Rob Kendall is the author of Workstorming, an essential manual for getting the most out of the conversations that you have on a daily basis with your colleagues. He has worked with numerous organisations from Virgin to the Post Office to BBC Worldwide and writes about his work at conversationexpert.com.
A lot of my work involves listening in on other people’s meetings. My role is partly to help them have some of those difficult conversations. But I’m also observing what goes on. I feel that observing the way we have conversations is the most important thing we can do to help us learn and develop better communication strategies. Often, we have conversations quite mindlessly rather than treating them as a skill.
We tend to be ‘in’ conversations, but not stop and think about them. They move so quickly - you finish one conversation and you’re into the next. But you can train yourself to pay attention to the flow of conversation, who, or what, creates the dynamic and what breaks up the flow.
You’ve always got two roles - to participate and to observe. We get locked in our own perspectives. Some people are detail-oriented so they take conversations right down into specifics. Others like to take people up into the broader context, then others are very action-oriented and they always feel frustrated if a conversation doesn’t seem to be moving forward and not getting to the point. You can have all of these different dynamics going on in the same conversation which explains why one person might think it went well and another might feel terribly demotivated.
People’s language can give us a clue to their style. For example, someone who talks about ‘cracking on’ is signalling that momentum is important to them. Listen to their phrasing, whether they like to ask ‘why’ or ‘who’ or ‘how’ most often.
Pauses are the most valuable part of a conversation. So often, I go in to watch a meeting and there are no breaks in the conversation, every space gets filled. In fact, the only way into the conversation is to interrupt. But it’s always amazing to observe what happens when you’re listening to somebody, and you don’t fill the space when they pause. Often that’s when the most brilliant insights come.
The thing I fear is getting to a point where I think ‘I’ve cracked it’. If you ever think that, life reminds you very quickly that you haven’t. One of my great heroes as an artist is Henri Matisse. Shortly before he died he was asked to define the secret of his success. He said ‘to maintain a curious mind and be dedicated to practice’. I feel it’s the same thing with conversation; having a curious mind and being dedicated to practice can take you a long way.
You can buy your copy of Workstorming here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Workstorming-Rob-Kendall/dp/1780289170