Conversation - Heart of Communication

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Conversation – The Heart of Communication A Presentation by Rajiv Bajaj

Primary Management Tool:

Primary Management Tool It is how we – - Plan Our Lives & Organise our Work - Build Relationships - Create Understanding - Understand Feelings & Actions - Influence Others - Are Influenced by Others - Solve Problems & Cooperate with each other

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Conversation – It’s how we Create New Opportunities !

Conversation is…..:

Conversation is….. A verbal dance … Derives from the Latin – ‘To move around with’ Like a dance, it has rules & standard moves … Rules that allow people to move together in harmony without stepping on each other’s toes or getting out of step

Different Conversations .. Different Conventions...:

Different Conversations .. Different Conventions... Some are understood implicitly While others must be spelt out or rehearsed

Conversation - A Dynamic of..:

Talking & Listening .. ! People conversing are not only talking, but also listening Without listening, there is NO conversation Both activities happen simultaneously Each participant is both , a speaker as well as a listener Conversation - A Dynamic of..


Listening… .. is the way we find out what the other person means and how they think .. indicates what move to make .. is the way to find common ground – the shared understanding that we seek ! Remember ! No Listening = No conversation

Reminder ! No Listening = No conversation:

Reminder ! No Listening = No conversation

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Peter Senge – The Fifth Discipline – 1993 Talking = Advocacy : The way we advocate our point of view, ideas & thinking Listening = Enquiry : How we enquire into the other person’s point of view, ideas & thinking Adversarial Conversations = Pure Advocacy . We only advocate, and do not enquire. Conflicts ! Only Enquiry & No Advocacy = Unsatisfactory outcome, or no outcome at all !

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The best conversations balance Advocacy & Enquiry. They are a rich mix of talking and listening, of stating views and asking questions. CONVERSATION Advocacy Enquiry

Why do conversations go wrong ?:

Why do conversations go wrong ? Difficult to analyse. . Because they are so subtle Because they happen so fast ! Because we are not trained in the art of effective conversation. Because it is a life skill that we are expected to pick up as we go along !

Why do conversations fail ?:

4 Broadly speaking, there are FOUR major reasons: 1. Context 2. Relationship 3. Structure 4. Behaviour These are the FOUR DIMENSIONS of any Conversation Why do conversations fail ?

Putting in Context:

Putting in Context ALL conversations have a context – they happen for a reason Form part of a larger conversation: they are a part of a process, or a developing relationship They fail because one or both or all of us ignore the context ! If we don’t check for understanding why the conversation is happening, we begin to misunderstand

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We fail to put things in Context because we… - Don’t give sufficient time to the conversation - Hold the conversation at the wrong time - Converse in an uncomfortable, busy or noisy place - Have lack of privacy - Are distracted

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We ALSO fail because we bring assumptions into the conversation, and if we leave them unquestioned, misunderstanding & conflict can quickly arise !

We might Assume that ::

We might Assume that : - We both know what we are talking about - We need to agree - We know how the other person views the situation - We shouldn’t let our feeling show - The other person is somehow to blame - We can be brutally honest - We need to solve the other person’s problem - We’re right and they’re wrong

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Assumptions derive from our opinions of what is true, or about what we – or others – should do We bring mental models to the conversations – our perceptions of how things are Millions of mental models shape and drive our thinking constantly – we can’t think without them Thinking is the process of forming and changing our mental models Often, conversations become conflicts between mental models – they become adversarial

Key Factors - Context:

Key Factors - Context Objectives – Do you really know why you are holding the conversation ? Time – Is this the right time ? What is the history behind the conversation ? Is it part of a larger process ? Place – Comfortable ? Quiet ? No Distractions ? Assumptions – Do both understand what are the underlying assumptions you are starting from ? Do you need to explore them further ?

Working out the Relationship:

Working out the Relationship Relationships define limits & potential of our conversation – different levels of conversation with strangers and close acquaintances Difficult relationships cause us to speak in codes Conversations are ways of establishing, fixing or changing a relationship Relationships are neither fixed nor permanent – they are dynamic

The Dimensions of Relationship:

The Dimensions of Relationship Relationships operate along several dimensions Some of these are : Status Power Roles Liking All these factors help to define the territory of the conversation – the “ Do not Cross ” line


Status Status is the rank that we grant to the other person in relation to us We see ourselves as simply higher or lower in status to the other person – We confer this status Evident in the degree of respect, familiarity or reserve we grant them We derive our own sense of status from the status that we give the other person

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Status > Feel Lower > Total Agreement > Suppression of our own strongly held ideas Status > Feel Higher > Tendency to discount / Put-Down / Interrupt / Ignore Behaviours = Ways of establishing or altering our status in a relationship Status is always at risk as it is created through the other person’s perception – can be destroyed or diminished in a moment – downgrading a person’s status is a powerful tool for exerting authority


Power Power = Control we exert over others > Influence or control people’s behaviour in any way John French & Bertram Raven : Studies in Social Behaviour – 1959 - Five kinds of Power Bases – 1. Reward Power – Ability to grant favours 2. Coercive Power – Ability to punish 3. Legitimate Power – Conferred by law or rules 4. Referent Power – The Charisma that causes others to imitate or idolise 5. Expert Power – Deriving from specific skills

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Referent Power most effective. Conversations can become paralysed as one of us becomes overpowered by other’s Charisma Conversations often fail as they become power struggles People tend to exercise different kinds of power at different points in same conversation. Little Reward Power ? Use Expert Power ! Lack Charisma ? Use Legitimate or Coercive Power !

