WTF Is Conversation? (Part II)

We all talk: sometimes to particular persons; sometimes to anyone who will listen; and sometimes to ourselves when we can’t find anyone to listen. In this blog, however, we’re only interested in a certain kind of talk: conversation–and just conversation within the business context. Indeed, we believe business conversation, whether face-to-face, or in texts and emails, is a unique technology made necessary by the knowledge economy. So the old saw, “stop talking and go to work,” is now outdated and obsolete.

This is not solely because of the knowledge economy, but also because of the newly defined understanding of communication and how it works. The starting point of conversation is words. They are the symbols of talk that we attach, by consensus and tradition, to objects, experiences, ideas and relations that create responses in us and others. It’s very important, therefore, to recognize a number of inherent characteristics about words—and how they impact messages in conversation.

Words are dynamic
Words do a lot more than merely convey information. Although the meaning of a word can change drastically over long periods of time, words are also tweaked in most conversations. Their meaning is associated with what one person is trying to get across and how the other is responding. So tweaking may emphasize values, emotions, defensiveness or empathy and clarify priorities, goals, strategies, commitments or success. That’s true for both sides of an interaction: initiator and responder.

A caveat: Although some believe that the dynamic nature of words means that talkers are free to use words any way they like and break the rules of proper English, that’s an absurd parody of “dynamic.”

There’s tremendous pressure on conversationalists to limit word changes. Successful communication depends on this. Yet the meaning of words in conversation is rarely nailed down. Words are mobile, shifting, drifting, moving, changing and morphing. So words demand a thoroughgoing understanding for effective conversation.

Four characteristics of words define both their potential and their complexity:  

Words advocate
They preach. Though the choice of words may be to inform, influence, empathize, motivate or even entertain, we intentionally select the words that, in our mind, will best achieve our objective. Using an expletive in a sentence is an obvious choice, just as not using an expletive is also a choice. Though expletives are clear examples of advocacy, the same is true to a greater or lesser degree with all terms, even choices of articles like “a” or “the.”

When my daughter graduated from the University of Chicago, Hannah Gray, then president, stated in unforgettable accent that these were the graduates of the University of Chicago. Her accent of the article made clear that she was excluding all other colleges, even their sometime competitor, Northwestern, from the unique, high quality of her university.

Among rhetoricians it’s well known that language has the power to influence people to do good, to do evil or to do nothing at all. Significant research finds that vivid language drawing attention to things like events impacts bias and the probability of similar events repeating themselves. It’s the language that calls attention to the event, not the other way around. And so, extensive, vivid vocabularies become powerful tools for the business person.

Words have two meanings
They have both dictionary and situational meanings. Predictably, conversational excellence reflects knowledge of both. When we use dictionary-speak, we’re talking literally, which is a rare event. Instead, like Humpty-Dumpty, words mean what we want them to mean. Two prevalent uses of words are for sarcasm and irony. Sarcasm is usually pretty obvious. Words can also be used ironically to signify the opposite of a dictionary meaning.

Situational meanings of words can be easily misunderstood, especially when conversationalists come from differing backgrounds educationally, regionally, culturally or ethnically. In today’s economy, those differences are normal, making misunderstanding a common occurrence. Research suggests at least half the time a conversation is misunderstood. Some people who rarely read and live in a “small world” miss what’s being said on an almost regular basis. Indeed, a major reason many jokes are misunderstood is that the situational meaning of words and ideas are outside their educational and cultural background.

Words are two-sided
The situational meaning of a word–in contrast to the dictionary meaning–is determined both by who’s using the word and for whom. Adaptation is as essential for the effective conversation as it is for presentational speaking. Expert conversationalists adapt their language to the interests, level of understanding, attitudes and commitments of the others.

Humans are emotional and our brains respond quickly, which complicates words and conversation. For example, one person may be threatened by a certain word choice or framing of a topic while another may be emotionally neutral to that same word choice or framing of a topic. The effective talker either knows, or quickly learns, what piques one person and not another, what angers one and not another, and so on. And of course, the effective talker is also going to be piqued, angered and impacted by his/her emotional triggers.

Conversation’s complexity is compounded by the fact that it’s done on the fly—a high demand requiring verbal fluency. When consulting at Purina and corporate concerns like changes in company strategy, potential loss of a major customer, or possible restructuring were on the agenda, I made certain to attend the corporate meeting merely for the opportunity to observe Pat McGinnis, CEO, interact with his people. On a couple of occasions I had the opportunity to hear his conversation about the same issues with his investors—a very different audience.  While the topic at hand was the same at the corporate meeting as the investors’ meeting, he mindfully chose very different words and ways of framing the issue for the specific context. He adapted to his fellow listeners and conversationalists. His long tenure at Purina, even after Nestle bought out the firm, is at least partially a response to his linguistic ability to converse—and pay close attention to the two-sided characteristics of language. It generated a deep well of respect and liking among both his employees and his investors.

Change happens within the word and language.
Contrary to conventional understanding, change is not within the actual experience but in the words. For example, when you change the words (metaphors) used to describe a business tool, the tool changes. You’ve made a different sense of the tool. In Cathy O’Neill’s new book about algorithms, she deals with what we commonly call big data, a supposed neutral mathematical tool. But, she calls big data “weapons of math destruction.” The data remain the same, But when O’Neill renames “data” as “weapons,” the same algorithms are transformed from mere tools to biased, toxic cultural cocktails.

We believe that people eventually know what they say, and they usually know why they say what they say. What they don’t understand is what they say does. We’ve been messing around with big data for years. Only recently have we understood the dark side of algorithms.

But understanding this inherent characteristic of words and language can lower our capacity to blunder. Generally, the more we notice, the better our handling of words and language. In business, these conversational tools readily impact the bottom line in constructive, profitable ways. But that necessitates our focus upon words and language, even more than upon these algorithms.

In sum, the history of business management can be divided into three eras. The first two were the eras of execution (making large organizations work) and expertise (developing management theory and science). Today we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and why they exist. We believe we have entered a new era: technology conversation. And its cornerstone is language and vocabulary.

So, what the fuck is conversation? It’s the real business of business. And we will provide you with the strategies and tools to navigate its currents.

To read part I, please go here.


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