Tech Life Predicting the social weather

An Ideal Conversation

You’re going to have a conversation.

Great.

Ideally, this is going to be an effective conversation. You have a topic you want to discuss that will likely result in a decision or two. You are confident in your version of the truth and you feel no matter what happens in this conversation, you’ll be able to adapt.

Problem is, there is another person in this conversation and from the moment they open their mouth, it’s no longer just about the topic, the conversation is now about how we are having it.

Meeting Creatures

This is an article about basic conversation mechanics. It’s not about what motivates the person sitting across from you, it’s about some of the quirks you’ll encounter as the conversation occurs.

I have a series of mostly embarrassing articles from the mid-00’s that talk about the different types of folks that are going to show up in your meetings. Don’t read these articles. They are simplistic and embarrassing because they judge and they judge simplistically.

The following list of mechanics is presented mostly sans judgement. I’ve attempted to capture these different styles and quirks to both alert you to their existence and to give you an objective opinion about their intent.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going assume that your hypothetical conversation is regarding a mostly non-controversial topic. Both parties are on equal footing and no one is likely to lose their shit. This is an average no-frills conversation.

Let’s start with:

The Can’t Finishers This particular conversation quirk occurs when the person sitting across the table appears to be unable to complete their thought. They clearly make their point again and again and again. There is a spectrum to the Can’t Finisher. On one end we have the ones who are such good communicators that you can’t really tell they are unable to finish for some time. On the other end, we have the folks who are repeating themselves, word for word, after a minute.

The Can’t Finisher behavior, I’ve found, is situational and I know this because I have this quirk. When I’m spiraling on the same point, it either means I don’t feel I’ve expressed myself clearly and/or the other party hasn’t non-verbally acknowledged my point, yet.

Being on the receiving end of the Can’t Finisher is frustrating because, yes, you got the point the first or second time, but we’re circling back to the fourth version of the same point which means it’s time for…

The Interrupter This conversational behavior is much more prevalent in larger groups of people where folks are jockeying to interject themselves into the conversation, but it happens in one on ones, as well.

You’re halfway through your point and the Interrupter just jumps in mid-sentence. It seem rude, but there are truly artistic Interrupters on the planet. These masters interrupt you mid-thought and you don’t even notice. They have the ability to detect that you’ve said just enough, they intuitively know precisely how and where to interrupt you, and they meaningfully carry on the flow of the conversation. It’s kind’a conversationally gorgeous.

The volatile version of the Interrupter is exactly what you think. They awkwardly jump in mid-word and just start talking. You haven’t remotely finished your thought and here they are talking about a point they can’t fully understand because you haven’t made it.

The Interrupter is enthusiasm. That is what I hear in an interruption. The thing we’re talking about is exciting me, so, well, I’m going to start talking.

You have a choice when interrupted and you need to make it immediately: Are you going to be interrupted or not? Is your point established enough to weather this interruption? Is this a serial Interrupter who needs to check their enthusiasm?

It’s a quick, instinctive call and if you make the call, you re-interrupt, “I’m sorry. I’ve got one more thing to say…”, you continue, and you finish with a redirect back to the Interruptor, “Please continue,” and then this guy shows up…

The Long Pauser A good conversation has flow. Points are being traded back and forth, clarifications are made, and resolution appears to be imminent. You make one more point, verbally hand-off back to the other party, and…

And…

And…

Nothing.

I kind’a love the Long Pauser. They take the time to determine what they have to say before they open their mouth and they will wait as long as necessary before they continue. I had a former boss who would pause for up to 30 awkward seconds while she was considering her point. The first time it happened, 15 seconds in, I wondered, Is the meeting over?

