We all know situations in which people talk about something of no interest or use to us. So, we pretend to listen by smiling and saying “yeah, oh, good, ah,” and then we try to get away as soon as possible. Nobody feels good. We have accepted this as a normal code, but just because it is the norm it doesn’t mean it is good for us.
Today I’d like to offer a very simple model for having meaningful conversations – conversations that don’t suck your energy but actually create trust, connection and possibilities. Why? Because this seems to be lacking in all organizations I work with. My clients complain about unproductive meetings, the lack of trust and integrity, not speaking of joy and fulfillment. Some are even desperate and near to crying. What to do, and where to start?
We meet other people through conversations. And these conversations suck many times. People don’t really listen. The don’t feel like they have been heard and understood. They invent strategies of power to get what they want. All of these misunderstandings drain energy, create conflicts and kill the already-weak trust basis. We talk to people, but most of these conversations are “as-if” conversations – they are meaningless, they are not honest. They are actually designed to avoid each other. We just pretend to share something, while these ways of talking have the purpose of distracting from what we really should be discussing. The result is exhaustion and the feeling of talking and doing so much with a very limited outcome.
Improving the quality of conversations is something each and every person can start immediately. You don’t need a corporate trust initiative. You don’t need a training. You don’t need to have a special talent. You just need a little bit of attention, discipline and practice. You can easily try it and see different results in your life.
The model is so simple, almost too simple to share. But it works, and here it is.
Meaningful conversations consist of three elements:
This is when you actually and authentically share your thoughts and ideas, instead of pretending to share while protecting your ideas and holding back. It is a way of opening up and inviting other people into your world, thoughts and feelings. This is what we don’t want, because we are afraid of other people’s opinions. We want to be liked, successful etc. and we don’t think we can show what is going on.
Or as Jane Wright from Landmark Forum expresses so beautifully, “Speaking is what allows for who and how we are in the world. It’s what allows for the futures we create, where our ideas become clear and possible, where we share ourselves, and where others are expanded by our participation with them. Speaking and listening are not just something we do in response to a world that exists outside of us—they’re what brings that very world into being—it’s through language that life really happens. When we see language this way—as that which gives rise to the world and that which gives access to what is in that world—it alters the very nature of what’s possible. When we look at what it is we have to offer each other, it’s only ourselves—our listening, and our speaking.”
If you feel you are not ready to share yourself or it is not safe enough to try/start (which can be wise), you can start with Step 2 and 3:
There are millions ways of listening. Just hearing noises other people produce is not listening. Going through our check-list while other people talk is not listening. Again, there is no chance I can express it any better than Jane Wright, so I will just quote: “We are essentially in conversations with ourselves most of the time—how we listen is determined by our ‘concerns’ (being successful, being liked, wanting to know ‘what’s in it’ for us, how things will turn out, etc.). That voiceover, is not necessarily bad—it’s just that we don’t really hear the other person, or they us. What we’re saying to others, or they to us, might seep in from time to time, but it isn’t in what we or they are saying—it’s what we’re saying plus what they are saying about what we’re saying, which isn’t what we’re saying, vice versa. That dynamic has us miss out on the full possibility of communication—and the infinite worlds it makes available. Listening without the filters of those concerns has enormous power. Listening is the clearing in which speaking can occur—it’s the possibility for understanding, for meaning, for being known and loved.”
Listening needs mental presence, which is one of the key qualities we have lost and need to cultivate. We are interrupting ourselves and others with our own uncultivated thoughts being all over the place, uncontrolled, unwanted and destructive, like cancer.
The most precious thing we can give people is your undivided attention.
This is maybe the most important part, or the most underrated part of the three steps. Asking questions is probably the most powerful tool we have in creating relationships through conversations. And while there are thousands of types and forms of questions there is only one thing I would encourage to ask yourself: What is the INTENTION of my question?
Many questions are fake questions. They are not designed to increase your level of information; they are designed to sell other people your opinion, to convince them, defeat them, show them their corner, or even to intimidate or dominate them. Like: “How about… what if… have you ever considered… how will you earn money… what is the business case behind… don’t you think that… yes, but have you…” They can be intruding – sometimes even coaching questions can create a sense of “I am superior to you.” They are disempowering, limiting possibilities and frustrating.
I make a distinction between questions that connect (opening questions) and questions that separate (fake questions). Questions that connect come from a different place: they come from an attitude of “not already knowing,” from a place of possibility, of expansiveness, of pure interest, of kindness and love. They come from an intention to build a bridge, to enter the other person’s world, and to create common ground. These questions have the intention to include the other person, to learn, to create, to build. If this is your intention, you can ask any question, with whatever technique; it does not matter.
If you want to practice “Presence” you can join our retreat we are offering this summer: