The Art of Conversation

On January 5th an article from the Associated Press cited a survey conducted by the Conference Board research group which showed that American job satisfaction is at its lowest level in more than 22 years. Only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work with the most cited reason for unhappiness being fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting, followed by incomes not keeping up with inflation and the soaring cost of health insurance. The article went on to say that if the job satisfaction trend is not reversed, it could stifle innovation and hurt U.S. competitiveness and productivity.

After considering this, I wonder if over time jobs have gotten less interesting or have we become less interesting in our jobs. I tend to think it’s the latter situation considering our growing dependence on electronic communication: email, texting, twitter, instant messaging, etc. Perhaps we are losing the art of conversation. Meaningful conversation enlivens our job environment and promotes clear, concise communication. This is especially true when conversations involve high stakes.

Recently, I read a book entitled “Crucial Conversations” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzer (no, this is not a law group). They define a crucial conversation to be discussions between two or more people where 1) stakes are high, 2) opinions vary, and 3) emotions run strong. The typical reactions if these conversations are not handled skillfully are either silence (withdrawing, avoiding) or violence (controlling, labeling, verbally attacking). These reactions are primarily caused by lack of safety, which triggers the flight or fight response. Examples of these types of conversations abound in our workplace and personal lives: negative performance feedback, cost cutting measures, required unpaid overtime, where to go on vacation, etc. Poorly managed conversations certainly can contribute to low job satisfaction.

Fortunately, we can develop skills in handling these crucial conversations. The book offers great insight and tools. Two ways to improve quickly are to learn to look for when we are getting out of the conversation and resorting to silence or violence and then to make it safer to engage in dialog through a number of techniques, such as showing interest in others views, apologizing or other ways to make people feel more comfortable. Additionally, understanding the Path to Action is the key to increasing our awareness of the situation. The Path to Action is simply what happens between hearing or seeing something and the action that results. In between we tell ourselves a story about what we heard or saw and then feel an emotion which causes us to act. Stepping out of this automatic path and getting clear on what we want to happen oftentimes will cause us to make it safer for a meaningful conversation to take place and prevent our emotions for ruling the conversation.

There are many more skills discussed in “Crucial Conversations” that can make a difference for you and your business in 2010. Effective communication is critical for deployment of your strategy and aligning goals with actions throughout your organization.