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Work, Life, Lead: The Conversation Key

Are you finding it harder to communicate with people?  image Whether at the office or at home, do you find that you pass one another with just a word or two and then gone?

The pace of our lives is accelerating, and with it stress upon our relationships. I hear friends talk about about how little time they have to talk with their children, much less have dinner together in the evening.  I hear the same concerns about communication at the office. We now live in a Twitter world of short (140 character) blasts of information. Is the problem that we have less time to communicate or that is it how we communicate?  How has your communication approach changed to meet the changed world of both our personal and professional lives?

In my experience, three approaches to communicating have been most evident. They are:

The distribution of information in the form of advertising, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and over the past generation, through websites.

The personal expression of opinion and perspective in the form of speeches, essays, poetry, novels and for the past century, film and television.

The exchange of information and perspective between people through conversation. This type of communication takes the form of letters, phone calls and today through social media, like email, text messaging and in online social networks.

Where the first approach is more formal, the second is more personal, the third is more relational combining the other two. The difference between the first two and the third is simple and significant. The first two types of communicating is from one communicator outward to a receiving audience. The third is interactive is built upon sharing and responding, not simply distributing and expressing.

One of the most revolutionary changes taking place today is the growing importance of conversation. It isn’t simply because people like to talk with one another. It is supplanting the first two forms of communication in importance to the point that all those forms listed above in the first two approaches to communication.

Today, a book that lacks an interactive website for conversation and discussion gets lost in the noise of so many books to read. Newspapers that think their job is to distribute information and not act as the gathering place for the conversation their community are losing ground. Even social media outlets are not immune to this trend. Twitter posts that are nothing more than sharing when people brush their teeth or are selling get-rich-quick without any investment or work schemes are boring and a waste of time.

At home, if family communication is mostly coordinating schedules and updates on daily activities, then it easy to see that time as virtually the same as the project-based activities at work.

The issue of communication is not primarily what to communicate or how, but rather the discipline to do so appropriately. Communication at home and the office share a common goal. It is to build strength in the relationships so that they have the resilience needed to handle times of disruptive, disorienting change. Improve interpersonal communication, and you create a culture of collaboration and coordination.

There are four qualities of communication that I find are important to emphasize. Make them work at home and at work, and you’ll find a greater sense of togetherness and impact happening.

1. Clarity: Be clear about what you want people to know. This clarity is related to being clear about your own principles, values and purposes. Even if you are personally not clear, clearly express as so. If you don’t know what is coming in the future, say that. Don’t create greater ambiguity and anxiety by trying finesse the clarity issue. It will only create greater problems.

2. Consistent: Communication needs to be timely and predictable. It is helpful for people who look to us for leadership to know that we will share with them information that is relevant to them. By predictable, I specifically mean honest and forthright.  Consistent communication that is open and honest builds trust.

3. Consequence: Be clear about the consequence of your communication. There are two aspects to focus on. First, what is the result that I’m looking for? Is it just to provide information or to let someone know my position on an issue? Second, what action or response do you want them to take as a result of your communication?  What do you want them to do with it? If you are clear on this point, you’ll also know how to measure whether they heard you clearly.

4. Conversational: If as a parent, distributing information and giving orders to your family is your approach to communicating, then the same problems you have at work will result. When our communication is conversational, we understand what the others are thinking. We better understand how to express ourselves.

Conversational communication is as much listening as it is expressing. We need to listen, absorb, reflect and respond to what others have to say to us. We expect the same from them. Or we should.

The advantage that I have found to the use of conversation is that is serves to expand awareness and provide innovative solutions to problems.  How often to you ask your children to help you solve big problems? When you do, you not only are in conversation, but you are helping them learn how to use conversation as a leadership behavior.

Without genuine conversation taking place, two or more people are merely talking pass one another. They are expressing opinion and reporting on activities. It is less communication and more ego satisfaction. Is this happening at your dinner table or staff meeting? When people talk at one another rather than with one another, they are less open to the contributions that others can make.

Where conversation is structured for a genuine exchange of ideas, new ideas emerge that are built upon those that have been shared. As a result, each contributor feels some ownership for outcome of the conversation.

The problem that many of us have is that we use the first two kinds of communication – information distribution and self-expression – in both our business context and at home. There is a place for both. But it is through conversation that trust and a capacity to adapt to change is nurtured.

Developing the capacity for effective conversations is a key strategy for managing the demands of our personal and professional lives. Conversation takes time to do well. It requires commitment and discipline. The more communication is a genuine sharing of ideas, the more the bonds of family and work relationships will  be strong.

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About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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Posted in General Leadership, Leadership Q + A, Work Life Lead.

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