The fact that a lot of people are talking doesn’t mean there are a lot of real conversations going on.
More to the point, the fact that there is measurable attention being paid to any particular topic does not guarantee progress.
In the mid 1940’s, the Congress of the United States introduced legislation to make it illegal for women to be paid less than men for comparable work. Decades of talk have failed to realize the goal.
And while the relative timeframes may not be quite as jarring as in the case of equal pay for equal work, the list of issues that have been the subject of conversations for years with little movement is lengthy. In no particular order:
How long have those in and around the legal industry been discussing challenges associated with the billable hour? (It was a hot topic when I first worked with a law firm in the early 2000’s — and it had been going on for a while by then.)
Or Diversity & Inclusion?
Or how about the challenges facing the educational infrastructure?
Or mass transit in your community?
Or the cost of healthcare?
Or the national debt?
As noted — the list is long. It can easily balloon to ten or twenty times what we might list here — without breaking a sweat.
Without respect to the topic, wherever today’s attempts at meaningful dialogue are framed by the same principles, perspectives and values as yesterday’s conversations, movement — never mind, progress — will be marginal, at best.
This is not to suggest there hasn’t been movement — even scrambling — on many of the issues we’ve been talking about for a long time. There has.
And we’re sure not suggesting that we should shut down the talk.
But how much time are you willing to invest in conversations that barely move the needle.
Keys To Better Conversations
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — Samuel Johnson
There are circumstances that, by their nature, tend to sharpen focus. But where important issues are at hand, and progress is the goal, we should hope for productivity before there is impending doom.
To that end, here are five thoughts on instigating better conversations.
1. Make Listening (vs. Talking) The Priority
We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about listening (yes…ironic). This is likely a subconscious reaction to the fact that we are so bad at it. But the focus is warranted, if for no other reason than nothing is communicated until someone decides to listen.
Intentions listening is not about hearing something; it is about dispensing with agendas, suspending preconceived notions, and striving more to understand than to be understood. NOT natural; but if the only thing we do is commit to the act of intentional listening, we will instantly change the quality of our conversations.
2. Connect Around Shared Values & Aspirations
Intentional listening is the key to the identification of core commonalities. Shared experiences are a good place to begin; but conversations that become substantive enough to effect measurable progress around big issues find footing in core values and aspirations. This is why communication aligned with things such as personal health and the future of our children tend to capture attention.
3. Dispense With Expectations
Listening is tough; but this one is nearly impossible. Yet, in conversations that matter, expectations are often a predictor of failure. Expectations easily morph into conditions; and when it comes to better conversations, a condition is synonymous with an agenda. Most of us resist conversations that are driven by an agenda.
4. Agree on Milestones
Identifying specific milestones serves three purposes. (1) It outlines the conversation, providing bite-sized continuity; (2) agreed upon milestones provide another point of alignment around commonality; (3) realizing a milestone serves as a win-win moment. The more you realize common goals, the more you experience the possibilities that come with building around shared values and aspirations.
5. Build a Bridge to the Next Conversation
Better conversations do not seek to end a discussion, but to make on-going dialogue a given. Next to Listening, nothing will change the nature of your conversations more than a commitment to tee-up the next conversation. This is the real win — a demonstrated understanding that learning is never ending, and that better conversations are the only path to real change.
No matter the topic — innovation, mental health, diversity & inclusion, leadership, a better world for future generations — if we continue to have the same old conversations, the past is, indeed, prologue.
The key to a better reality tomorrow — however you might define it — is a better conversation today.
When your audience or market believes you always have their best interest at heart, every message will resonate — even in the midst of crisis.
Nothing drives the impact of a message more than the presence (or absence) of trust.
Trust provides a more effective platform than any pulpit…from sanctuary to bully. Once earned, it lifts communiques above the noise and confusion of any market place.
Trust shapes context and tone, making it possible to eliminate all of the ifs, ands or buts that characterize average messaging.
Trust makes it possible to accomplish more in less time, with fewer words and less falderal than the grandest strategy.
Trust is the product of an intentional, disproportionate investment in listening. This is the brand of listening that, to borrow from St. Francis of Assisi,seeks less to be understood than to understand. This kind of listening speaks volumes.
Where there is trust, there is mutual respect, a ready ear, and fertile ground for motivation, collaboration, innovation and change.
If You’re Wrestling With Communication
The degree to which an audience embraces a message — whether it be partners, work force, professional allies, vendors or a target market-at-large — is in direct proportion to the degree to which the audience trusts the messenger.
This should be good news where genuine relationships have been cultivated.
Even so, many wrestle with the content of messaging in a crisis. What should a communication plan look like? Here is a suggested framework.
Be proactive — when it comes to communicating with stakeholders, internal as well as allies and vendors, take the initiative — communicate early.
Be honest — trust is a powerful building block, but nothing can destroy it more quickly than blowing smoke.
Be transparent — akin to honesty, this is about pulling back the curtain, and telling the whole truth — done properly, nothing deepens trust more quickly.
