Conversations

Paying Attention to our Conversations

In our general lives, conversation is interesting. What is interesting, however, is often how uninteresting our conversation actually is. When we talk to each other we never really have a full conversation with lots of data, with great background context, or with a lot of acknowledgement of other people’s thoughts or experiences. A lot of time in our conversations we more or less just ramble on about something or other about which we have vaguely formed ideas.

 

When I think about the general conversations I have at work, most seem to fit the model I described above. I started a new job recently and I have not had that many opportunities to really engage with my colleagues to understand their histories, thoughts, and opinions. Most of our interactions are relatively surface level, which means we are never really getting into the weeds of life or anything important. Colin Wright described this in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. He writes, “Without access or context, we can only deliver empty words or lackluster, heartfelt but misguided opinions. And unfortunately, that could accurately describe many of our conversations.” For me, I feel that many of my conversations truly are like this. I either end up not fully knowing much about my conversation partner or the subject at hand and that leads to me feeling out of the loop in the conversation and unable to provide any useful or interesting input to the conversation.

 

I don’t think we need to include footnotes in every conversation referencing where our thoughts and ideas come from, and I don’t think we necessarily need to provide everyone with or request from everyone a perfect biographical story for them before we ever have a conversation. I do think, however, that we need to build new spaces and opportunities to have deeper conversations with people. We can spend more time talking with someone about the forces that have driven their life and who they are, rather than talking about whether a sports team won a game, whether its really hot or cold outside, or about what happened on a TV show. We can spend some time thinking about the kinds of questions which would elicit interesting answers or conversation from ourselves and then try to turn those questions back on the people we would otherwise have surface level, context-free conversations with. By being interested in others, we can start to work toward more intentional and meaningful conversations.

 

Wright continues, “We don’t always hold ourselves to the highest of standards when it comes to conversations, and considering that a good deal of what we believe is derived from these interactions, it’s unfortunate that we don’t have a better mechanism for ensuring we’re not reinforcing unbacked opinions or false facts, causally and probably unintentionally.”

The Need Behind Requests

Something interesting in a lot of human communication is how frequently we address something without saying anything explicit about the the thing we are addressing. We talk about one topic but are often implicitly or sneakily also talking about another thing. The front conversation is what we are actually saying and the literal words of our speech, but there is also a hidden back conversation taking place that others may or may not be aware of.

 

This type of communication can be very helpful for humans. We can hint at something or subtly reference a topic that may be seen as taboo in some cultures, groups, or settings. The way that people react to these quick and hidden references tells us a lot about who we are around and helps us shape the conversations we have, even if we are not consciously aware of the messages or even of other people’s reactions. Michael Bungay Stanier addresses one form of this hidden background conversation in his book The Coaching Habit when he looks at the way we use requests in the work place.

 

We often try to soften our conversation when giving people orders or requesting that people complete specific tasks. Saying “do this now” or “complete this by this date and time” can sometimes be too forceful or inappropriate depending on the work culture, group dynamics, and team member roles. One way, but certainly not the only way, we soften our speech is by using the word “want”. Bungay Stanier looks at “want” construction in his book and helps the reader think through what is being said in the background when we say something like “I want you to complete this by December 2nd.” His careful analysis is useful if our goal is to be more clear with our own communication in explaining what work needs to be done by a set deadline.

 

First, Bungay Stanier encourages us to look behind what is being said to try to understand why types of needs are driving the conversation. He writes, “You can see that recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.”

 

When someone above you in the organization says, “I would like to have that report done by the 2nd” he is asking you to complete something because he has some type of need behind the report. That underlying need is greater than the individual report, but your work helps support his need. In this way, the sub conversation is “we have an important meeting on the 4th, and we really need to show that we are well prepared going into that meeting. The data in the report is key to us having all the information we need, and we need to finish the report in time to give us a chance to review and prep for the meeting on the 4th.” Being aware of the why and understanding the sub-context helps us better address the actual request. We can take this awareness and use it in our own conversations so that we are making sure that the why behind our requests is not hidden and lost in a sub-conversation (although if your why behind a request is “to make me look good”, you may want to rethink your actions and initial request).

