Six Degrees to Conversation

Now why would any business person want to know this? If you’re like me, the better you understand something, the better you can deal with it. Besides, my success—and yours, too—is liable to be determined by our ability to manage and contribute to these conversations. Furthermore, since conversation is the real business of business in today’s world, and since my long-term consulting tells me that the majority of people ain’t very good at most of these conversations, understanding these conversations just might keep you off the streets—and your organization intact

Over the next few months I’ll be writing about these six conversations. My blogs are based on some related research by Alvesson and Karremann, two knowledgeable Scandinavian students of innovation, I suspect these six conversations are all there are. But after you read this, feel free to correct me.

  1. Small-talk conversations. The study gives small talk a yawn, but that’s because, like most organizational behavior folk, they don’t really understand what’s going on in small talk. Or how to make more of small talk. Or how to read the subtexts that surface in a few conversational turns. But I’ll give them a pass. It lets me put some stuff in print.
  2. Naming conversations. The authors think of this talk as varnishing, that final moment of naming something which makes a difference. Ummmm. But rhetoric tells us it’s a lot more than that. And I’ll explain why naming can be really, really important—especially as a form of advocacy.
  3. Transferable conversations. Although this has been around in rhetoric for decades, the discipline is new for organizations. These conversations are about placing something from one context into a new context, revising it and growing from it. These can be terrific, unique, and fascinating organizational growth conversations.
  4. Framing conversations. This competence is initially intuitive. You may have been told that we’re “not on the same page,” or “think outside of the box.” My best friend is so good at framing and reframing that he “doesn’t even know there is a box.” That, however is an exceptional ability.
  5. Productivity conversations. Oh god…I’ll bet you’ve heard more about this than you want to. But there are some terrific skills from organizational rhetoric that can really give you a leg up on personal and organizational productivity.
  6. Creativity conversations. The Ideo folk are making a science of this stuff. But there’s more to learn. And since innovation is the key to growth, the more ability at these conversations the better.

All in all, the role of conversation and the narratives within are typically more complex—often more complex—than it first appears. Indeed, all conversations are political and not neutral. So words and conversations always take place in situations where business ideas are being adjusted and reformed. It’s a mistake to think that important conversations are merely that which is stated. Or to actually believe that “you need to stop talking and get to work.” I’ll get around to telling you why and when that idea is pretty stupid. In sum, the demands upon talk today require us to pay attention to how people use language—and, even more importantly, how language uses people.

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