Make it about the audience — messages that resonate address real issues or needs, and deliver value.
Use this framework for your communication in the midst of today’s crisis, and you’ll accomplish two things: you’ll have a much better shot at delivering a message that resonates; and, you’ll strengthen the bond of trust with every facet of your audience…which will have its own payoff on the other side of Covid-19.
Years ago I worked with a Managing Partner who regularly referred to the Marketing Department of his law firm as the PR Department. I’m certain it was a habit rooted in the days when law firm marketing efforts centered on work that was public relations in nature.
Though I believe he knew the marketing group’s responsibilities covered a broader terrain, the habitual use of the wrong label both perpetuated and was emblematic of a narrow view of the discipline.
Today many professional service firms do something similar — saying marketing when what they really mean is sales.
Or perhaps more to the point — expecting (or hoping) that marketing efforts designed to create visibility and awarenessmight be able accomplish the lead generation and one-on-one work required to land new clients.
You know this. But in case we need to underscore the point — marketing and strategic business development (sales) are not the same thing.
Confuse them, attempt to blur the distinctions in hopes that one will cover for a lack of focus on the other, or ignore either, and be prepared to be completely unhappy with the sum total of your investment.
I need to inject two relevant notes here.
First — I do my part on a daily basis to spread the problem. The very title of this Blog — Marketing Brain Fodder— suggests that everything we discuss here falls under the marketing banner. This is not true. An audit would probably reveal that the majority of content for at least a decade has focused on business development / sales. So I’m guilty…and I’m considering appropriate options.
Second — I believe the siloed-nature of our organizations works against us…diminishing the value of resources, inhibiting creativity and strangling innovation. Turf wars and resource battles consume too much time and energy. Underscoring the distinction between sales and marketing can easily be twisted to be an argument for more defined silos. While the topic for a separate post, we should underscore that this is not a case for more defined departments, teams or silos.
Hit Resume — Here’s The Point
If this is just a labeling issue, that is one thing. Anyone working in the legal space for 15 years or more knows of the problematic nature of the “Sales” word. Again — a topic for another post.
For now, if while we’re using marketing as the umbrella, we all understand that when it comes to the pursuit of new business in the professional service arena, sales is a different animal, then we might debate the value in saying what we mean.
On the other hand, where we’re not clear about the difference, we run the risk of inadequate planning, misappropriation of resources, faulty expectations, and poor ROI in both marketing and sales.
Understand The Difference
If you’re part of a leadership team, prior to judgements as to whether your marketing efforts are effective, be certain you’re not looking for target identification, lead generation and qualified pitch opportunities. These are the purview of a strategic approach to sales (or, if you’re squeamish over the label, business development). An increase in sales requires appropriate investment.
If you’re in marketing or sales, clearly articulate the difference. Great marketing is an asset, to be sure. But perpetuating confusion between the two serves the objective of neither. Marketing is not the same as sales.
At some point, given the right topic, almost everyone will have a moment worth sharing.
The challenge, at least as it relates to productive dialogue, is that many of us believe the frequency and scope of our insight is so grand as to warrant the lion’s share of attention in any given room.
But when was the last time we engaged in an interaction where the objective of everyone in the room was to listen, intent on learning? On finding the building blocks for better conversations?
If you’ve been in a room like this it probably left a mark. There is dynamism there. When gaining insight is the goal, ideas flow freely. Maybe even new ideas. Solutions emerge more quickly.
But rooms where listening dominates are scarce. After all, territory must be staked. Turf marked.
Pick the most stressful or contentious interaction you’ll face in coming days. What might change if the objective were to listen? No immediate agendas. No winning or losing.
To be sure, there are plenty of reasons not to go down this road. Where’s the practicality? Someone has to lead. I’m expected to come to the table with a point-of-view, experience and expertise.
If you want to introduce a rare dynamic into difficult conversations, try being a point of listening rather than worrying about sharing your point of view. Unless you’re in unusual company, no one really hears — or gets — your point of view anyway. Not because it isn’t brilliant; but because while you’re talking most everyone else is only half-listening, while formulating a response.
(Double down on the above paragraph if the objective of the one doing most of the talking is to convince, convert, defend or distract.)
And if the fear is that failing to own a room displays weakness or affords unfair advantage to another’s point of view, consider the possibility that minimal progress will be realized in a room where the primary concern is winning the moment.
Real listening is an intentional and difficult act. It stems from a commitment to learn, and the relentless search for a bridge that connects all parties…even over enormous chasms.
When I believe my insight is ultimate, and that the room is best served when I broadcast my point of view, I should not be surprised when the only ones paying attention are those who share my perspective…and nothing changes.
There is rarely a shortage of talk. But when the talk accomplishes little, there may be a shortage of intentional listening.
In relationships with family, co-workers, friend or foe, perhaps the key to the change and progress we seek lies in having the courage and discipline to listen…to find the elements necessary to build a bridge to on-going conversation