Ten years ago, my writing and conference talks were filled with predictions that conversation would be the Next Big Thing.
Citing evidence from multiple disciplines, I called for organizational leaders to recognize that the desire for connection is a basic human trait and make in-person interaction a deliberate priority. Instead of trying to master blogs, podcasts, email and other tech-centric communication channels, I urged them to get out and talk to people.
But Next Big Thing would not be face-to-face communication. In 2007, along came the iPhone. Mobility became the NBT. And our world changed. Today, our mobile devices keep us “connected” and “talking” to people around the world 24/7. Yet, is it a true connection?
In her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, New York), sociologist/psychologist and MIT prof Sherry Turkle suggests our “always on” connections, such as facebook, Instagram, Twitter and thousands of other apps, provide the illusion of communication, but actually impede conversation. We can avoid real conversation by sending a text. We can post a picture rather than engage with someone. We can edit ourselves into a carefully constructed persona that presents someone we are not and will never be. We can post messages to facebook “friends” while ignoring the real friends in the room with us. We can get attention without the unpredictable untidiness of getting close.
A Gloomy Outlook?
Turkle has spent 30 years investigating our society’s relationship with technology. In this book, her ninth, she descibes offices where workers lay out their multiple devices, don headphones and spend the day exchanging electronic messages in isolation. She describes the “rule of three” – as long as three people in a face-to-face group are actually talking to each other everyone else can be looking at their phones. She quotes people who conduct family discussions by text so they can “fight without saying things [they’ll] regret” – and have a record of who said what. She describes toddlers competing with mobiles for their parents’ attention, new moms texting while nursing newborns, and children who talk about what’s on their phones rather than what’s in their heads. What worries her most is her belief that we are losing the ability to hold real, meaningful conversations.
Turkle’s work made me examine my own relationship with online communication tools. I’ve used them since pre-Internet days, when I sent email-ish things on the green screens of mainframe terminals. Today, I used tools in “The Cloud,” wherever that is, that we could scarcely imagine 10 years ago – Slack, Twitter, Trello, Ruzuku, Zoom and more. (I’m still waiting for “Beam me up, Scotty.”) They’re handy, yet today’s most valuable and rewarding connections were in cafés, face-to-face with colleagues and clients. I could look them in the eye, feel their energy, sense their presence, offer my full attention and really be with the people I chose to be with.
Text is fine for transmitting information, but it’s not the tool for real communication. A recent text exchange led friends to a weird misunderstanding. Words intended as heartfelt encouragement came off as preachy. The carefully crafted response was interpreted as a snotty retort. Nuance, subtlety, emotion, energy – all missing. Words are not enough. How often have we spent hours crafting careful responses to emails when we should have just picked up the telephone and sorted it out through conversation?
So what can we do?
Which brings us back to Turkle and Reclaiming Conversation. She paints a bleak picture, yet offers hope. We don’t need to give them up, but we need to choose how we use these devices. We can designate tech-free zones, declare a mobile moratorium during meals, establish no-device hours, banish them from meetings. She writes, “If a tool gets in the way of looking at each other, we should use it only when necessary. It shouldn’t be the first thing we turn to.”
We can ask ourselves if our relationship with technology is helping us live better, more fulfilling lives or getting in the way of important moments and real connection. Our insights about the way we use our tools will guide us. The art – make that the gift – of conversation is too important to lose.
Can we talk? Getting back to conversation – Part 2
Yesterday, at Agile Coach Camp Canada, I had the privilege of leading a group conversation about taking care of yourself as a coach.
The Big Idea is like the instruction flight attendants give us, “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” As coaches – or as anyone – we don’t have much to give others if we don’t take care of ourselves.
The coaches who gathered for the session agreed that people attracted to the work of helping others often put our own needs behind those of our teams and our organizations. That habit can result in fatigue, stress, and burnout. It impacts relationships both at work and at home.
Here’s the list we built in the conversation:
What can we do to take care of ourselves?
Notice when you’re feeling depleted.
Show yourself some compassion.
Give yourself some space.
– Close the door
– Go for a walk – preferably outside, in a pleasant place
– Physical activity – “I bike to work.”
– Announce it, in a light way. “I let the team know I may be a bit of a Grumpus today.”
Do something you enjoy and are good at
– “I do some real, individual coaching. That lets me see I’m making a difference. It’s almost like a gift to myself.”
Use your network
– “I call another coach and I know I’m not in this alone.”
– “I get coached myself. It’s time I have to focus on me.”
Make your work and success visible
– Personal kanban
– Read your fan mail
– List your successes
– Find a win, however small
Spend some time in reflection
– Mindfulness practice
Let people know what’s fun for you
– yours and others
– “Accept that our work is messy and it’s a journey.”
Say “no” to more work
– “If you can’t say “No” then your “Yes” can turn into a “Maybe” ”
– “I’d rather disappoint you now, with a “No,” than disappoint you later by being unreliable.”
– Think of things you’re grateful for
– Practise thanking – and accepting thanks
– Appreciate it when others thank you – and show it
– Savour the kudos
Know your purpose and only do what’s aligned with that
Spend some time just doing nothing
– “The brain needs to rest just like any muscle.”
