Conversation is becoming a lost art, replaced by endless talk. To converse is to share ideas and learn from one another in the process. It demands listening and talking in equal degrees. Talk is one-way. All those people endlessly talking into their cellphones, the TV chat shows, the instant pundits on any topic, all of them talk without ceasing yet rarely pause to listen. We live surrounded by constant chatter that amounts to little more than fear of silence.
Go to any meeting in any organization. What will you discover? People who spend their time between talking thinking about what to say next. People eagerly seizing on someone else’s words purely as the excuse for talking themselves. Decisions made before the meeting ever takes place. No one listens. No one is open to persuasion. Attendees are briefed to take a position, regardless of what’s said after they arrive. Like politicians toeing the party line, they have open mouths and tightly shut minds.
People don’t even say what they mean when they do speak. Our organizational heroes are like John Wayne, strong and silent types, hiding themselves behind the action-man exterior. In “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives,” Theodore Zeldin uses dialogue from a John Wayne movie to make the point. When the heroine says to Wayne, “You don’t need anybody but yourself,” she could as easily be speaking to a top executive in a corporation.
“I want a woman who needs me,” Wayne replies. It’s all about him it seems. But when the heroine wears a sexy dress to attract his attention, all he can say is, “You wear those things and I’ll arrest you.”
“I thought you’d never say it,” she replies.
“That you love me.”
“I said I’ll arrest you.”
“It means the same thing. You know that. You just won’t say it.”
Action-man (and action-woman) leaders prove their superiority by aggression. They don’t need to listen, and they cannot be persuaded save by aggression greater than their own. Conversation has no place in their lives. Who needs talk when there’s action to be done? Who needs to persuade others when you can manipulate them, or coerce them, or (like political fixers the world over) use dirty tricks to discredit them?
Conversation is personal contact, the meeting of minds in a mutual search for what life and work are about and how we should deal with both. It’s approaching others with an open mind and ready sympathy for their concerns, not just our own. When people converse, a change of opinion is always possible. What would happen if politicians and leaders began to converse, instead of shouting pre-prepared political slogans? Might there be a chance to put the needs of the nation as a whole before narrow, sectional interests?
Conversation is the ultimate human interest activity, at work or outside, bringing you into direct contact with people in all their complexity and vulnerability. It’s also the best remedy for the sense of alienation from society that’s the underlying cause of vandalism, crime and terrorism.
People want most of all to be heard; to have others listen to them — really listen — and understand their needs and concerns. If you want to attract and keep good employees, if you want to retain good customers, if you just want to have a better quality life, cut all the chatter and start a conversation. It will change your world.
Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his thoughts most days at The Coyote Within and Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the fun and satisfaction to management work.