Meaningful Conversations

Conversation and Meaning

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership

A circuitous route has brought me to this blog post topic. Here’s the short version. As often happens, my wife made a statement directed to me; she gave me information. I heard and acknowledged that I had heard her. Then what she desired and expected did not happen (interpret that as doghouse time for me.) Next situation: I recently spoke at a gathering comprising Executive MBA students and a group of their mentors. The topic was networking. Many of the folks attending stopped to say they “got it,” and appreciated my shared insights. Several stopped by to chat and the results from my point of view is that through that brief chat they disclosed that they did NOT “get it.” Add to these two recent incidents that a long time ago, I was given to believe that regardless of conventional wisdom on the subject, I am 100% responsible for what gets heard in my conversations.

How can that be? There are at least two folks involved in any conversation, right? So doesn’t the listener bear at least half of the responsibility? The short answer is “No.” They too are responsible for 100% of the communication. And that needs a bit of explanation. Here are my thoughts.

First remember that people TAKE responsibility and they are HELD accountable. Assume I have an insight or point of view that I believe is helpful. I wish to share that with you (as I am right now). The idea or insight is in my brain, I have a clear vision of what it is; right now it’s that I am 100% responsible for the conversation. My wish is to share this insight with you. Yet, the words I use to describe what I’m thinking will very likely have a different meaning to you – sometimes a nuanced difference, sometimes a quite substantial difference. Something subtle happens when I take 100% responsibility for what gets heard in this conversation (or transmitted in this writing). I begin to think more carefully about the ways things can be misinterpreted, misunderstood or somehow trigger unproductive emotions.

Besides being cautious and aware of all the many chances to miscommunicate, I will have to raise the bar on reading the body language for those receiving the information. I have to ask questions to be sure that they did receive my thoughts properly. This gets very complicated since now I have to wonder if I am receiving the words they are speaking in the same manner in which they mean them. So this is where they too are 100% responsible as well.

I think there are several levels of conversation. One is purely transactional where we are sharing only information, instructions, etc. It is of course still critical that we make sure we’re being clear on what is to be done, yet the content is usually not very nuanced or complicated. Still, it is best if we write down these instructions if we’re receiving them or communicating them to large groups. A second level of communication is where we are working with another person or group to discover what they are experiencing or what their needs might be if they are a potential customer. This communication should be full of genuine questions – about things which you do not already know the answer. I call these “clarifying questions” since they have no embedded solutions but rather authentically are for gaining insight and understanding. Perhaps a third level of conversation is one that is collaborative, brainstorming and creative.

Taking 100% responsibility is not limited to conversations. The possibilities are endless if we each take 100% responsibility for what gets heard, for the results of our organizations and/or for the decisions we make in our personal lives. When that happens, we are alert to anything that might take us off task or cause poor results – regardless of whether or not we are officially responsible for a particular function.

Being clear and making sure we have been clear about the meaning in our conversations is the stuff of great leadership. So is holding others accountable to do the same in their conversations. What do you think? Are you ready to be 100% responsible? Can you build a culture in your organization that encourages people to take responsibility and to be held accountable?