easier to deal with.
If you encounter difficulties, you might like to imagine yourself in a different role from the one you actually hold. If you want to stand up to a strong personality, for instance, imagine yourself in a more senior position and speak and act accordingly.
Neville was generally a kind and mild-mKiaraered man, and people were surprised that he seemed more successful than his colleagues at standing up to a domineering boss. One day I asked him, “How do you do it? You don’t seem domineering, yet the boss listens to you.” “I’ll tell you,” he said “and don’t laugh.
It’s very simple. I just imagine that I’m a lion whenever I go into his office. I saw some incredible animals out in the Masai Mara – they’re still and powerful – and I just get a sense of that before I go into our boss’s den.” He smiled. “But I wouldn’t want everyone to know that,” I promised to keep his secret (and I’ve changed his name!).
OILING THE WHEELS
Sometimes, you’re not completely stuck in a conversation, but it’s not really flowing either and you need some backup tools. So here are a few to try:
Comment on what you’ve already heard You can hark back to the other person’s previous statement and make a comment about it to show that you are still interested.
Stephanie was telling Kevin about her safari trip to Tanzania. She came to a pause, and concluded, “So all in all we had a great time.” There followed a silence that seemed to go on a bit too long. So Kevin made a general comment on what Stephanie had said so far to prompt her:
Sounds as if it was one of your best trips ever?
Stephanie replied, “Oh, yes it was!” and immediately thought of something else she wanted to say about the trip.
Kevin could also have asked a question about a previous comment to elicit more detail:
What was it like, being so close to the animals?
Tell me, what was it like, camping out in the wild?
Imagine for yourself various questions you could ask. The same openings can be used in many different contexts:
What’s it like? What was it like when you . . .?
Tell me about it? Tell me about . . .
How is it? How was it?
How did it feel, when you . . .?
Prompting is especially useful if the other person is struggling to articulate what they’d like to say. It shows your interest and often triggers interesting fresh information even after they appear to have finished.
Encouraging nods and grunts
Sometimes a conversation falters because of lack of positive feedback. I coached a team leader who hated conference calls because they meant she had to speak into a void without the feedback of seeing anyone’s response as she spoke. Most people find it much easier to speak if they know that the other person is attending to what they have to say.
A face-to-face conversation can feel like talking into a vacuum if the other person fails to give signals that they have heard you. If I Kiaraounce to someone that I’m thrilled to have just won a competition, I appreciate some little noise to show that the other person has heard and noted my comment.
Just a brief “Oh great!” or “Good!” will do – or even a cheerful grunt! It’s surprising how encouraging non-verbal sounds can be in showing speakers that they’re being listened to and understood. Try “yeh?”, “uh-huh”, “oh”, “mmm” and “yay!” – all gold-dust noises! Body language – a smile or nod – works well too. Turning or looking away has the opposite effect, even if you are listening well.
We all behave differently with different people. You may play mad games with your children and suffer their jokes at your expense first thing in the morning, and then later stride confidently into the office as a powerful determined executive and play that role until the end of the working day. But if you stick to a limited role and leave too much of the real you at home, you severely limit the possibilities in your interactions and things get stuck.
Jack, head of an engineering company, lived quite a chaotic and unsatisfying personal life. He didn’t believe in bringing his home self into the office, and thought it nobody’s business what he did outside work. His employees knew little about him. He, in turn, was not interested in their lives, and didn’t encourage casual chat in the office.
His conversations were always focused on the task at hand – and never on his relationship with the person he was talking to. His team thought that in many ways he was good at his job, but he often encountered problems with staff through failing to understand their motivation or attitude. They found him hard to relate to, because he left so much of himself at the door as he entered his office. Moreover, as he didn’t value genuine relationships at work, they felt deep down that he didn’t value them.
Playing a role has some advantages in a work environment – relationships appear clear and tidy in their hierarchies and everyone knows where they stand. But the rigid rules crush the possibilities of genuine open conversation and relationships fail to thrive.
It serves anyone to come out from behind their role and be real so that genuine connection can take place.
Greg Dyke, former Director General of the BBC, was immensely popular with staff and inspired fierce loyalty. When he was forced out of the BBC after the Hutton inquiry, thousands of staff paid for an advert in a national newspaper supporting him, and over 1000 of them sent emails begging him to stay.
At his departure, several hundred staff, many of them in tears, turned up to cheer him. Dyke commented afterward, “I don’t think they are protesting. They just want to say they are sad. Leading organizations is all about the relationship between people.”
A colleague who was a fairly lowly member of Dyke’s staff at that time told me that employees loved his open management style. He frequently moved around in the organization meeting people, always ready to have a conversation with anybody. She herself had chatted with him and found him interested and engaged. “He treated me as an equal,” she said.
