Go into any restaurant, travel on public transport, stand in line for your coffee, walk in the street, wait in the Departures Lounge before your flight, walk through the Arrivals Hall of a busy airport and observe.
How many people are actually having conversations? Or do they seem more interested in looking at screens? Have we lost the art and science of good conversation?
The importance of human communication has been downgraded by an obsessive focus on interactions with social media: immediate feedback, hashtags and sound bites are seen as more worthy of our shortening attention spans than investing time in face-to-face interactions.
In everyday life, public discourse and, in the media itself, the consequences are beginning to emerge. Empathy is dying. We care more about our own image than really understanding where others are coming from. Slogans, yes/no debates, the search for black and white answers, simple solutions and certainty dominate. Evidence is less important than strongly stated opinion. Is this an effective approach in a world of increasing complexity?
As far as the world of work is concerned, where results count, it isn’t. Most organisation challenges need people to work together to sort things out and agree on a sensible course of action. Yet in many organisations, despite people working close to each other in an open plan environment, they never walk around to speak to their colleagues. An email, text or tweet is sent instead.
This may suffice if there is a clear simple unambiguous communication required, such as “Are you going for lunch at 12.30pm?” It is not enough where someone’s input is needed to deal with a complex issue, where priorities need to be sorted, where performance needs to be discussed, or where an innovative approach is required.
There is no substitute for the gold standard of effective face-to-face conversation if we want to address real world issues and keep everyone on board. According to the organisation learning guru Peter Senge, the starting points for a meaningful conversation are active listening (‘inquiry’) and an ability to ‘advocate’ and explain one’s position. Good conversations should be about dialogue and developing a deeper understanding rather than simply winning an argument.
‘Appreciative Inquiry’ can also be a very helpful approach. This focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses, solutions rather than problems. It accentuates the positive whilst also acknowledging the shortfalls, engaging hearts and minds and spirits in working together to focus on what works, and on the future.
It involves questioning, building relationships, listening actively and with empathy, advocating one’s position – all with the objective of building mutual understanding so as to move closer to an agreed future direction and course of action.
How can organisations encourage better conversations? By ensuring there is a commitment to dialogue; there is sufficient time and space for people to get together, meet, reflect and discuss organisational challenges; and by providing training in the skills and techniques of appreciative inquiry and effective conversations.
Let’s promote technology, which facilitates conversation rather than relegates it to a lost art.