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WTF Is Conversation?

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Two young salmon are swimming upstream. From a distance they see an older salmon 
swimming towards them, downstream. As the young salmon cross paths with the older salmon, the elder says “The water’s nice today, huh boys?” The young salmon say nothing. Then one of the younger salmon looks to the other and says, “What the fuck is water?”

Based on more than 40 years of experience and a great deal of communication and behavioral research, we’ve concluded that in the knowledge economy, conversation is the real business of business. This is a reflection of how the skills of the economy have changed in historic ways. And it’s also a fact hidden in plain sight. Years ago, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, obsessed with the difficulties of language, pointed out that because of their simplicity and familiarity, the things that are most important for us are hidden. In other words, you don’t see something if it’s always in front of your nose. That’s why we don’t easily recognize what’s most striking and most powerful—that business first and foremost is about conversations.

Conversation is the foundation of all other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances. This conclusion leaves a lot of people out. Some of them went into their jobs hoping they wouldn’t have to talk much. Most have no humanities courses to support conversational skills. If, like many, they’ve had a communication course or two, conversation won’t have been in the mix. Furthermore, most grew up in families that were conversationally challenged. The consequence is

that real conversation is scary and they’re facing significant limitations. They’re like a 3M engineering client who said to me that if he couldn’t learn to relate better, he’d not get any further in his career. The defensiveness in his eyes was palpable. While he was a graduate of a top engineering school and a low-level manager, he wasn’t where he wanted to be for somebody in his mid-30s.

The role of vocabulary was first underlined for me in an off-the-cuff comment by Carl Wilson while he was CIO at Pillsbury. He was very pleased with my coaching, but he emphasized that my most significant contribution were the vocabulary skills I gave him and his people. I never fully understood those implications until I followed him to Georgia-Pacific, an organization that totally lacked any vocabulary for management development. As a result, I had to start my coaching from scratch. However, not only did I have to teach them new conversational skills, I also had to “unteach” them the dysfunctional conversational uses they had developed. Inevitably, this was slow progress fraught with misunderstanding and politically and emotionally loaded situations. That experience reinforced the fact that people with limited vocabularies can’t resolve complex problems, recognize in-your-face opportunities or create break-through ideas. As Wittgenstein wrote, the limits of a person’s world are defined by their language and vocabulary. No wonder the best opportunities come to the best educated in the best firms—they’ve got the vocabulary.

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