Risking the person provides the way not only to better connection but also to a whole list of benefits. Chatting to people is a way to keep your ear to the ground, to hear what is going on behind the scenes and pick up the underlying state or culture in a group or company. In a casual chat, you pick up important information and new ideas. You learn more about people’s talents, potential, experience, and skills.
You may wonder whether mild-mKiaraered Laura would cope with more responsibility at work, but hearing how she fought with the authorities to gain a good education for her disabled child, you realize that she has hidden strengths as yet untried in the workplace.
When you chat with laid-back Dan at the Christmas party and discover that he’s raised thousands in funds for his daughter’s riding charity, you recognize there’s more to him than meets the eye. At the same time, as employees hear about their leader’s humorous struggles with navigation on a boating holiday, they warm to his openness and humility.
Casual, open conversation is great for trust building, and from trust comes loyalty, as my friend Helen confirmed. At one time she had a job working for a boss with whom she had an excellent relationship. He trusted her to work at home when she needed to concentrate on particular projects, and she put in a lot of overtime to do an excellent job.
A new manager who followed him chatted with nobody, trusted nobody, and insisted that Helen stay in the office and account for every moment of her time. “I gave up working hard then,” Helen confessed. “If he couldn’t trust me, he lost my loyalty.”
You motivate people by understanding them, and there’s nothing like a casual chat for finding out what makes people tick. You can then acknowledge them in the way they like to be acknowledged, and get the best from your relationship. If people chat to each other at work, it brings them together and builds a sense of common purpose.
When you meet people at your most genuine, you find the genuine in them. Cecile is a development and learning manager in a million.
Responsible for a large number of employees, she has chatted one-to-one with most of them, and really knows each one and what they need. As a result, her members of staff are working to their full potential, and feel motivated and recognized. Her work is not showy – she just relates to individuals and responds to their needs. But it’s transforming her company and producing great results.
SPOTTING THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
As you connect with someone in conversation your trust in each other gradually develops as the conversation proceeds. However, sometimes people act as if they are connecting when they are only pretending, and with this false connection they play all mKiaraer of games.
If someone is playing a game with you, you might feel uncomfortable and then attribute the reason to your own failings in conversation. So it’s good to be able to recognize when someone is playing a game and have counter-moves ready.
The status game
Keith Johnstone includes a blog on status in Impro, his book on improvisation for actors. In observing people he noticed how status plays a major part in the human conversation and he describes how humans play complex games of one-upmanship that are constantly fluctuating and readjusting.
Someone’s status often accords with their role in real life, so you’d expect someone with social prominence, wealth and education to have high status; but it doesn’t necessarily work like that. A condescending waiter may at that moment be high status while his customer, an awkward professor, is low status.
It is a high status to top someone’s comment with a superior comment of the ”my boat/house/salary’s bigger than yours” variety. It’s also high status to play “one-downmanship”, where you claim that your misfortune is worse than the other person’s. For example, “You may have had a hernia operation, but I actually died for several seconds on the operating table.” Low status is played out in agreeing, paying deference and being subservient to the high-status player.
Status games are incredibly common in conversation. Human interaction is seldom neutral in terms of status, and in conversation people constantly adjust their status in relation to each other. Many conversations are subtle power plays with each player jockeying for position whilst attempting to disguise their ploys.
Every player is trying to win the game, and that involves creating losers. Such conversations can seem like normal social intercourse, but there’s a competitive current constantly running underneath that under a guise of pleasantness can become quite nasty.
You weave intricate webs when you play status games. If you win a point too comprehensively, other people in the conversation may gang together to isolate you, and then you have to make a low-status comment to get back in the game again.
Here’s a conversation where new acquaintances are discussing holidays.
Kiara: Where did you go this year? We tried Rimini – nice safe beaches for the kids.
Jane: We always go to Greece – the coastline’s just stunning, full of beautiful inlets only accessible by boat.
(Slightly higher status – that “stunning” tops “nice and safe”, and “only accessible by boat” sounds superior too.)
CATHY: Oh, we abandoned Greece a few years ago when we discovered the Maldives – it puts everywhere else completely in the shade! We spend a good part of every summer there now and just don’t bother with Europe anymore.
(Too strong higher status.)
Kiara: (With a little laugh) Well, we don’t all get six weeks holiday to go gallivanting off all over the place – some of us work, you know.
(Blocking the high status.)
Jane: Did you know the Maldives are drowning – your hotel will be knee deep in water before long! (Supporting the block with a joking put-down.)
Kiara and Sara laugh. (Conspiracy against Cathy.)
CATHY: Oh well, I’d never run down the Mediterranean. I’ve always had a lot of fun in the Med.
