How to have a conversation

Years of working for a strategy consultancy can turn you into a mercenary. Strategy for hire. Get in, infiltrate the problem, extract the solutions, that kind of thing… Week after week of simultaneous processes for clients of all trades and predicaments, agencies of all takes, approaches and cultures. Sometimes the pace is slow but mostly it is not. You have only so much time to deliver an in-depth analysis and winning solution. Your mind is in perpetual movement, no fixed theories, nothing set in stone. Not one dominating methodology to jam all life situations and organization problems into, but rather fitting the assessed sets of circumstances with proper strategic processes… Constant deconstruction and reorientation of perspective in order to find the sequences of signs and concepts that are right on the money with the real thing. It can really get you ready for the world as it is.

And in the end, it all comes down to the people you get to work with. What’s in their heads Vs. what’s in your head. What’s on the agenda Vs. what’s their personal agenda. Negotiating meanings and current mental resources. Each case’s end result comes down to the sum interaction of you and dozens of people on agency’s and client’s side. Lots to consider and lots of going by the gut. But with each iteration you get to see certain patterns. Both their behaviour and your behaviour. You listen, you learn, you optimize, and it seems to work better than the last time.

Here I’d like to share some of my personal favourite, not-so-obvious findings on how to have a conversation. As in how to establish common understanding, facilitate creative space and find yourself in teams happy to work together on common goal. Hopefully you will find some that will make your work better and me looking smart.

Don’t intimidate, facilitate

Often times, when you start working with new people, you might feel a need to assert yourself. Show your skills, flaunt your knowledge, prove your necessity. While there are many reasons for it, this can very quickly create a space of distance and mild threat, in turn shifting focus of the meeting from conversation to self-assertion (all enveloped in trained tropes of a well-mannered, quality corporate meeting). So, by all means, minimize that tendency. Take a step back and focus on the path to doing your job well. Provide perspectives and invite others to entertain them and share their own. Serve rather than command. This can quickly redirect entire group’s focus from “who is this guy and does he know that I am important” to “how can I contribute to this thing.” The end-result will need no assertion.

Entertain their worlds

Each person inhabits the world constructed from the data he or she possesses. So do you. Keep that in mind. Be ready to entertain other outlooks and make an effort to see things from other perspectives. Your perspective will gain focus, while honest inquiry into other person’s views communicates that it matters to the cause.

Start from their islands

Every consultant’s 101 – assessing where a listener stands on the issue and building a bridge of understanding from his place to yours. Mostly illusion, but practiced over years, an actual thing. What’s crucial here – if you want real understanding or something that can lead to actual change of perception – start from their place and brick after brick get to the destination. The need for it is illustrated especially well by most success people telling others how to achieve success (i.e. self-admiration manifestos). Here they are standing on top of the mountain, having made 20 years of steps towards their current position and shouting to all the folks down there who are about to make their first steps, as if they are on the same level. The things they shout are really bold and nice to hear but they make no change in the listeners’ lives, because they make no effort to connect with their present situation and experience. The bridge is built but from the other way, so only people who are close to the mountain have any chance of making the link. And who uses bridges to climb mountains anyway.

Talk ideas

Not words – as in focus on the meaning instead of it’s representations, catchy slogans and oversold buzz words. As in delete jargon and hold your superlatives at bay.
Not people – as in refute the claim not the person, evaluate on merit not on context of presentation (like all the associations that go with the source of a given claim).

Settle your definitions

This one is very in right now. The rise in information consumption, democratization of content creation, redistribution of information, crisis of scientific system… all that has lead to more fragmented outlooks on things and more room for differences between how we define things. Not only does it contribute to a paralyzed social debate of 2018 (more on that later) but can pose a challenge to pretty much any business talk filled with lots of abstract concepts. A lot of these conversations end at the beginning, because people have vastly different definitions of things they talk about, while having outdated notion that they are obviously the same. It helps to talk some of the biggest ones through, while also keeping people more alert and in touch with the thing behind the definition. Remember that assumptions about what is obvious to others is where the biggest rifts in communication appear.

See the human behind the client

This goes out to my main man, the Client. There’s a lot of things going on behind that suit-up persona that we dare not see because, well, he is the Client and our bank accounts depend on him. But hey, he has a Boss to impress and you can be his ally in that. He has a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed, and you can understand why he’s not into risky ideas as much as your creatives are. He’s an uncertain human being who would like to be proud of the company he works for and you can assist him in that by the solutions you deliver to him. Once we break through all the code and associations we see that we are all in this together.