How Talk can Change our Lives

Becoming a Conversation Agent

When I submitted the proposal for HubSpot's Inbound Bold Talk, a TED-like series, my vision was to share the journey that took me from teenager figuring out how to help her mother pass an exam for a highly technical certification in a complex subject matter to the opportunity that brought me to the United States to help the parents of brain-injured children learn how to support their development, and years later to help a team of scientists, customer service, regulatory, marketing, product, field sales and executives get on the same page so we could work more effectively.

This was the culmination of my vision for becoming a conversation agent, how each framework and system I figured out built on my learning from the previous and the power of having the conversation about the challenges it fixed. Yet, the night before the talk I almost talked myself out of it.

Why on earth did I think this was a good idea? What made me qualified to get in front of a room full of amazing people in their own right, many of whom were going to share stories ranging from raising millions for a cause to building new tools and talk about the power of conversation?

Don't we all have conversations all the time? From the moment we start figuring out how to talk, even before that, when we learn how to make sounds and the relationship between our sounds and behaviors (like crying or throwing a fit), we pretty much know how to get our point across. 

In the end, what I ended up doing was give myself a permission slip to go up on stage, share my story, maybe entertain a few people, maybe inspire others, and definitely keep my promise that I would do the talk. So I did, 12 minutes with no script, no slides, just me looking at the bright lights and at the few people I could see through them and be in the conversation right there and then.

What happened afterwards surprised me.

Here's the video of the talk, if you're curious about the stories.


We learn how a talk or presentation went by what happens after we are done. That has not changed with all the tweeting and live blogging and real time activity going on in recent years. That's because of the limitation of those tools.

Many of our favorite social networking and messaging tools are asynchronous, which means they enable us to send information, and gather reactions quickly. But their very speed that allows us to share easily encourages reaction over thoughtfulness.

What we share in social is often not yet completely processed, likely literal, often incomplete due to the constraints placed by the medium and where we are on the spectrum of knowledge and experience at that very moment.

Reaction is the product of a process that happens in the parts of the brain in charge of survival, alertness, quick decision-making from our gut instinct, of the blink kind. In our attempt to make sense of what we're experiencing we fall into the narrative fallacy and we actually decrease our ability to have the experience at the same time.

It's hard to avoid interpretation—brain functions often operate outside our awareness. We store patterns in our memory because that way we no longer need to memorize all the information we come across. Our heads afford us limited storage space, we are limited by time and most importantly, we have limited attention spans. We summarize, and yes make assumptions, to simplify and put order into things so we can function.

When we resist the temptation of committing to the conclusions we jump to in real time by posting them to Twitter, for example, thus stabilizing the information instantly with all our contacts and permanently through search, we buy ourselves some time to elaborate. What we call being thoughtful. 

This is a more complex process where we bring in the big allies of knowledge and experience to engage ourselves more fully in the process of making sense of things and go deeper. Conversation is a great tool to help us realize the value of this part of the process to get to better thinking and responses. 

Because of its format, conversation helps us test hypotheses, elaborate, and learn all at the same time. The three frameworks in my talk were the direct result of using conversation to form hypotheses, test them, and iterate several times over short sprints to get things less wrong and longer debriefs to get them more right.

The results speak to effectiveness—my mother went from zero on the subject matter and no methodology to learn it quickly to passing the exam and getting the certification; my cousin went from a cerebral palsy diagnosis to walking, speaking two languages fluently (she's now a practicing psychologist); my team went from all over the map to strong alignment to deliver on growth.

After the talk I had several conversations with people who felt inspired, moved, and educated. Two of those conversations were less harried—you know how it is at conferences, we rush from one hall to the next to get the most bang for the buck— they went a little longer.

We are still talking, creating value for each other, and building on those conversations today. Conversation has a way of opening up doors we did not know existed. It expands our horizons, helps us problem solve, it's a boon to relationships, and a wonderful companion and ally when we learn to partner with it in our thinking.

So why is it that we chat, and we don't actually talk as much anymore? My hypothesis is that this is not about how technology is changing us, although that is part of it. The transactional nature of most of our dealings, the pressure on making decisions quickly, being efficient while getting results fast, the short term nature of everything, the belief on having a position and arguing for it are all encouraging us to abandon the very tool we have at our disposal to do it better.