(Goes lower status to adjust and re-enter the group.)
Keith Johnstone describes the significance of body language in status games. High-status players take up a lot of space, move deliberately and hold strong eye contact. Low-status players shrink into a small space; constantly fidget with their hair or face, make small meaningless noises, and glance briefly at you, then glance away.
Some people play the game in an obvious way with big power gestures. Others play a hidden game, with subtle power shifts, in flux all the time. In some small groups, the interplay of shifting status is as complex as a game of chess!
Choose a time when you can observe other people, and notice the status games they play.
Look out for the following:
How body language underlines status and supports status comments.
How a high-status player sometimes drops to a lower status to maintain the connection.
How some couples adopt consistent roles, one high status, the other low.
How people switch alliances in a group to maintain the balance of the conversation in terms of status.
Once you recognize the game, you’ll see it everywhere. And fortunately, once spotted, it loses its hold over you. Instead of getting upset or irritated at a comment, you find yourself nodding internally and thinking, “Oh, that old status game”, without being riled by it. Recognizing the game, you can also avoid playing the status the other person expects of you. Every high-status player trying to dominate the conversation is looking for a low-status player to be subservient. You can reject that role.
The manipulation game
Sales manuals have always suggested ways to manipulate people through conversation. One of the ways people are manipulated is through their unwillingness to break certain accepted codes of conduct. Some salespeople don’t play by the same social rules as the rest of us and exploit people’s goodwill.
As soon as you suspect that someone is using a sales technique rather than taking part in a genuine conversation, put up your guard and stop considering the exchange a conversation, because it isn’t – it’s a sales pitch. The rules are different.
First, practice spotting sales voices on the phone. When you receive a call, see how quickly you can tell if it’s a sales pitch. Listen out for an instantly bright, brisk-paced voice right from the start, and regularity in the pitch and pace. Then contrast that with your experience when a friend calls – pay attention to their voice tone, speed, and flow – notice how much less regular it is. What else can you notice?
A salesperson asks you various questions aiming to lead to a final yes from you. Customers who don’t like to be impolite by saying no to every question find themselves cornered into saying yes at the end. To play your side of the game – not to be sold to if you don’t want to – you don’t need to block with a series of no’s and feel impolite doing it. Instead, answer briskly and positively, very happy to agree but never to be convinced. Here’s a car salesperson in action:
Have you had your current vehicle for some time?
(Brightly) Yes, I have.
Have you considered changing it at all?
Oh yes, wouldn’t that be nice!
Have you seen our current range of fuel-efficient models with the latest features?
Yes, they’re wonderful aren’t they? Things are changing so fast!
Could I interest you in a tour of our various new models? (Brightly) Absolutely not! But thank you! Cars are completely off my agenda for the foreseeable future. Thank you so much for offering to show me your range. You don’t sell Persian rugs, do you?
Agreement without being convinced takes the wind out of their sails. They can’t push and persuade if you refuse to play their game. Changing the subject at the end isn’t a bad move either!
Conversations sometimes get stuck in a groove when two participants play the same tune over and over again. For example, one partner plays bully and the other victim, and time and again, over the years, their conversations slip into that groove:
Aren’t you ready yet?
Yes, sorry, I’m almost ready.
Why does it always take you so long, it’s ridiculous.
I won’t be a minute. Sorry to keep you.
Just get your act together can’t you? I’m going without you; I can’t be bothered with this. Oh, please wait.
Or one person always acts helpless, and the other person regularly comes to the rescue.
I just can’t manage this anymore. I’m hopeless. (Opening gambit in a familiar whining voice.)
Of course, you’re not hopeless. Let me do it. (Familiar collusion.)
If the second person stopped colluding in the habitual dance, they might say instead:
Do you have a problem? What would you like me to do about it?
Thus forcing the first person to abandon their whining child role.
The “Yes but” game is a familiar one to a lot of people. A rescuer offers help and advice to a victim, and is continually rebutted by “yes but”.
I can’t find a job. I’ve looked everywhere.
Have you tried the Internet?
Yes, but ours is always crashing. Have you tried down at the library?
Yes, but their opening hours have been restricted with all these government cuts.
What about going to an Internet café?
Yes, but I’m not made of money – have you forgotten I’m out of work?
Usually the questioner just gives up defeated or makes a summarizing comment about how hard it is to get jobs these days. And the victim has won – again.
Eric Berne describes various such stuck roles in his book Games People Play. He suggests that at different times people act like adult, child or parent. To the simple question, “Are you joining us for dinner in town tonight?” one person might answer straightforwardly like an adult: “Yes, I’d like to” or “No, I’m afraid I can’t.” Another person might act like a child: “Why? Do you think I can’t manage on my own?” A third person might act as a parent, treating the other person like a child: “You’d save your money if you ate at home more often.”
