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The Power of Conversation

Your life happens in conversation.

Sometimes that conversation is private (in your head) and sometimes it is public, either with one other person or with many people at the same time.

To a greater or lesser degree, your ability to manifest your life’s purpose or create what you want to achieve in the next meeting will depend on the effectiveness of your conversations.

Of course, there are many elements that factor into the effectiveness of a conversation, but one of the simplest and yet most overlooked of those factors is the “shared background of obviousness”. Put simply, our public conversations are often undermined by a failure to confirm that all parties attach the same meaning to the terms being used.

This sounds very simple and yet, in so many of my coaching conversations, this is precisely the breakdown that I hear. My sense is that this phenomenon is, if anything, becoming more prevalent, not less. Why so?

I think there are two main factors:
One is that is people are trying to move so fast today and are so keen to push through to conclusions and actions that they don’t want to ‘waste time’ checking for mutual understanding.

The second factor is that as the world is becoming a smaller place, so more and more conversations are being held between people from different countries and continents, with very different backgrounds and upbringings. A well-known example concerns the concept of time and what it means to be “on time”, “early” or “late”. Ask a cross-section of people from across the globe and you are likely to receive a wide range of answers.

A frequently touted solution to this latter factor is “cultural training”. However, in my experience, this often does more harm than good, because it tends to give people a false sense of security – that they “know” how a person from a certain country/region will think, feel and act.

I was reminded of this recently when a client confidently assured me that their team couldn’t be expected to give them honest feedback because they were predominantly Indonesian. Now it so happens that my wife is Indonesian and I had to point out to my client that she has absolutely no problem in giving me frequent, honest and direct feedback!

Rather than relying on cultural stereotypes, what works is to take the time to explore how the other party/parties understand/s the key elements you are discussing in the conversation. Sure, it may take more time in the short term, but if that investment results in the elimination of misunderstanding and confusion, then the ensuing medium/long term payback can be immense.

Taking this time to understand how the other party/parties see/s the situation or defines a concept also has other benefits. Firstly, seeking to understand the other person’s point of view signals respect and is likely to benefit the relationship as a whole. This is critical because conversations (and life in general) never happen in a vacuum, they always happen in the context of a relationship.

Secondly, during the exploration and clarification of meaning, new understanding and possibility may emerge, giving rise to a whole new line of thought and action.

The concept of a shared background of obviousness was never clearer to me than when I visited an Icelandic beach on a recent holiday.

Sari Marsden in Iceland
Sari Marsden on a beach in Iceland.

The temperature was -10 degrees celsius, the sand was black and punctuated by big blocks of ice. Sari is wearing wearing 4 layers of clothing, big boots and thick gloves.

Marcus Marsden in Maldives
Marcus Marsden on a beach in Maldives.

Here, in the Maldives I am also on a “beach”, but the situation is rather different. The temperature was 35 degrees celsius, the sand was white and I am wearing just enough to avoid getting sunburned.

An Icelander and a Maldivian have grown up to define “beach” very differently. It is not that one is right and one is wrong, it is simply the case that they do not have a ‘shared background of obviousness’. For one, it is obvious that you take sun lotion to the beach, for the other, taking sun lotion would not even occur to them.

Such breakdowns happen every day, especially in teams made up of people from different nationalities (which seems to be pretty much every team nowadays!) It is all too easy for this to be overlooked in the hectic hurly burly of everyday business life and the result is frustration, anger, strained relationships and the cardinal sin in today’s world: wasted time.

Where in your life, could you usefully apply this idea? A good place to start your enquiry is in a relationship where you are feeling frustrated, or that you sense that results are sub-optimal in some way. Very often, the underlying factor is a missing shared background of obviousness. Although I have focused on different nationalities in this article, there are many other potential causes of this breakdown, such as gender, level of seniority, age and communication style etc. It might even be that someone just has a history from a different company or even from a different department within your own company. The list is long, so be prepared to look across a spectrum of relationships.

One of the benefits of utilising the Newfield ontological coach training program to develop yourself or the managers in a business to ‘think, feel and act like a coach’ and/or working with a coach, is that breakdowns such as these become easier to identify and remedy ahead of time, resulting in far more productive conversations.

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