In a world full of people who can’t shut up, the Long Pauser considers. He is processing, he is compiling, and until he’s done, it’s nice and quiet. There is a political version of the Long Pauser who uses this move to seize authority of the conversation, but the healthy Long Pauser is saving everyone time by only saying what is considered and necessary and they are rarely…

The Restater Another trait I have. The Restater says exactly the same thing you just said. Seems odd, but I’ll explain. You just said something of magnitude, complexity, or truth with significant consequences. The details matter, so I say, “Let me make sure I heard you right.”

Conversations at work are often contractual. We are going to agree to X and before I’m committing to this agreement, I’m going to make sure that I understand the terms and conditions of our accord.

Listen carefully as I restate because I really don’t want to be…

The What I Believer If the Restater’s intent is understanding, the What I Believer’s intent is shaping. They are taking what you just said and restating the facts to suit what they believe and not what you said.

Now, in this judgement-free article, I believe What I Believers are doing is not malicious, they are just applying their lens to the conversation. But they may or may not be aware they are doing this, which is why I pay careful attention when what I said starts being restated. The conclusion, decision, or social contract that we’re coming to is being built with each phrase and nod of the head. Your responsibility in this conversation is the correct interpretation of both party’s thoughts and facts because misinterpreted and altered facts – once confirmed – are just facts.

There’s an important variant of the What I Believer that doesn’t actually know what they believe because they are…

The Brainstormer Another Rands trait. You’ve landed a compelling point and I can sense its value, but I don’t have a response, yet, so, well, I start talking and I don’t really know what I think, yet, but your point – so great… it needs immediate words and I have words.

The Brainstormer figures out what they think by talking. The problem with Brainstormers is if they’re in a position of power or are compelling speakers, the brainstorming might sound a lot like the truth or a decision rather than the current version of the thoughts.

I do this so much that I’ve learned to declare when we’re entering the brainstorming portion of the conversation. This declaration makes it clear that I reserve the right to change my point of view at will and take nothing as the truth.

For the record, brainstorming is my favorite part of any conversation. We’re jamming on the topic at hand and that means all portions of our brains are fully engaged and we have absolutely no need for…

The Finisher Conversations can be a healthy competition. Rather than a decision, we might be working to find the truth of a thing. People and their agendas swirl around a company like weather and part of your job is not just understanding, but predicting that social weather.

In these fact comparison conversations, the Finisher is the person who, well, likes to finish the conversation. She likes to have the final word. Perhaps it’s power thing, but I’m not here to judge, I’m here to listen. The Finisher isn’t a Restater, but someone who is going to make sure no matter how the conversation is flowing, she is going to have the last word.

The Finisher is a reminder that there is status in a conversation. You might be the boss, you might be the person with authority over the matter, or you might be the person who needs a critical piece of information. The Finisher’s finishing is telling you how they see themselves relative to the matter at hand. While what they finish with might not matter the fact they feel compelled to finish is interesting.

The Art of Listening

Talk with me for a bit and you’ll notice I say “But um” a lot. Now that I hear myself saying it, each “But um” stands out like a verbal sore thumb, but um, I use those two annoying useless words for a important reason. I want our conversation to flow or I’m in the middle of thought and need just a smidge of a second to gather my next thought. “But um” is my verbal punctuation that is somewhere between an ellipses and an em-dash.

Conversations between humans have a dynamic structure that is unique to both you and the person sitting across from you. This article only documents a handful of the interesting ways we construct the flows of conversations. What you need to understand is that within our habits and quirks there is an entirely different set of information that affects the conversation, but you must listen… you must listen hard to the pauses, the shapes of phrases, the quirks, and the way they are exchanged.

Listen long enough and you’ll hear an entirely different conversation.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent observations. You have illumined some of the reasons why conversations so often go off the rails. I’ve felt for a long while that many conversations feel like proxy battles; disagreements tend to be magnified when individuals and groups feel unsafe with the subject matter or state of the conversations.

    I love the insight Kerry Patterson brings in “Crucial Conversations” * brings to the table. Combining the book’s insights and your own is helping me better identify then act on the key elements in crucial conversations.

    * http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15014.Crucial_Conversations