Many people carry on for years thinking they’re having unique conversations when they’re playing an old familiar game. The biggest leap to escape from this is to realize you are playing a game.
How can you tell if you’re in a role game? Ask yourself:
Is this familiar – or even boring? Have I been here before?
How do we get to this point every time? What sets it off?
What do I say or do that slots me into the familiar role?
Then, think of two or three alternatives to try instead. If you change your behavior, you’ll get a different result.
Naming the game
Another way to counteract such games is to step outside the matrix and name the game. For example, “I’ve asked you three questions, and each time you have answered, ‘yes, but’.”
I was working on a new initiative with a group of managers I hadn’t met before, and whatever subject I introduced they responded with little energy, not pronounced enough for me to call it laziness or rebellion, but not focused or engaged. In the end, I stopped in my tracks and got everyone’s attention.
“There’s something here that I’m not getting,” I told them. “What’s the elephant in the room?” After a bit of shuffling and muttered nothings, one of them spoke up. “We haven’t anything against you,” she said. “It’s just we shouldn’t be doing this work. It’s being forced on us, and a lot of us a very angry about it.” As soon as they were honest with me, we were able to find a way forward.
Naming what you perceive can often unblock a conversation that has got stuck. If one party is hiding a strong emotion, it’s often useful to name what you notice without accusation: “I’m aware that you are sounding flat. What’s that about?” Or, “I’m feeling stuck in this conversation. Are you feeling that too?”
This can be especially useful if the other person is mocking, belittling, or being cynical or sarcastic. You may try confronting the behavior and they refuse to be pinned down. “Of course I wasn’t being sarcastic – can’t you take a joke?” If that happens, name specifically what you perceived: “You did or said specifically this, and I made the following meaning from it. This is what is going on.”
“There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.” – Michel de Montaigne
You may feel that any disagreement in conversation is going to be disagreeable or even dangerous, but conversation devoid of disagreement can be boring and bland. Some of the most lively and enjoyable dialogues can be based on disagreement – my recent chat with Polly for instance:
“I love Art Deco,” proclaimed Polly enthusiastically.
“You don’t!” I exclaimed in disbelief. “All that crude color and cubist look – it has no soul!”
“Soul’s exactly what it has got,” laughed Polly. “Clarice Cliff’s designs just sing! Have you really looked at them?”
“Well, maybe I haven’t really looked at them!” I admitted. “But give me the fine lines and simple elegance of Japanese pottery every time! Do you know the work of Keiko Matsui? It’s glorious! Much better than old Clarice Cliff!”
And so we happily continued.
The actor Al Pacino, who played the “Godfather” in films, once told an interviewer that the worst thing about being famous was that people were always nice to him. Whatever he said in conversation, however crazy, people would just agree. He craved someone who would just for once tell him something he didn’t want to hear.
But maybe for you, the thought of disagreement in conversation creates tension. You fear that if you disagree with someone they’ll insult you and create conflict – or that the person will strike back verbally and you’ll get upset yourself. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience of attempting to disagree with someone who then laid into you as if your remark were an invitation to mortal combat.
It’s certainly true that cultures around the world operate differently when it comes to disagreement, and what is the norm in the US, for instance, might create offense in some Pacific countries. But even if culture is an issue, that doesn’t mean that you are condemned always to agree with people – there are ways to disagree that minimize conflict.
Understand this important truth: good connection is not the same as agreement. You can disagree without losing connection.
We’ve already discovered that connection depends more on your tone of voice and body language than on the content of your conversation. If you maintain a good connection with another person you can say what is true for you and not offend. My conversation about Art Deco with my friend was sparky and fun because we maintained connection and looked at each other and laughed even as we disagreed about the content of our discussion.
The danger is that feeling awkward about disagreeing, many people disagree both verbally and with their voice and body language. They stiffen, fold their arms, hunch over and turn their head away, and then either say nothing or speak in a strained tight voice that breaks all rapport with the other person. Alternatively, they retaliate violently. No wonder they cause a negative reaction!
Here’s a different tactic. Try this example:
Imagine someone has just told you in an emphatic upbeat voice that Manchester United have the best team ever this season and you strongly disagree.
Breathe, relax and turn towards them, keeping your body language open and mirroring their energy. Make your voice tone and speed similar to theirs, as you put your own point: “Oh, do you think so? I put my money on Chelsea – a phenomenal team this season!”
So you go with the other person’s energy (without copying their mood if it is negative), and this allows the conversation to flow from one person to the other, even though you are expressing differences. Find an occasion where you can experiment with disagreeing in this way. Most people who try it say that it spices up a conversation and turns it into a genuine discussion as different points of view are aired.