Yet look at any good business, great company, visionary and admired leader and you find a system based on values that was developed as a series of conversations and continues to operate through conversations of people with each other and with ideas and markets. This is what allows forward movement, getting unstuck, finding new opportunities, or iterating on existing work, and so on.

So why is it that this super valuable tool that comes built into us from birth is seldom something we learn to use effectively? Why is it that we spend thousands of dollars buying and trying to figure out how to use software and associated operating systems and apps, and we forget the most powerful software and operating system of all—our ability to have and be in conversation and our brain.

We live in uncertain times where rapid change is the only constant and in our jobs and lives we're called to constantly operate within the tension between knowing and learning, on figuring our what's missing fast, being more creative, working on the right things, dealing with anger and frustration, all while looking to have a more fulfilled life.

Conversation helps make teams resilient, it helps us be more strategic on solving the challenges we're facing, understand what new habits will help us, test hypotheses that could lead to new ideas, help us increase our creative output, and even have a bigger life.

Last week my post on Facebook asking what is the #1 challenge with achieving your full potential was hands down the one that had the most reach ever. I asked the same question in Learning Habit and got a similar level of high engagement and response—with issues ranging from limited time, struggling being comfortable with face to face interaction, to not knowing where to start to get better.

We all want to reach our goals, have an impact, leave a good legacy. I'm sure we can all think of the glorious moment when we reach our goals, of the benefits we will enjoy, we can almost taste how we will feel.

But let me ask you a different question. What if there was a way to make our journey to get there better? We've all experienced what it feels like to be misunderstood, to fall short on asking for what we need, the desire to get out point across better, to win a pitch, to get the support we're asking for.

Human accelerator

How do we practice becoming better if we have a hard time starting a conversation in the first place? How do we benefit from feedback or a raise if we're hard pressed for the best ways to ask? How do we learn to think in the here and now when most of our communication happens in time-shifted tech?

The more we do something, the more direct and indirect feedback we get. But it's not just about talking more, it's about figuring out how to talk appropriately, how to get the timing right, and hundreds of other little adjustments that we don't know are preventing us from building the momentum we seek.

What if there was a process that made us more effective right here, right now? A little bit at a time. I believe conversation is the most underappreciated human tool, the technology that helps us evolve our thinking in real time and increase our success rate. Do you?



My summary notes for the talk below:

Becoming a Conversation Agent

Framework: Devise a system for mom to learn the information efficiently and effectively

Environmental levers: use what she was already doing as a starting point, break down the task into small steps to tack on

Data points: collaboration achieved through elicitation rather than push, building on existing skills/aptitudes – build on the knowledge of others

  • middle school group collaboration;
  • high school individual performance through public dialogue

Hero: mom – passed the exam

Learning by doing rocks!

Framework: human developmental profile – 50+ years – minimum viable pathways (MVP) into the brain – vision, auditory, tactile – interconnected, use increased frequency, intensity duration

Environmental levers: every child at the time of birth has the potential of Leonardo da Vinci – if on the floor, can receive that stimulation/develop; if not issues – affect the brain by providing the input in the environment

Data points: correlation between work done in support of providing the stimulation and acquired ability

  • when child had physical/intellectual problem, a certain area of the brain was affected
  • floor/environmental conditions could be provided as a platform to help bridge the gap

Hero: cousin with cerebral palsy – 9 yrs of program, 3 languages, played piano, doctor in education and practicing psychologist

Doing to learn works!

Framework: Birkman Method – 50 + years; more than 3mm profiles entered; Research funded by the National Science Foundation;

Data points: four areas of focus

  1. Present: get results by people – build, organize, see finished product (needs to feel part of the group). Under stress – impulsive, detached, “busy” for its own sake
  1. Present: get results with people – sell, promote, persuade, motivate (needs to know who is in charge, individualized rewards). Under stress –cynical, domineering, unfocused
  1. Past: gets results by systems – do detail work, control schedule (needs to know exactly what to do, freedom from interruption, to be trusted). Under stress – over organized, obstructs necessary change, quietly resistive
  1. Future: gets results with innovation – plan, deal with abstractions, think of new approaches, work with ideas (needs personal respect, freedom from constant social demands, time for complex decisions). Under stress – pessimistic, antisocial, indecisive, over sensitive

Hero: ag chem company sold in 8 months, after taking sales where they needed to be