Earlier this month, I spoke at the excellent Ragan Corporate Communications Conference, in Chicago.  My topic? Real Conversation – the most powerful business tool your organization will ever use.

One of the topics I tackled was how to convince leaders and managers to pay closer attention to conversation in the workplace. People found it useful, so I thought I’d share it with my regular readers. So here – in two installments – is the Reader’s Digest version of that section of my talk.

Making the Case for Face-To-Face

OK. Here we are, face-to-face, because that’s the way human beings were meant to communicate. We’re here to have a conversation about conversation. More precisely, we’ll discuss ways to get authentic, productive, valuable, human conversations going on in our organizations, instead of the same old bla bla bla – or worse – silence. It’s a quest organizations have been on for a long time.

I recently read a story from the 1950s. Before he founded WL Gore & Associates and started making GoreTex, Bill Gore, worked for chemical giant DuPont. He observed that there were only two places at work he ever heard a meaningful conversation. One was on task forces, where people have a clear and important short term purpose. The other was the car pool. In the car, everyone was equal, everyone was smart and the conversations were brilliant. Unfortunately, when they reached the parking lot, everyone straightened their ties, put on their work faces, stepped into the hierarchy and – conversation over.


When he set up his own company, Bill Gore declared that there would be no hierarchy and no bosses. You’re hired based on your skills and the conversation begins. As you get known and trusted, you get to work on projects that suit you. Autonomy and synergy working together.

Gore’s story takes conversation from one extreme to another. Which end of the spectrum is your organization closer to?

In building the case for face-to-face, we might hold a couple of ideas as part of the context.

· The first is that conversation is a business tool – the most powerful business tool we will ever use. It’s one of many tools, but we’ve already got the hardware.

· The second idea is that the organization is a conversation. That’s an exaggeration, of course. There are other things – people, transactions, systems, computers, bricks and mortar. But anything that takes place in an organization starts with a conversation and usually requires conversation to keep it working. The quality of work depends on the quality of the conversations between people.

The authors of Crucial Conversations offer an example of this. A woman was in hospital to have her tonsils out. The surgeon amputated part of her foot. At the inquiry, there was a chilling revelation that no fewer than seven people knew something was amiss and did not speak up. Fear? Passive aggression? Indifference? Who knows? The culture did not support open conversation. And the lack of open conversation likely reinforced the culture. An avoidable problem turned into a disaster for the woman.

That’s just one example of poor conversation leading to poor performance.

Also helping to build the case for face-to-face is that so much of our communication is virtual.The more we develop and use technology to communicate, the more critical face-to-face communication becomes.

· Through electronic devices, we can, notionally, be connected to thousands and thousands of people around the globe. Are we truly connected? Or does the virtual connection emphasize our real isolation? That’s a question for the techno-philosophers.

· We’re downing in information. Between the podcasts, ezines, websites, blogs, intranets, spam and a new must-have book every week, we are overwhelmed.

And it’s 24-7-365. It never ends. Employees, managers, execs, communication people are feeling the effects of too much information. IBM predicts that the amount of digital data will double every 11 hours by 2010. Technology has evolved faster than we have. Humans do not have the cognitive bandwidth to absorb it all. Is that because our brains aren’t digital?

Conversation actually helps us avoid overwhelm. Compared to reading, speech is slow. We can speak at only 100 words per minute. It’s good for us to slow down.

Better yet, a good conversation with someone we care about produces a chemical called ocytocin, which calms us and reduces the effects of stress. Like the stress caused by all those other forms of communication. Talk to me, baby!

Avoiding blunders and improving performance are reasons enough to encourage better quality conversation.  But there’s more. Stay tuned! In the next installment, we take a look at the brain science that shows us how communicating face-to-face is a fundamental part of being human.