Try it out. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
In disagreement, disagree with the content; agree with voice tone and body language. Follow the energy.
By the way, you’ll find this skill invaluable in close personal relationships. Any long-standing relationship that never has disagreements is probably stagnating or not as close as it might be. You build closeness in a relationship by disagreeing at times without losing connection. As the poet David Whyte said, “Hey, you can’t walk away, I’m angry with you and that means we have a relationship.”
Conversations that deal with our areas of disagreement help us to be ourselves, to grow and be accountable, and give others the positive message that we think they are strong enough to deal with challenges. That’s all great for a relationship.
It’s one thing to disagree casually in conversation; it’s a higher order of challenge to initiate difficult conversations and deliberately confront someone when you need to. You may be tempted to ignore difficulties when you first notice them, but it’s easiest to address them before they fester and grow. As you become more skilled in conversation you find that issues that might have been difficult in the past no longer trouble you, as by good listening, showing respect and building connection, you diffuse tricky situations before they have a chance to occur.
Sometimes, however, the situation is too important, the differences too great and the emotions run too strong. Then you need some additional strategies.
The basics remain the same whether you are dealing with minor or major disagreement. You give the other person respect and courtesy bytuning into them with your tone of voice and body language, while you address the content of the difficult issue.
Handling feelings with skill
If a conversation is confrontational, it’s especially important to be comfortable with your own feelings. What looks on the surface like a disagreement over a decision or a point of logic can actually feel like an attack on your sense of self, and the feelings this provokes can be the biggest threat to a positive outcome.
Feelings have a nasty habit of leaking out and becoming visible to the other person, even as you try your hardest to hide them.
Anger can make you want to put all the problem on the other person and fight, and then you end up accusing and criticizing or insisting and blaming.
Feeling bad about yourself can make you give up and surrender, or avoid issues.
Fear can make you freeze emotionally, so you do and say nothing or retreat.
Your feelings can prevent you from focusing and listening properly. Shutting down is no answer, so what can you do?
Focus on yourself for a moment:
Stay open and real. Keep breathing! Of course, you have emotions. You may be feeling fearful, angry, worried or upset. By recognizing those emotions, they lose their power to surprise you.
As you breathe, realize that there is no need either to be roused to hostility or to appease weakly. You can respond as you wish, and that includes telling the other person what you are feeling without being overwhelmed by the emotion. As a strong or violent emotion comes your way, imagine it flowing past you, or flowing through you straight down into the earth without affecting you.
Checking your assumptions
Your chances of success are significantly increased if you challenge your own negative assumptions beforehand. For example: You may assume that there’s always a winner and a loser in a confrontation, and therefore do everything you can to win. With this assumption, you stride into the conversation with a look that says, “Let the battle commence!” If you do adopt this confrontational stance you’ll probably both end up losing.
Think instead in terms of win-win. With skill, you can address the problem as if you side by side looking at it together. The problem is then neither you nor the other person, but an issue to solve together.
Think ahead of time about what you want from the conversation. Have a vision both of an outcome acceptable to both of you and of a positive future working relationship. Aim for a conversation where you’ll look back and be pleased with your behavior.
If you aim to beat your opponent into the ground, you might win a round in a battle, but you certainly won’t win long term. When historians look back at the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, they realize that the harsh and humiliating terms exacted on Germany created the conditions for the rise of Nazism, and another world war followed in less than 20 years.
You may assume you’re 100% right and the other person 100% wrong. As Harry Wormwood said to Mathilda in Roald Dahl’s famous story, “Listen, you little wiseacre: I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong.” And you might add, “I’m good, you’re bad; I’m innocent, you’re guilty.” But things are rarely black and white. With this kind of thinking you assume there’ll be opposition from the other side, and treat the other person as an enemy from the start, creating an instant defensive reaction.
You may not be to blame in the least, but still, the unique relationship between you and the other person is usually a factor, so recognize that you’re involved. If you were someone else it wouldn’t be the same; if you acted differently it wouldn’t be the same. A conversation of this kind is always a negotiation and the answer is never between black and white, but a different, creative solution built on “both-and”.
You may make negative assumptions because of the history of your relationship with the other person. It’s as if the other person can’t ever tell you anything new because you have already written the script. You then treat your own views and assumptions as immutable facts rather than the personal frame of existence that they are.
In any kind of confrontation or negotiation, see the other party as if for the first time. Use your eyes, ears and feelings afresh to capture what is happening in the present. Stay in the now, and gently deter your thoughts from drifting to past injuries or future negative imaginings.
