Deeper conversations

Rob Paterson had a long chat with me last week and has used this as a launchpad for a series of four posts about deeper conversations. Rob’s taken a few of my ideas and elaborated extensively going into some very interesting territory.

Mutual appreciation society disclosure: He says some very flattering things about me and I could well understand if you think I or we both need to be taken down a peg. That’s what the comments are for.

Meanwhile I’m going to start blogging back some reflections on the conversation and Rob’s posts.

I got to meetings for a living, often as a visitor rather than as an habitué. I think this gives me a particular sensitivity to familiar patterns which sometimes elude the particpants themselves. So I have a big interest in what it takes to create a deeper conversation, one that gets people into less familiar territory and with a greater sense of commitment and engagement than business-as-usual.

There simply can’t be a magic formula for this, but Rob talks about some of the things that work in some contexts. Some of my personal rules-of-thumb relate very much to how we respond to feelings when in conversations, especially difficult ones. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed help me engage more deeply:

– Being willing to engage with feelings – starting with my own, rather than speculating or moralising about other people’s

– When I have a strong reaction to what someone says, it often helps if I can suspend my emotional response. By this I mean a middle ground in which I don’t act on it without thought, nor repress it and pretend it’s not there

– When listening to someone to whom I have a hostile response, it helps to see something of myself in how they are behaving. So if I think they’re being long-winded and repetitious, it might help to reflect on my own capacity for that and see if this allows me to feel a connection with them.

– Noticing the differences between emotions and visceral feelings. I often wake up and tell myself I’m tired. But then I ask myself what I’m physically feeling – for example where am I tense or warm or cold… and end up sensing that I’m actually more excited or anxious and not tired at all. This kind of literacy can help when processing strong reactions in conflictual conversations. This relates also to distinguishing meanings from feelings – see this post for more on that.

Needless to say, I often fail to practice these precepts as you’ll find in my blog rants or argumentative behaviour on twitter. And I am not arguing for one second that we should always be in deep conversation… just that I’d like to spend more time there with other people.

I loved the metaphor Rob uses in his final post in the series. He shows us a nervous skier, who leans back and overthinks his approach – and who loses control. When skiing, as I eventually, learnt, you have to overcome some initial fear and lean down the hill. Paradoxicaly, this gives you more engagement and control, not less. His son got this quite naturally; it was/is harder for Rob. You have to let your body do the skiing, rather than calculate it in your head. Rob asks:

Do you want to ski like me, or like my son?

And in many ways, that’s the challege for those who think they can get through meetings without engaging with their feelings.

In fact, when I’m coaching I often pay a lot of attention to how people organise their bodies. How they hold themselves is intimately connected with how they come across. If you doubt this, try an experiment with a friend or colleague: give a very short presentation twice. Use exactly the same words but the first time do it with your eyes wide open; and the second do it squinting. See what a difference that makes to both of you. And then notice that even small movements along the spectrum between wide-eyes and squinting have an impact.

It’s easy and kind-of-safe to focus on the content and ideas, but leave out the animal side and you’ll be missing a lot of the connection.

When we’re talking, we’re not just transmitting information; we’re engaged in a rich dance of relationship… whether we acknowledge it or not.

More to follow…

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