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Seduction is another way Power afflicts conversation. We end up doing something we hadn’t intended – we get tempted or attracted We get seduced away from our intended context to the other person’s area of interest Conversational seduction – like other kinds of seduction – usually happens because it is pleasurable However, frequently end up discussing matters of little importance – fail to achieve our goals !


Role Role = Set of Behaviours people expect from us Formal Role > Explicitly Defined > Job description Informal Role > Conferred on us as a result of people’s experience of our conversations We tend to converse with each other in our roles Conversations may fail if our roles our unclear , or are in a conflict

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Example – Formal Role > Accountant / Sales Supervisor / HR Executive etc Informal Role > Devil’s Advocate / Mediator / Clown Conversations that result will tend to be limited by the perceived roles that are operating ! Meredith Belbin’s list of Team Roles : Chair or Coordinator / Shaper or Leader / Innovator or Creative Thinker / Monitor or Critical Thinker / Worker or Implementer / Team worker or builder / Finisher or Detail Checker / Resource researcher outside team / Expert


Liking Conversations may fail because we dislike the other person. Can also go wrong because we like each other a lot ! We may dislike or like someone for many reasons Liking > possible emotional entanglement ; or even a personal relationship Dislike > Power-play or a half-coded game of tit-for-tat ! These 4 factors effect territorial relationship

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A successful conversation seeks out the shared territory – the common ground between us But we guard our own territory very carefully ! Resultantly, many conversation rules are about how we seek & give permission for entering each other’s territory We often tiptoe around borders of an issue because we are unsure about whether we would be welcome on that part of the other person’s territory

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We can feel invaded if the other person broaches a matter that we feel is out of bound to them ! People often ask for or give permission in a code – a subtle hint, or a mere clue of their intention Often we realise we have intruded on private territory only when the other person reacts ! Misunderstandings resulting from such intrusions on private territory can destroy a conversation

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Beware of Intrusions ! Handle Territory Issues Delicately ! Learn to read the signs correctly Remember, we are as possessive of our own territories as the other person

Setting a Structure :

Setting a Structure Conversations = Mess . Rushed / Wandering / Repetitive / Parallel – Each telling their own story with no reference to what the other person is saying ! If conversation is a verbal dance, we often find ourselves trying to dance to two different tunes at the same time, or treading on each other’s toes Our conversations often lack a structure !

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All living organisms have a structure – they cannot grow and develop healthily unless they conform to structuring principles Conversations too have structuring principles We can improve the quality of our conversation by recognising these structures and making them even more sophisticated The structure of a conversation derives from our thinking, which is a two-stage process

First Stage Thinking:

First Stage Thinking The thinking we do when we are looking at reality It allows us to recognise something because it fits into some pre-existing mental pattern or idea Ideas > Make sense of reality = identify = first-stage-thinking = translating language into reality We are able to name an object or event – we simplify a structure by drawing a diagram

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Can YOU recognise this ?

Second Stage Thinking:

Second Stage Thinking Manipulates the language we have created to achieve a result. Having named something, we can talk about it coherently Our conversations always follow this simple structure – we cannot talk about something until we have named it BUT – How we name something determines the way we talk about it. The quality of Second-Stage thinking depends on the quality of our First Stage thinking

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We are very good at Second-Stage thinking ! We are good at manipulating language – so good that we build machines to do it for us – Computers are excellent manipulators of binary language Problem is - We are not nearly as good at First- Stage thinking ! We give names to things without thinking ! In conversations too, we leap to conclusions

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Effective conversation manages structure by – 1. Separating the two stages 2. Checking that we both know what stage we are in 3. Asking questions appropriate to each stage Most of our conversations complete the First Stage in a few seconds. We leap to judgments. We take our perceptions for granted No amount of Second Stage thinking will make up for faulty or limited first stage thinking. Good thinking pays attention to both stages

Managing Behaviour:

Managing Behaviour Conversations are never simply exchange of words. Supporting our words is a whole range of non-verbal communication Tone of Voice / Gestures / Eye Movements & Eye Contact / Body Posture / Physical positions we adopt in relation to each other We have less control over our non-verbal behaviour than over how we speak, because we learn our body language implicitly or vicariously

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Non-verbal messages are important because – 1. They communicate feeling – the primary way of expressing our emotions or instinctive reactions 2. They are more reliable – difficult to fake ! 3. It means we can never NOT COMMUNICATE 4. They relate strongly to verbal messages – they reinforce, regulate, emphasise, contradict, or substitute for, the words we use Our non-verbal communication sometimes says things to the other person that we don’t intend them to know !

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Conversations often go wrong as we sometimes misinterpret non-verbal messages, BECAUSE 1. They are ambiguous 2. They are continuous – go beyond silence 3. They are multi-channel . Everything is happening at once – Eyes / Hands / Feet / Body Position. We evaluate them holistically . This makes them strong but unspecific ! 4. They are culturally determined . Only few are universal

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Effective communicators manage their behaviour They work hard to align their non-verbal messages with their words We all act when we hold conversations. Managing our behaviour simply means trying to act appropriately

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Acknowledgements This presentation is based on excerpts from the book “ Improve your Communication Skills “ by Alan Barker

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