To help you handle the situation well, replace unhelpful assumptions with positive ones:
1. Assume the other person has a positive intention However unacceptable the behavior, they are trying to achieve an intention that makes sense to them. For example:
Their strong desire to get a task done might be the “good” intention that underlies overbearing and bullying behavior.
A “good” desire to be acknowledged by other people may result in unpleasant attention-seeking behavior.
A “good” desire to do things correctly may make the person picky and pedantic.
A “good” intention to look competent may result in face-saving behavior and deceit.
If you can intuit a person’s underlying positive intention you hold the key to understanding their motivation and getting the outcome you want. Curiosity is what is needed here. Instead of criticism and condemnation, try the spirit of inquiry.
To find the other person’s positive intention, ask yourself:
What does the other person get out of this negative behavior?
How are they interpreting this situation?
What matters to them in this? What does it do for them?
Which of their values may I be trampling on in this situation?
If you can let go of your own certainties a little and move towards an attitude of curiosity you will discover positive ways to proceed.
2. Assume that you have what is needed to deal with the situation
Remind yourself that a life without differences and disagreements doesn’t exist! Ask yourself what will give you the highest chance of helping and the least chance of doing harm in this situation.
Remind yourself that the truth is ultimately best for both parties. Continuing with important issues not faced, bad performance unmentioned, irritation not aired or lies not confronted just perpetuates a state of affairs that is negative and stuck. Remind yourself of your trust in yourself – that you are okay, competent, deserving and sufficient to the task. You are all of that.
During his long years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was masterly at arguing with his warders without threatening their dignity or integrity. He was an inspiring example of the weak speaking to the strong. He had no clout in prison whatsoever. But he connected with them very quietly and they would relax and listen, and then they couldn’t avoid understanding his argument. Even the most hardened warders were susceptible to his arguments when he sat down and talked to them.
3. Assume success
Take on the belief that there are always things to agree about; it’s just a matter of extending those areas of agreement. When you assume positive intent on the part of the other party, you can find out what matters to them. For example, if you ask one faction in a violent conflict, “What do you want?” the exchange might go like this:
What do you want?
More arms and military equipment.
What is your positive intention in acquiring more arms?
To protect the population.
And what is your positive intention in protecting the population?
Eventually, you reach a statement with which you both agree and that becomes your starting place for negotiation.
George Mitchell was a brilliant negotiator who played a large part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. Upon receiving the Liberty Medal for his services in 1998, he stated, “I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.
No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.” Think about taking such strong belief into negotiations, and how it might increase your determination and perseverance during the process, and influence the eventual outcome!
Taking the initiative
So, having taken into consideration how to approach conflict issues, what do you actually say when you want to confront someone personally? You’ll find it helpful to include each of the following elements:
Identify the specific issue without any interpretation or evaluation of motives. Use personal language for your own part in it: “I saw”, “I heard”, “X told me” etc.
Voice your own perceptions of the behavior, making it clear that they are your own personal interpretation/meaning: “It seems to me”, “It appears to me”, “It felt to me that”.
Invite the other person to tell their side of the story, listening carefully with respect and inviting them to join you in finding the truth. “What happened from your point of view?”
Whatever the response, stay firm and positive in your intention to move towards a resolution of the situation.
Explain what you’d like to happen as a result of your conversation. Don’t assume that you can change the other person’s mind, but your mutual understanding of the different points of view will help you reach a result that satisfies both of you. Check finally that you are both in agreement about the way forward.
Here’s an example, pared down to its basics:
“When you suggested to the board that I wasn’t interested in leading the project, my perception was that you were deliberately trying to humiliate me.”
“How do you see what happened?” (Listen and respond.)
“You’ve explained that you didn’t mean to give that impression. So I’d like to ask you to put the account straight at the next meeting, and explain that the suggestion I wasn’t interested didn’t come from me.”
Then you seek agreement and move into your concluding remarks.The power of confrontation lies in its simplicity, and in how you connect with the person as you say what needs to be said.
Stay flexible and quick on your feet – you can’t just stick rigidly to this or any other prepared text. Really listen and respond to the other person’s replies. Ask open questions. Acknowledge what you can – for example, the other person’s right to perceive things as they see them, their right to their feelings and their personal set of values. And also acknowledge to yourself that you can’t know exactly what the other person is thinking or feeling or why they think and feel as they do.
Once you feel confident to address issues as they arise, you will probably discover just how many opportunities you’ve missed in the past by not wanting to confront people. All the breaches of trust, withheld information, incompetence, missed promises, deceits, sub-standard performance, rudeness . . . When you feel confident to deal with issues while they’re still small, you’re much more in control of your life.
