How not to Kill a Conversation

Brain Teaser

“The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man's observation, not overturning it”

[Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton, British politician, poet, critic and prolific novelist, 1803-1873]

Using a term instead of another can make a radical difference in changing a conversation. For example, in business and marketing circles we use the language of war, a metaphor that has been taken up swiftly and pervasively in management books and our thinking over the years. They are words that operate in a terribly negative space — front lines, command and control, targeting, and so on. It's the “we” vs. “them” mindset, a collision of opposites.

It really make a difference what we say, in our thinking, and in the actions that follow. A deliberate use of language includes every sound uttered so it contains a positive inflection and tone, a reason to enroll the most human of traits — emotion — to reach up, achieve, inspire, open, and engage possibilities. We can learn to speak powerfully.

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not start his speech with a PowerPoint (having the power/control to make a point) and statistics. He also did not doubt the capacity of the people he was leading to realize whatever he was dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King had said, “I have a dream. Of course, I'm not sure they'll be up to it.” What he said was: “I have a dream” and then painted a picture, a story of what could be, not what should not.

Assumptions are another reason why when the terminology we use is wrong, our energy becomes misdirected. This is the baggage we carry on our shoulders from past situations, and baggage by definition is personal, thus not inclusive. We don't stop and check for negative words/terminology the same way we check to make sure our numbers are correct on a spreadsheet or a slide. Yet we should, because reductive and limiting terms can run a company amok in the same way poor numbers do.

The word “conversation” is a major contribution to opening up the dialogue in business. We hope leaders don't relegate it to marketing to use only when talking about lead generation. Conversation has a broader meaning and application in business and it can be a powerful ally when designing strategy and implementing it. We can design conversations of impact.

But there are sure ways to ruin even a casual conversation. When we're not as thoughtful about the impact of our behavior on others, we miss opportunities to connect. We do that by:

  1. Limiting a conversation's potential by just telling — the old writer's axiom of “show, don't tell” applies here as well
  2. Thinking about what we're going to say next while the other person is talking — this applies to most circumstances, whether we're talking to a spouse or a dissatisfied customer
  3. Falling back on the old customer service trick — telling someone “I hear what you're saying,” rather than addressing the substance of what they are saying
  4. Lying — we live in an increasingly transparent age; eventually someone will find out more about an issue topic, or statement. Nothing kills a current or subsequent conversation faster than deceit
  5. Deferring ending a conversation — not ending a conversation when it's over is poor etiquette. Good sales professionals, for example, know not to talk past the sale. The same goes for conversation. When we stay on point, save something else for next time, maybe there will actually be a next time

Most of us do look forward to the experience of having the conversation. When we match our words to intent and make them count, we can count on good conversations.


[Stroop Effect: say the color, not the word]