– More hugs
One in our group, Gitte Klitgaard, was on her way to a tech conference in New York where her talk was “Stress and Depression – The Taboo and What We Can Do About It.” A link to an earlier version of that talk is at vimeo.com/106927863
Our conversation reminded us that we need to recognize we’re human and show ourselves the empathy and compassion we show our teams and coaching clients.
Note: If you are an agile coach and have never been to an Agile Coach Camp, plan on attending one when you can. They are impossible to describe and they are amazing. There’s one, this weekend, in Calgary, Alberta and one coming up in Washington, DC, August 1st.
If you’ve ever said or heard, “That’s not what I was trying to do,” an intention check might have helped your interaction.
It’s a three step process.
This kata starts, like so many things in communication, with self-awareness. The first step is to know what you are trying to achieve. If your internal thoughts are muddy, there’s no way your communication will be clear. Ask yourself, “What do I really want here?” Know your goal for the interaction.
Sometimes you’re just curious. Sometimes you want the other person to do something. Sometimes you need them to know something. Or you want to recognize something they’ve done. But knowing your purpose is the first step to clear communication.
You might also want to check that your intentions are honourable. Working with a client on this recently, she realized, when she checked her intentions that, what she was about to say was really a form of retaliation for something a colleague had said the previous day. When she examined what she really wanted she moved to what was good for the team and the project.
Once you’re clear on your intention, the next step is to share it. People can’t read your mind. What happens if people don’t have the facts about something? Yeah, they make stuff up.
SCARF is a concept developed by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute and popularized in his book, Quiet Leadership. It’s a good way to take stress out of a conversation. That’s useful, since a person in stress doesn’t think clearly.Sometimes, our brain is not our friend.
There’s a busy and primitive part of it, the amygdala, always scanning for changes in the environment. It interprets all change or discomfort as danger, which made sense when the User Guide for Life was: “Eat or be eaten.” When the part of the brain concerned with survival takes over, the “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in automatically. The part of the brain that processes information and makes decisions is all but shut down as the body involuntarily prepares for trouble.
The theory suggests there are five elements of a relationship or situation that can derail any conversation if they are missing or out of balance. The more we can do to provide them, the more likely the other person is to feel safe in the conversation and able to think clearly.
You won’t be surprised to learn that SCARF is an acronym.
STATUS – “Where am I in the pecking order?” Our brains are always on the lookout for evidence of where we sit regarding power, authority and influence. That’s residue from an earlier time, one that held greater risk of getting clobbered. We feel safer when we sense that our status is equal to or greater than the folks around us. Neuroscience suggests that our brains react to a threat to our status the same way they do to a physical threat. The brain doesn’t differentiate. So if you “outrank” the person you’re talking with – you’re their boss, professor, parent, etc. – the very fact of talking with you is stressful because your status is higher than theirs.
What can we do to balance the status? Recognizing the gap is the first step. You might move the meeting from your office to a neutral place or a place where they are comfortable. A conference room, a cafe, their office or go for a walk. You might draw their attention to a fact that raises their status. “I need to talk with you because you have experience with this project.” “Your job gives you a closer look at [whatever], so I value your thoughts.” “As a member of this team, your work is important to our success.” Make it something real – they’ll smell inauthenticity.
Holding a good conversation is the best way to instigate change for the better. People hear what’s going on, issues are aired, confusion is cleared up, everyone goes away happy, and change goes smoothly.
On what planet?
While humans are naturally wired to communicate, we’re not all set up to do it well. You don’t have to look very far to find an example of miscommunication that leads to waste – wasted time, wasted effort, wasted energy, wasted goodwill.
Fortunately, there are some key behaviours we can learn and practise that will increase the chance that our communications will be heard, understood and acted on. We call these “Communication Kata.” They’re named after the exercises practitioners of martial arts, such as Aikido and Kung Fu, repeat, over and over, until they become instantly available to them when needed. They don’t have to think, “Now I move my right hand here and raise my left foot so many inches.” They focus on strategy. “Now I kick my opponent in the back.”
Similarly, learning and practising these communication kata makes these techniqes of effective interaction available whenever you’re in conversation. You don’t need to think about the process, you can focus on the content. Think of it as “Tongue Fu.”
We’ve presented these Communication Kata at conferences (Agile 2013 and Agile Tour Montreal). By popular request, we share them here on the blog.
Communication Kata 1: SCARF
Communication Kata 2: Share your intention
How to prevent the over-commitment that leads to overwhelm
This article first appeared in our newsletter in 2003. Still true!
It’s a small yet powerful word, one with big consequences. It’s a word that can improve our lives and make us more valuable to those we say it to – those we want to help in this world.
At the end of a week in which I – and the feelings I was experiencing – seemed to be on a non-stop rush from appointment to commitment to obligation to ordeal, I stopped to reflect on what was making me feel so beleaguered.
I examined my “To Do” list, and highlighted the things I really wanted to do. Almost all the highlighted items had fallen (or were they pushed?) to the bottom of the page. Activities that were important to me had, for months, languished, ignored and forgotten, beneath activities that other people wanted me to do. Ouch!
It had something to do with my reluctance to use the word “No.” A little reading and a lot of reflection showed me:
- That NO is not a dirty word
- How to say NO without feeling guilty
- And why saying NO increases the value of the things we say YES to.
How does it happen?