CHANGING THE WORLD ONE CONVERSATION AT A TIME
“Remember that what gets talked about and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen. And that we succeed or fail, gradually then suddenly, one conversation at a time.” – Susan Scott
What we talk about and how we talk about it matters. Honest, energized conversations are the way to change the world. That’s how it has always happened. Thomas Edison was recorded chatting with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone (of the Tire and Rubber Company) back in 1931. He said,
“We should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy – sun, wind, and tide . . . I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.” This is how ideas build momentum – a conversation here, a conversation there – especially when the speakers have influence.
Whenever talented people are thrown together, ideas are born and grow. Almost 500 years ago, informal conversations sprang up in London in new coffee houses where men met to discuss the future of society and politics. Their influence became so powerful that they were shut down for a while in the eighteenth century when the government of the day felt threatened.
The conversation has always been the crucible for new thinking, and many new ideas emerged from coffeehouse discussions, including the founding of the Royal Society, a great supporter of innovation. At Royal Society gatherings, a fascinating cross-section of famous thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and Karl Marx, discussed the ideas of the day.
Some of the most important recent discoveries in science have come about through conversations between different disciplines, both in funded ventures and outside formal chKiaraels. The discovery of DNA resulted from conversations between Crick, a biophysicist, and Watson, a biologist. MRI scKiaraing became possible through the coming together of an American chemist, Paul Lauterbur and an English physicist, Peter Mansfield.
The whole area of cognitive science – combining psychology, linguistics, computer science, philosophy and neurobiology, with the help of medical PET scans and CAT scans – is a huge conversation between scientists from different fields. Interdisciplinary research is now given prominence in many universities.
You might say that Silicon Valley owes its entire existence to a private conversation between eight frustrated, energetic and creative young men in 1957. They were all working at the time for the Nobel Prize winning, but impossible, boss, William Shock-ley, and all were demotivated. One evening, downhearted, the “traitorous eight” met at the house of one of them to talk about what to do next.
Without any very clear idea, they made the decision to find some way to work together as a group. Later, they met up with advisors who told them about a novel idea called venture capital, which eventually gave them the backing to start their own company. If you trace back, that first conversation of the eight brilliant but disgruntled employees eventually left a legacy of several hundred companies in Silicon Valley and a trail of world-changing inventions including laptops, ATMs, and iPhones.
Conversation is about the connection in more than one sense. When two or more people connect in conversation, they often make intuitive creative connections that spark new ideas.
Dr Rafat Ansari, a scientist doing research for NASA, was talking to his father who suffered from cataracts when he suddenly made an important connection. He was working at that time with fluid physics experiments conducted by astronauts in space, which included work with small particles suspended in liquids.
In a flash of insight, he suddenly realized that his father’s eye disease was also about small particles suspended in liquids, and wondered if an instrument being developed as part of the NASA experiment might be able to detect cataracts, possibly earlier than ever before. He followed up his hunch, and the instrument is now used to assess the effectiveness of new therapies for early stages of cataract development and has been adapted to identify other eye diseases, diabetes and possibly even Alzheimer’s.
Oxford dons of very different subjects found an important link between the unlikely bedfellows of space science and archaeology through the glorious serendipity of a casual common-room conversation. As a result, multispectral imaging methods developed by NASA for seeing and understanding the Martian surface were applied to some badly charred Roman manuscripts, found buried by the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79. The space technology made the ancient material readable for the first time.
Now the same process is being used to examine formerly illegible Egyptian finds, including plays of Sophocles and Euripides, poems of Pindar and Sappho, and a gospel of Thomas thought by some to be more authentic than the New Testament Gospels. Who would have thought of making that connection?
History shows us that political conversation has power. We read of battles and wars, treaties and taxes; but, as Hilary Mantel points out in Wolf Hall, change happens through conversations: “The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp, and processions.
This is how the world changes.” An empire collapses, a war is averted; a new nation is born without blood-shed; behind many of the extraordinary changes in the world lie private conversations between people of influence or even private individuals.
In South Africa in 1989, with Nelson Mandela still in prison, F. W. de Klerk became the leader of the National Party and cordially invited Mandela to tea. The two men connected: de Klerk said that his purpose in that first meeting was to get to know Mandela, and he found a man whose integrity he could trust, with an aura of calmness and authority.
“I sort of liked him,” he said. Change becomes possible when people connect and find they share values. That first conversation spelled the beginning of the end of apartheid. Six weeks after their meeting, de Klerk became president and unconditionally released most ANC prisoners. After further “friendly” meetings with Mandela, he released him and legalized all formerly bKiaraed political parties. The new South Africa was born.
Sometimes a conversation takes place almost by accident to change the course of history. One May day in 1983, Canadian former cabinet minister Eugene Whelan was very late to a dinner party he had organized for Soviet Union dignitaries including Mikhail Gorbachev and Aleksandr Yakovlev, the Soviet Ambassador to Canada.
