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Newsletter, February 2007

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Richer conversations

This piece is adapted from a contribution due to be published in TALKING THE WALK: A Communications Tool Book for Partnership Practitioners (April 2007) (see: www.thepartneringinitiative.org to access the Tool Book series)

Not all conversations are equal.

There is a spectrum of conversation: at one end there is the sort of deep and searching conversation that transforms ideas and relationships; at the other there is something much shallower that changes nothing and may simply reinforce previous opinions or prejudices.

What makes the difference between richer and poorer conversations?

Poorer conversations Richer conversations
  • Focus on differences and distinctions between things
  • Repeat and defend old assumptions and conventional wisdoms
  • Try to convince others to accept particular arguments
  • Narrow understanding and limit purposes
  • Bring out the patterns and connections among things
  • Explore and question assumptions and conventional wisdoms
  • Challenge participants to learn more and search harder
  • Expand understanding and build shared purposes

This is not to say that a relatively shallow, limiting conversation does not have its uses when time is short or when understanding differences are important, or that there are no degrees between ‘richer’ and ‘poorer’ conversations. But in many contexts, where mutual understanding and shared purposes are paramount, rich and deep conversation is required.

How do you get beyond the poor and shallow type of conversation that often breeds confrontation and disagreement?

The two dimensions of conversation

Every conversation has two dimensions: the substantive and the relational. The substantive is what the conversation is about; the relational is how it happens and the effect this has on relations between those involved.

Rich conversations happen when these two dimensions both go smoothly; if one doesn’t for some reason, the other will also suffer. If, for example, someone drones on ignoring the yawns of others, even if the subject is interesting the conversation will be less than rich because the relational dimensions has been neglected.

This is not a fair example, you may argue, because a monologue by one person, with no exchanges, is never a conversation. But there were exchanges: all those yawns from the reluctant audience. All conversation involves exchanges - and making rich conversations depends on being alert to them.

Let’s examine how to improve the substantive and relational dimensions of conversation separately and then bring them together.

The substantive dimension

How do you transform a conversation made poor through disagreement about substantive issues to one made richer?

First, you have to invest time and effort in listening so that you really understand what the other person is trying to achieve, and why. Don’t assume you know already, and don’t assume that their interests and yours are the same. Equally, don’t assume that because you have different interests you don’t also have compatible ones.

Ask them questions and get them to be as specific as possible about what they want - when people are anxious or wary they tend to use generalities. You have to get down to specifics if you want to find common ground.

It might be useful to use what is sometimes known as the PIN diagram - PIN standing for Positions, Interests and Needs. It’s a way of mapping people’s different and overlapping interests and concerns, and a potent aid to rich conversation.

You could try drawing two PIN diagrams to illustrate where your needs and interests overlap and where they do not:

Think of these triangles as icebergs. People’s most important interests, like most of an iceberg, can be beneath the surface. Simply mapping them like this can help make things clearer.

Doing this does not, of course, make your differences go away. Yet, as the shaded area suggests, there are usually some common interests and the more you can develop these, the less important, in proportion, will be the things that separate you. This is why the process of expanding interests and understanding is such an important part of a rich conversation; a poor conversation, by contrast, is inclined to focus purely on differences as represented by rival positions.

So the substantive dimension of rich conversation is all about looking for common ground and building on shared interests.

Ah yes, you may say, but the problem is that we can’t get to that point: our conversations always become so emotional and the real problem is that the other person is irrational. How do we get beyond this?

The relational dimension

Each person’s behaviour towards the other determines whether the relational dimension leads to a conversation that is rich or poor. In other words, what you do will influence what they do: if you confront them, they may confront you; if you try to appease them, they may take advantage of you and then feel aggrieved if you then change tack and become more assertive.

So you have to decide as soon as possible what behaviour is most likely to create the conversation that you want to have. This approach immediately raises two questions for many people: first, why should I change my behaviour if it is their behaviour that is the problem? And secondly, isn’t changing my behaviour to influence others somewhat manipulative?

Let’s answer the second question first. The reality is that most of us already use different types of behaviour according to the circumstances: all I am suggesting is that you do it consciously rather than unconsciously. In fact, if you don’t adjust your behaviour and you talk to your boss the same way you talk to your children, then you have a problem that is beyond the scope of this article.

Now let’s talk about their behaviour and why it may have to be you who sets the tone and pace of the conversation.

People bring to a conversation the resources they have. Those resources may include education, understanding, technical expertise - and the ability to have a constructive conversation with others. But if that last ability is lacking, then you have to plug the gap: you have to help them to have the conversation you both need to have.

Think of conversation as a dance. Dancing works best when you both know the steps; if one of you doesn’t, then it’s up to the other to lead the dance until your partner picks up the rhythm and the moves. Sooner or later you’ll dance together without treading on each other’s toes.

From this To this

When icebergs and dancing aren’t enough

So you’ve identified shared interests, built on common ground, and even managed a few steps in time with the music - but you still think the other person is just too irrational for any amount of conversation to work. What do you do then?

First, abandon the idea that the other person is ‘irrational’: people always act rationally from their point of view. But if the other person is very different to you, if they come from a different country, if their education or background or training or understanding of the world is very different from yours - if, in fact, they are working off a different map of the word - then yes, they may seem ‘irrational’ to you.

The problem, however, is not really these differences. The problem is that in the busy modern world we rush to judgment about what is rational and irrational because we rarely invest enough time in conversation.

Rich conversations take time. Sit back and relax, or, better still, go for a long, long walk to explore your world and their world and the world you both want to create.

Andrew Acland is the External Examiner for the Partnership Brokers Accreditation Scheme www.odi.org.uk/pppg/PBAS run by the Overseas Development Institute and the International Business Leaders Forum.


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