Did you know 9/10 conversations miss the mark?

“Words create worlds.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

When was the last time you had a conversation with someone and, after you walked away, felt like it was a success? If you can remember a time, did success mean that you:

  • imparted all of your knowledge?
  • got the other person to agree with you?
  • avoided conflict?

Unfortunately, what we perceive to be a successful conversation is rarely the case. Instead, research shows that most workplace conversations fail to have any positive impact at all!

9 in every 10 conversations miss the mark

One of the most interesting people I’ve learned from in my coaching career is Judith E Glaser, when I undertook her courses to become a Certified Practitioner in Conversational Intelligence.

Glaser dedicated her career to communication and was engaged as an executive coach by many high profile businesses and Fortune 500 companies. Through this work, she was able to conduct tens of thousands of interviews and deconstruct countless conversations – and her findings were quite startling.

She found that for every 20 conversations in the workplace, only 2 are successful. This essentially means that 9 in every 10 conversations fail. A failed conversation is one where parties enter the conversation with different views and walk away with the exact same disharmony. Put simply, there is a failure to connect on any real level.  

We can see how this results in conflict and job dissatisfaction, with some individuals dominating conversations and battling with those of a similar nature, while others become submissive and walk away feeling unheard.  

On a similar token, constant exposure to these situations can cause people (and organisations as a whole) to start avoiding conversations entirely.

In his book Staying with Conflict: A Strategic Approach to Ongoing Disputes, Bernard Mayer suggests that individuals and organisations are very creative at avoiding conflict through:

  • Minimising (it’s no big deal)
  • Misdirecting (sidestepping the issue)
  • Escalating (taking it to a boss or legal)
  • Premature problem solving (quick bandaid solutions)

For example, leaders may identify a problem with sexual harassment in the workplace and quickly develop new policies. However, these are unlikely to create any tangible change as they completely ignore cultural and behavioural issues.

To have any real chance of initiating change, people would need to engage in conversation – and those conversations would need to be successful.

How do we have conversations that hit the mark?

Luckily, Glaser shared several solutions on how we can engage in successful conversations that have a transformative impact.

One solution is to confront our addiction to being right. This addiction stems from the neurochemistry of our brains, and the “happy hormones” that are released when we argue our position and walk away feeling that we have won. In constant search of that feeling, people will continue engaging in conversations in ways that provide this outcome.

Meanwhile, the people they are conversing with are simply entering an instinctual state of “fight, flight, freeze or appease” and will often walk away unhappy or stressed.

But there is another “happy hormone” (oxytocin) that is released when we engage in conversations in a way that allows us to truly connect with others. This is the same hormone that research has found is pivotal to building trust between people.

How do we have these connective conversations? We must commit to entering every conversation with curiosity, leaving our assumptions at the door, challenging our addiction to being right, and asking:

How could I be wrong?

By doing this, we have an opportunity to move beyond purely transactional conversations (selling, telling, yelling and convincing), and even beyond positional conversations (where we are open but still advocating), into the realm of transformative conversations. These are the conversations that break down barriers and have the power to transform individuals, groups, and societies.

I teach Conversational Intelligence techniques in my course: Coaching in the Workplace which is delivered face-to-face or online via Zoom for groups of 6 to 12 people. 

To learn more about Conversational Intelligence and Coaching in the Workplace, email me at kv@kimvella.com.au.

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