It was a period in which the Cold War was at its most icy; President Reagan had just referred to the USSR as “that evil empire”. Gorbachev and Yakovlev decided to take a walk while they waited for their host. “At first we kind of sniffed around each other and our conversation didn’t touch on serious issues,” claimed Yakovlev later.
And then, gradually, in a conversation that lasted three hours, they somehow threw caution to the winds and became very frank and open with each other. They poured out all their hopes and fears and came to an agreement on a number of main points that sowed the seeds of perestroika and glasnost.
Very shortly after their chat, Yakovlev was invited back home to the USSR to take charge of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. When Gorbachev became head of the Soviet Union a couple of years later, Yakovlev became of one of his chief advisors in implementing perestroika and glasnost.
How did it happen? Certainly, it needed time for them to get to know and trust each other. Certainly, the situation was so bad that eventually they showed their true emotions and spoke from the heart. Maybe both realized that through serendipity they had been thrown a now-or-never opportunity.
Voice of the people
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
When nations allow democratic conversations, change is inevitable. No wonder free conversation is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. Maybe it is impossible to silence talk completely. Cicero claimed that conversation, being so transient, was impossible to censor and the essence of free speech.
The American Revolution was simmering away in sewing-circle chat across America well before the War of Independence. The principles of the constitution were created first in committees of correspondence that grew up organically across the continent. In France, revolutionary fervor in Paris grew from conversations outside in the cafés and inside in the salons well before it exploded into popular revolt. Listen to the conversations of today and you can predict tomorrow.
In our own day, the conversation has gone global. For the first time in history, we can create conversations about issues at the heart of our human existence and they spread at high speed around the planet. While politicians in their parliaments are often still posturing and sticking to party lines or vote-winning arguments, passionate people across the globe are creating important conversations using new technologies. They are listening to each other, touching and influencing each other, and joining forces to create a better world.
Every great environmental campaign or social change starts with a conversation between a very few people. The conversation opens anywhere – in people’s homes, in offices, cafés and pubs, or in virtual space. As a result of the conversation, people come together with passion and more people join in to create change.
Such conversations are possible when they adopt the best aspects of face-to-face conversations – becoming curious about each other, listening actively, speaking with courtesy, allowing vulnerability, seeking to connect and understand. If we wish to avoid the violence and massive inequality of our century, it’s of the utmost importance to keep the conversation going – to overcome our fears and keep the chKiarael open between us; to be willing always to engage in dialogue.
Online discussions are gaining momentum due to social media. One powerful example is the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, which has brought together 12 different human rights organizations in the USA, who are able to work collaboratively partly as the result of social media.
Another is Avaaz, a global web movement with more than 28 million members, bringing the voice of ordinary people to political decision-making everywhere. TED Conversations, linked to the highly successfully TED Talks, provide a social media platform for online conversations with a time limit to keep them focused and meaningful. Currently, they have more than 15 million monthly users.
The world has always changed through conversations between people who care and think something matters enough to take steps together to change the status quo. This applies to climate change and world peace and it applies equally to family harmony and children’s happiness. When you get to know someone personally, through conversation, you are forced to recognize your common humanity. It’s the opposite of drones, a deadly technology that obscures humanity.
Conversation is all about connection, and we connect most easily when we speak at the level of heart and soul. At the level of places, possessions and activities we live in vastly different conditions and do many different things, but we’re all human; all experience human feelings and share human values. Bridges can be built through common aspirations.
Through a connection with each other, we make creative connections and spot opportunities and explore possibilities. “Only connect,” said Margaret in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s Way, referring not only to building loving relations but also to joining up the dots, using both “prose and passion” in our relations with each other.
One personal conversation at a time “The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversations real.” – David Whyte
In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a conversation with a son, mother, friend, with a dying person or for a cause large or small – it’s the nature of a conversation that counts. In the end, there are no small conversations – everyone has the potential to increase understanding and connection.
Everything becomes possible when I see your humanity and you see mine and we appreciate that we are the same. Every conversation between the ruler and ruled, boss and employee, partner and partner, mother and child, teacher and student, stranger and stranger – every single conversation have huge potential.
Potential needs time. When we meet someone, most of us have a strong instinct to say something or do something, and we rush outward to meet the other person in words or rush inward to wonder what to say. But the conversation is more about being than doing. If we allow space – to breathe, to look, to feel, to think and to be – the connection and conversation come to us in the silence without any conscious effort on our part.
Knowing that we can choose to open our eyes and see. It’s fascinating how, as our conversation changes, so the people around us change, and then the possibilities change. We become attractors for a different kind of person and a different level of dialogue. And the world changes – one conversation at a time.