If you’re the average person on an average day, you’ve had 27 conversations of around ten minutes each. That’s 189 a week, 9,828 conversations a year. If that number seems small to you, as it did to me, you’re most likely in the service industry. My day consists almost entirely of conversation, it’s the ‘work’ I do - I perform through talk. Yet still, I sometimes forget the power and the importance of the conversational act. I jump into dialogue automatically, with little thought of the reality my words are creating as I converse. This is particularly so with daily routines and relationships. Our conversations are comfortable and familiar, like “my side” of the bed. But the flip side to this, of course, is the lack of movement. There’s not much forward momentum while you’re sinking into well-worn indentations.
And herein lies the rub. We want our families to be comfortable and predictable, but we also need them to grow, as we grow; to move in the direction we need to move. It’s in conversation that this growth happens. But of the 27 conversations you had today, how many of them were with your family, and how many of them were productive, helpful or healthy? Think about conversations with your partner: how often do they fulfil, and how often do they break down? Do you feel like you have made meaning 80%, 50%, or 10% of the time?
Actually, meaning is made 100% of the time, it just may not be the meaning you intended or are aware of. Like most of what we do in our lives, our conversations are habitual. We come to them with little forethought, move through them with a taken-for-granted automaticity, and reflect on the other person’s reactions rather than our own. We look for subtext where there is none, we read between lines that aren’t there. We predict current meaning based on past conversations and memories of previous interactions. Yet conversations are where we create future realities. It's where the hard work of constructing our lives takes place.
There are many different types of conversations that build our daily lives. We have conversations for action - where what we say changes what we or someone else does. Some of these include ‘requests’ and ‘offers’; when we ask for something specific to happen or propose our own action. These conversations are particularly important as they often lead to promises, those seemingly considerate commitments that can lead to trouble if not properly managed.
We also have conversations that establish our relationship, that display our care for another, that lead us to learning, and conversations that establish future possibilities. Finally, there is the conversation for possible conversations, which helps us work out how to approach a topic we are anxious about. Over the next few months, I am going to explore each of these conversations in more depth, looking at strategies to ensure our conversations are successful for both parties. This week we’ll look at the importance of conversations in our daily lives and the nuances we may be taking for granted.
We all know the power of conversations, that’s why we are sometimes afraid of them. Their power offers us great opportunities to learn. Think about the things you don’t want to talk about, and why saying the words aloud might be so scary. Consider the different types of conversations you have with certain people. What is it about their way of communicating that makes them right for some discussions but not for all? Perhaps you have a role model, someone you know can craft a difficult conversation in a way you admire. Certainly, you have seen the opposite, someone who is embarrassingly poor at talking with others, who can’t seem to find the right tone or conversational structure. Consider yourself - are there certain conversations others avoid having with you? When we take the time to reflect upon and question the quality of our conversations we raise our level of awareness into metacognitive thought that builds our mental strength, while at the same time enhancing our relationships and the experiences of those we converse with.
Family conversations follow a habitual rhythm that becomes entrenched over time. Memory plays a big part in shaping and restricting the way we talk with our loved ones. We have a tendency to see our family members as highly predictable, stagnant beings, even though we ourselves may have changed and grown. Their predictability is a double-edged sword, sometimes offering ease, efficiency and comfort - other times preventing new ideas, restricting new conversations or making us fear entering into certain topics. We think we already know where the discussion is going: “I can’t tell him, I know what he’ll say”. (This is where the “conversation for possible conversation” comes into place, a strategy we will look at later in this blog series).
Some conversations we enter into with a clear purpose, some we fall into through routine, and some entrap us unwittingly. Sometimes it is not until we are already immersed within the conversation that we become clear of even our own purpose. We might think we wanted to get information, but then it turns out we really wanted to express a need or simply ‘relate’ to someone else. When a conversation breaks down, or we leave it less than satisfied, it’s quite likely the person we were talking to had a different understanding of the purpose or importance of the conversation than we did.
There are two things to consider in this instance: your priority purpose and transparency. When considering purpose try to put it into long term perspective. How important is that goal in that moment, or is there a more important purpose to consider? For example, what if you placed your ongoing relationship with your daughter as a greater priority than the standard of her bed-making? By considering the type of relationship you want to maintain you may enter the same conversation from a rather different stance, thereby opening new opportunities for both of you. Rather than focusing on what you want to achieve today or who you want to change, try thinking about how you want this conversation to contribute to your ongoing relationship.
Once you’ve established your priority purpose how will you make it clear to your conversational partner? We often neglect to check that our purpose is either clear or important to the listener. Instead, we are more likely to assume that our intent is obvious and shared. Perhaps you feel you have stated your intent clearly, but did you use your words or theirs? Think about how you can frame your conversations in a way that allows the speaker to clarify and negotiate purpose and intent. It may be the right moment for you, is it for them? You may have had time to consider a gambit of options, have they? Ask yourself if you are ready to pivot if they need time or space to think.
Many clients ask me to help them plan their approach to an important conversation by thinking about the words they want to use, or those they want to avoid. I encourage them to also practice the emotion they want to bring. We tend to assume our emotions are automatic and ‘natural’ states that our conscious mind reacts to. Such assumptions are a wasted opportunity. By developing ‘emotional agility’ we can learn to consciously choose an emotion to lead us into a conversation, rather than having to follow the wave of an emotion that was triggered by what might have happened just before the conversation, or by predictions about how a conversation will go based on past patterns. Imagine entering a conversation with your partner with an attitude of curiosity rather than disappointment. Your body language, tone, questions and responses would be totally different and would offer a great deal more space for your partner to share what is on their mind too. Instead of “Why doesn’t he get it?!” try “I wonder where our perspectives differ?” The second question is more likely to help you listen and adjust your mood and speech, the first will keep you on a fixed-line that turns a conversation into a lecture.
Conversations don’t take place in a vacuum and they don’t consist of words alone. You need to consider the emotions, body language, culture and systems in which the conversation is taking place. What is the best location for you to have this talk? What else might be on that person’s mind as you speak? How might the conversation be different if you met over lunch in a cafe? Why would it be different and how can you recreate that difference? For example, if you can’t go for lunch in a cafe, can you recreate the situation by sitting together on the sofa rather than standing over them while they sit at their work desk, by chatting a little first, or by offering to make them their favourite drink.
The best way to learn how to enhance your conversations is to experiment with them a little. Play with different approaches, reflect and gain feedback. So this week I offer you some homework. During each of the 27 conversations you have today, I challenge you to take a pause. Just stop talking, focus and wait; do nothing more than create space for someone else to talk. You may be surprised by what they say. The real beauty of family conversations is that they are opportunities to love our loved ones even more. By gifting your family a space in your conversations you are breaking the old familiar patterns and offering them a new way of relating to you, one that is based on your respect for their thoughts. That’s 27 gifts of silence at the cost of approximately 20 seconds each, 9 minutes a day of giving your own voice a break in order to fully receive the voice of others.
So who will you not talk to today?
Coaching is a great way to explore your ‘conversational competence’ - learn more about my coaching services here. Click here to subscribe to my blog series