A Great Start to a Coaching Conversation

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is not just a book with a few good theories about coaching. Bungay Stanier includes a lot of specific words, phrases, and conversation examples to help you see concrete ways to improve your coaching. One example that Bungay Stanier includes is a quick way to get a coaching conversation moving in a clear path to help you discuss the issues that are driving the challenges for the individual you are working with. His quick start question is as follows:

 

“So there are three different facets of that [the problem the individual said they are having] we could look at … the project side — any challenges around the actual content. The people side — any issue with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns — if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”

 

What I love about this question is that from the start, it disentangles different parts of a problem that anyone may be facing. In my own life, and in listening to others, I have noticed how frequently all of these different issues seem to meld together and become overwhelming. By disaggregating each piece of the problem, you can begin to look at individual items in a manageable way. It is a lot easier to begin to look for things that one can change or adjust, when you take the pieces one by one and fit them back together.

 

This question also helps to steer coaching conversations away from becoming venting conversations. I really struggle in my relationship with my wife with handling conversations about the challenges she faces. One of the reasons is because I don’t handle venting well. When my wife wants to vent and tell me about the issues and challenges she faces my natural reaction is to simply tell her what she should do as if I was some sort of magic profit who could solve all her problems. Of course, my views of her challenges are not actually accurate and my advice giving does not work in these venting conversations. By steering questions away from venting using the approach that Bungay Stanier suggests in the quote above, we can heave more productive conversations focused on what really matters. A coaching session will be useless if it becomes a venting session. The other person may feel better temporarily about having a chance to vent, but nothing will actually be solved and their possibly mistaken perceptions will in a sense be validated by being heard.

 

The questions that Bungay Stanier presents in the quote above keeps us focused on specific issues in a solutions oriented direction. The questions also show that there are different aspects of our problems that need to handled in different ways. By working with the individual to acknowledge the self originating aspects of their problem, you get them to refocus on themselves and their growth without blaming other people for their challenges. The other pieces of the issue can be also worked on in a more objective manner when we are not looking at the whole.

Habitual

At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From those one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach and conversational sounding board. However, our natural inclination as humans in a conversation is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other peoples eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates in his book is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and aid their growth.

 

Bungay Stanier accepts that changing away from our default advice giving mode is difficult, particularly because we are creatures of habit. He writes “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”

 

I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to pass in a way where I am a passive viewer and not an active driver of my life. The habitual aspects of our days don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our time, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be as much of an unconscious habit as much as it can be a conscious decision. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice my hand slip my phone back in my pocket.

 

I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation and start offering advice that we have not truly thought through. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find better answers to our problems. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying and simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit.

 

This brings me back to the ideas of Hanson and Simler. If we better understand where our desire to give advice comes from, and we understand how evolution has shaped human beings to behave, we can begin to push back and try to be more productive versions of ourselves. I find that I can address a habit more effectively if I understand what aspects of my biology may be driving it. Accepting that our advice is meant to make us look good and not meant to help the other person makes our advice look less sexy, and makes it easier for us to be critical of the advice we are giving and more willing to let the other person do the talking and thinking.

Negotiations

In his book Political Realism Jonathan Rauch describes the importance of negotiations in politics. The act of negotiating is the act of coalition building, finding support for an idea, position, or program among legislators with varied interests. Negotiation needs to be creative, with all options on the board. Within a negotiation, difficult subjects and ideas are discussed to try to understand the benefits, the costs, the target populations, and issues of equality or inequality. The process is messy and like human speech, often disorganized and free flowing.

 

In the United States Federal Government, negotiations within the legislature are supposed to take place out in the open. Committee meetings and hearings are supposed to be public. Negotiations and advisory sessions are televised and open to journalists and interested citizens via the internet. The goal behind an open government is simple, let the people see and know what our leaders are up to. We want to be able to view the negotiations so that we can ensure big businesses are not running the show and to make sure our elected officials are not trading money and votes for projects and bills that we don’t like. Most of all, we want to make sure our legislators are acting ethically and not in their own self-interest.

