Distance in Conversation

The question of whether businesses make high value work sits at one end of the spectrum — commodification sitting at the other. We rarely think about authenticity and profit in the same sentence or category, yet I argued that Authenticity is for Profit in 2005. Much of the reasoning behind it still works today.

As part of the series for Italian firm Trivioquadrivio annual client publication, I wrote a contributing article on Distance titled Distance in Conversation in 2004. The themes were Attention in 2003, Authenticity in 2005, and Representation in 2006. My choice for the last theme was to talk about Representation as Creation on the increasing importance of social networks and blogs.

It's an evergreen topic, and still very much relevant.

Distance in Conversation

    “Can you hear me now?” says a popular Verizon wireless advertisement. The spot reminds us that the mobile phone is part of our lives and, like many other technologies allows us to bridge distances to stay in touch. But that's only part of the story.

    The bigger picture is that we live in an era of mobility, flexibility, information, and connectivity. We're empowered consumers who can either evangelize or boycott products and services, and we wield this power with a mere few keystrokes. We are savvy professionals and entrepreneurs who take charge of our careers because we believe in meaningful work. we want to be heard. We want to be published. We want our opinion on record.

    We spend our time talking — by phone, by email, by sms/text, and in person. So why do we rarely feel satisfied that we communicate?

    As Theodore Zeldin says in his book Conversation: How talk can Change our Lives, “Conversation is among other things, a mind-reading game and a puzzle. We constantly have to guess why others say what they do.”

    In Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott details how we unconsciously end our conversations as soon as we initiate them, too afraid of what we might say or hear. And if that isn't debilitating enough, we ironically manage to keep talking anyway, because silence makes us nervous. We contradict ourselves, and it's a miracle we can get through a conversation in a reasonably sane way.

    Then there is the issue of physical distance we put between ourselves. We might try to overcome it, but we often replace it with a new distance — a psychological one — by not coming out from behind ourselves and joining the conversation in real time.

    The good news

    In spite of such seemingly distressing evidence, take solace in the fact that even in the closest relationships (say, between lovers), a certain distance exists. As Rainer Maria Rilke says in Letters on Love:

“But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, and wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them, which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!”

    Try something new

    I can't offer a formula for successful communication, because conversations are experiments for which results are not guaranteed. But I can encourage you to try on an attitude of openness and willingness to communicate. Ordinary people can make great strides by improving the way they relate to each other. And through conversation escape the isolation of their specific realities and share a common drive to learn, grow, explore, and confront.

    Can you hear them now?


When we think about conversation, the context is often in relation to others. Rarely, we think about the conversation we have with ourselves — how we negotiate meaning, clarity of purpose, and even our take on personal power.

One powerful insight in Susan Scott's Fierce Conversation is the overarching question of “emotional wake.” As we engage in conversation with other people, we all leave an emotional wake. The question becomes, “what kind of wake do we want to leave? How do we want people to feel?”

We take many of our conversations for granted. Yet, we are constantly searching for better ways to make an impact. We can learn how to design a conversation of impact, first and foremost by building a better understanding of the problem we are trying to solve.


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]