How To Have Conscious Conversations At Work

How often do you move through your day and work on autopilot?

Maybe you’re having a conversation with a colleague and think you’re listening – only to think about it later and realize you don’t remember a single word that was said.

Or maybe you find yourself in a meeting feeling frustrated but unable to put your feelings into words.

Chuck Wisner, leadership coach and consultant, has made it his mission to change these behaviors. his new book Conscious Conversations: Transforming how we speak, listen and interactexplores how to thoughtfully reflect and collaborate with others before situations and relationships go sideways.

In this interview, Wisner talks about how you can master the art of curious, bold conversation for a better job and a better life.

Melody Wilding: What made you decide to write this book? Is there a specific story or event that prompted you to write it?

Chuck Wisner: Two stories come to mind for me. The first relates to how the four types of conversation influenced the structure of my book. Years ago I worked with an executive named Jamie, a talented engineer and thoughtful leader. We reunited over drinks a few years later, where Jamie said, “You’ve given me so many tools and practices that have helped me navigate my conversations and relationships at home and at work, but I’m struggling to connect the tools. Is there a way to organize and simplify it?” I didn’t have an answer at the time, but his questions got me wondering how I could structure it all to make it practical. Months later, it occurred to me that the four conversations might be the answer to Jamie’s questions.

Second, my clients often said, “Life would have been a lot easier if I had learned these concepts in elementary school.” Or, “In the future, I’m going to be a very different kind of leader.” Or, “I never really paid attention to it how judgmental I am.” Conversations fill our days, but we’ve never been taught their DNA — how they work or what they’re made of.

Great thinkers and teachers of the philosophy of language and linguistics have written much about communication and relationships. But their work is usually inaccessible. Their books are dense and they live mainly on university bookshelves. I wrote this book to make the theories understandable and practical so we can get off autopilot and have conscious conversations.

wilding: They argue that for better conversations, we need to start with ourselves. Why is it important to explore our private conversations?

Wisner: In conversation we focus on the exchange of give and take between ourselves and others. It sounds something like this:

“What do you think of the progress we’ve made on the project?” asks Juan.

“Too early to tell,” replies Melissa, Juan’s boss.

“The deadline is approaching,” says Juan.

“We have this,” says Melissa.

That’s what their conversation sounds like on an objective, surface level. But as they spoke, they were both engaged in a more revealing inner dialogue beneath the surface. These are their private conversations, and they are often full of judgements.

Becoming aware of what lies beneath the surface of our conversations is crucial to becoming better conversationalists or managing conflict more effectively. Our often ignored private thoughts are called many things: the committee, the monkey mind, subpersonalities – or worse. They reflect the stories we live by and they are the basis of our conversations. They contain truths and untruths that can change opinions, alter relationships, and force decisions.

We start with ourselves because our stories are the common denominator in every interaction, no matter who you’re talking to. Exploring our private conversations is a window into the thinking beneath our thinking, and it takes courage to open that window. Every response in a conversation is imbued with our ego, beliefs and morals. We speak according to socially accepted norms, but our private, negative thoughts invade us unconsciously. Our private conversations are brimming with judgment, profanity, and emotional triggers. By revealing them, we create space to reframe, reset, reconsider, or reframe a conversation.

wilding: What practices can readers adopt to better process their internal private conversations?

Wisner: It’s easy to become aware of our private conversations and then freeze because we don’t know what to do with them. After the initial shock of the big reveal, I ask clients, “What would happen if you spilled the beans and spoke your private conversation out loud? And what happens when you clench and anxiously hold on to it?” Flapping out judgment can damage a relationship and stifle a project. But every time you suppress it, you create stress and harm yourself psychologically and physiologically. In other words, both is not a good option.

So what should we do?

Like crude oil – useless if pumped straight out of the ground – our judgmental private thoughts are of little use to us. But like crude oil, we can process our inner thoughts into a valuable resource: wisdom.

Here are four wise questions to process and transform our inner thoughts:

  • What wishes and ideas does my conversation partner have?
  • What are your worries for the future?
  • Are power issues affecting this conversation?
  • What standards might guide their judgments?

wilding: How can we be more aware in our conversations with others? What are some tools or practices that readers can follow?

Wisner: Being more aware in conversations with others starts with being more aware of our conversation patterns. Another step is to become a better observer of interactions in general. We often join a conversation on autopilot. We can counteract this pattern by controlling the type of conversation we engage in.

In my book, I describe four types of conversations: storytelling, collaboration, creativity, and engagement. Each is valuable and has its own tools and practices.

Cocktail party banter is a great example of storytelling conversation. Collaborative conversations are useful when a team or family is trying to resolve a problem or resolve a disagreement. Problems with difficult solutions can benefit from creative conversation, and decisions and actions depend on our engaged conversations.

We weave in and out of these conversations every day with little awareness. Understanding the differences between them can help us pay attention and become aware of the conversations we need or want to have. Then we can begin to examine the unique preferences and variable skills we bring to each type of conversation.

wilding: What is Conversational Bypass and how does it show up in the workplace?

Wisner: We navigate all four conversations to some degree, but for most of us, storytelling is our preference. We identify with our stories. They make for great fiction and presentation, and are the glue that holds our societies and cultures together. They can be beautiful, but they are also addictive and dazzling. A deeply rooted story also closes our minds to the ideas and perspectives of others.

The runner-up is the commitment talk. You are where the action is. Who does what by when? What is the final game plan? Business thrives on these conversations because they allow us to coordinate actions and get things done with others. Ultimately, Juan and Melissa will either stick with their commitment to the project or revisit and reset their plan in hopes of a more successful outcome.

We love telling our stories and we love getting to work. This is the beginning of the conversation bypass. Power, personalities, relationships, emotions, and unspoken thoughts all play a part in keeping the bypass alive. Our drive to prove our story is right or true and our haste to act pushes aside collaborative and creative conversations. In the workplace, a stuck or isolated team comes to meetings with stories and decisions set in stone. They tell their stories, pretend to listen and make a decision (or rather not), leaving behind the opportunity to explore new perspectives and ideas.

wilding: How can we make more effective requests to those we work with?

Wisner: While we love commitment talks, they’re so embedded in our daily lives that they happen without us fully understanding how or why they work.

Engagement conversations start with requests and offers. Juan asks, “What do you think of the project?” Jill’s “too soon to tell” ends the conversation. But his question could have been the start of a more effective commitment talk.

A more effective request from Juan would have been, “Melissa, I have a few concerns that I’d like to discuss with you. Is now a good time?” Two things happen in this revised request. Juan acknowledges Melissa’s authority and requests her time and attention. Second, after processing his private conversation, he was aware and confident enough to discuss his concerns. Unless Melissa is an unsuspecting boss, she will realize that Juan’s concerns may be legitimate and insightful. Their subsequent conversation could result in an agreement to reconsider the project schedule, staffing, and budget, which could increase the chances of success.

Last-minute requests and responses lead to sloppy promises (“Can you get me some numbers for tomorrow morning?” “Sure, no problem.”) Making effective requests and avoiding the knee-jerk yes is critical to more successful collaboration and coordination with Other. Requests are inherently complex, and embedded within each are issues of timing, goals, standards of satisfaction, issues of power, and our concerns for the future. When making a request, take a deep breath and don’t rush things. State your wishes, concerns, standards (What does “good” look like?) and the reason for the request. Encourage the recipient to ask questions to better understand your request. Effective requests, mutual agreements and fulfilled promises result in wiser decisions that build trust.

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