 

This system sounds nice when we wear our moral philosopher hat, but when we put on our real world pragmatist hat we can see that our open government requirements are in a way breaking the legislative process. If we force negotiations to be public and always visible, then legislators are constrained in what can be said and considered in a negotiation. I mentioned earlier that negotiations are messy and creative, and this process involves talking through half formed ideas and as a group considering extreme ideas that an individual may not want to raise on their own. Doing this can be damaging for an individual if filmed and rebroadcast out of context, but in the moment it can help build creativity and allow decision-makers to better understand the full range of possible impacts.

 

Rauch writes the following regarding our constraints of negotiations, “If negotiations among leaders are a key to effective governance, particularly in polarized times, then we need a less moralistic, more realistic sense of the conditions under which negotiations effectively take place.” Sometimes the nation needs to move forward with legislation that is incredibly unpopular within a few legislative districts. Bills can be toxic for a given senator or member of congress, and if they cannot negotiate in the dark, then on legislation they know must move forward despite its unpopularity back home, the legislator must take a stand against the bill. In this way, a small minority becomes more powerful, and important legislation is stalled. Sunshine is great in theory, but in actual governance, sunshine can become sand in the gears.

Kickstarting Conversations

When you are coaching someone professionally, meeting with a colleague or associate, or just hanging out with a spouse or friend, how do you really get around to having important conversations? In my life, I too frequently have quick chats about the weather that don’t often lead to something more interesting. Inevitably, when I head down the weather small talk, I bring up the Don’t Panic Geocast (a fantastic geology podcast that I highly recommend) and get too deep into the science of a given weather patter or how that weather shapes some aspect of earth science. The point I am making is that some days and in some situations getting a conversation going is a challenge, and sometimes the conversation we get started is not the conversation that we both actually want to have.

In his book on how to be an effective coach and create habits that lead to positive coaching interactions, Michael Bungay Stanier offers a solution to the conversation initiation conundrum. He offers what he calls a Goldilocks question that is just right to get a meaningful conversation flowing. He looks at this question specifically in the realm of coaching, but it can be used across the board when conversation about sports teams has died out or when you don’t want to talk to the 17th person about that day’s weather. Bungay Stanier’s question is simply, “What’s on your mind?” which he describes as “An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.”

The power of this simple question according to Bungay Stanier is that “its a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most. It’s a question that dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.”

In a coaching relationship, it can feel like you need to be in control. That you need to direct the conversation and ask intimate probing questions that get the subject to connect new dots and make new realizations that they previously were unaware of. While asking more questions than speaking is a good thing, the coach does not really need to be in control. When you are helping someone else as a coach, you can use this question to give them a little more control of what is discussed, because they are the one who knows best what issue they are facing and need assistance on. Asking “what’s on your mind?” and not forcing a question toward a specific area will allow the conversation to center around the biggest item that needs to be talked through and ironed out. Rather than getting stuck in a rut with your coaching, this question requires you the coach to be nimble and on your feet as conversations go where the subject needs them to go, not where you are comfortable with the conversation going.

In my life I have not been good at remembering this question. It is one that I hope I can return to and one that I hope can help me have deeper conversations with my wife, my uncle, and some of my friends.

Habitual

At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach or conversational sounding board. But our natural inclination is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other people’s eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates however, is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and help them grow.

But Bungay Stanier accepts that change is difficult, particularly because we as humans are creatures of habit, “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”

I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to move in a way where I am just a passive viewer and not an active driver of my decisions and actions. The habitual aspects of our life don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our day, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine and life. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be easily become a subconscious or unconscious habit in a way robbing us of a conscious decision to workout. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice I am putting my phone back in my pocket.

I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation. Particularly, he calls attention to the times that we offer another person advice without really understanding their situation. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find more thorough answers by improving the way we think about an issue. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying or if we are simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit. Once we build that self-awareness and practice it in conversations, we can begin to be more effective coaches and conversational partners.