Using Conversation to Build Relationships, and the Difference Between Conversation and Communication

  Lago Santo Modenese - foto di Rita Vesc

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”

[William Hazlitt]

The holidays are always a time charged with emotion. Year-end projects we need to wrap up, the desire and need for a break, and time with the family all contribute to a perfect mix in potentially derailing our experiences vs. expectations. There's a gray zone of uncertainty in there based on collective stress levels.

    Which is why the best way to come out on the side of enjoyment is to prepare. The best way to take control is not avoidance, but a greater understanding of the power of using conversation to connect (rather than disconnect).

    Conversation is the most natural, effective, yet most complex tool at our disposal. Using conversation well has the potential to lead to human connection — the most powerful bond we can create with family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers. The goal of conversation is understanding between participants.

    In communication — human and now the more complex cognitive machines — understanding is how we learn new information rapidly. The process is akin to that of a translation. Which in essence is what we do — when the message comes in, we decode and interpret it.

    Researchers have put simultaneous translators into a functional MRI machine to identify the neurological regions at work, and it turns out there a lot of them — especially the caudate nucleus, which helps to coordinate complex behaviors within the brain. Interpreters with more experience tend to show less activity in certain brain centers, not more. “The brain regions involved go to an extremely high level, beyond language,” say Dr. Alexis Hervais-Adelman, Prof. Barbara Moser-Mercer, and Prof. Narly Golestani.

    With human behavior this means focusing and relaxing, and zooming in and out at the same time. While the visual and auditory messages come at us, we entertain the million thoughts and assumptions of our mind.

    The ingredients of a conversation are:

1. The content  — what we say. Although this comprises only about 7% of what we pay attention to, it still matters.

2. The process — how we say it and how it's heard. 55% of the process happens through nonverbal communication, with 38% being the vocal tone, a percentage that increases when we communicate by phone (something to keep in mind.) Since this step is critical, any intervention to improve needs to happen here.

3. The timing — when we say it. This influences greatly how we process information. Get the timing wrong and it's hard to recover from it. So hold those quips over dinner, let people finish what they're saying, suspend judgement until the whole story is out, and emotions are calmer.

4. By far the most important is permission. Are we talking with each other or at each other?

    Our success in life is based on our ability to communicate, a large part of which is our skill in receiving and decoding messages — interpreting the content based on intent even when the process and timing may be off for us.

    This is especially valuable in times of crisis, when keeping a cool head can make a big difference to outcomes. It's a good idea to use conversation to listen better so we can avert a catastrophe, as a tool to process grief, to improve how we negotiate, and to refocus on the issues.

    The real meaning of communication is the response it elicits, not the intention behind what we say. This is because part of the root of the word conversation relates to Latin as sermo. Sermons likely developed from this meaning of the word.

    As a social phenomenon, sermons are more interesting to understand than mere lectures. Speeches are sermons. Other unconventional forms of sermons are movies, charity balls, national monuments, and corporate mission statements. Kevin Simler says#, “Whereas a lecture addresses its 'many' as a collection of individuals, a sermon addresses its “many” as an integrated community or flock: a network of listeners whose relationships stand to change by listening to the sermon.” 

    If we look at one of the ancient Greek words for conversation, we get closer to our modern understanding of the word, even as we may not honor what it describes. Ancient Greek attributed several meanings to conversation via the term diatribe, which means use of time, occupation, and dialogue.

Conversation is a space where we manage relationships

    These relationships may be sudden and invisible to many — relationships between people, problems, solutions, processes, objects, and all of these and many more together. When attention and authenticity accompany the message we shorten the distance in these relationships, as we create something new.

    It's interesting to observe here that the other Latin word for conversation is colloquium, which implies a more intimate setting. This became the English colloquial and German umgangssprachlich, which literally means 'of every day.'

    The other word we use when we communicate also has an interesting history. Communication has Latin root in communicatio as well as one in commercium or exchange between people. The ancient Greeks had a more nuanced culture and called it omilia, which also meant commerce, relationship, and intimacy. Communication is thus associated more with messages and business than conversation.

    But that changed with social media, and conversation was adopted (likely misused or misunderstood) by many more organizations.

Our brain on conversation

    Our brain is an associative network. This means our memories record not just the specific details of events, but also our feelings about them. So when the brain is under the influence of one emotion, it habitually makes connections to past events that triggered that same emotional response.

    Emotions affect our state of mind, change us in some ways, and change our choices. The importance of emotion in affecting our behavior even when making expensive purchases has been demonstrated conclusively by Richard H. Thaler. For his work on how human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science. 

    Emotions affect the way we feel, the way we think, and also affect the way we remember. When we relive a memory, we make a new memory in the process, with new connections.

    We like twists in a story because we are wired to remember novelty, to recall events that somehow deviate from our expectations. As a survival skill, we have a biologically grounded interest in surprise. Which may explain the perennial quest for the shiny new object even at work. This is a trait marketers have learned to exploit well.

   Conversation is the software that comes with the human operating system, the brain. With language, we gained the ability to get more things done. In fact, we get more done in a short conversation than in dozens of email/online exchanges.

    It's an art we would do well in learning to master to get more of what we want. Because when we add to the mix specific contexts and situations, cultural differences, social circumstances, and environmental noise making a connection is indeed a very powerful proposition. 

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