Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2022
by Neil Senturia
How to have a conversation?
I spend a lot of time talking and probably should spend a bit more time in the listening area, but regardless, I always have an objective when it is a business conversation. I have been reading some research by Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of information and decisions, and his bottom line is that most of us seldom have a conversation “with a specific goal in mind.”
And I puzzled on why that is. My own thought is that people like wandering and do not really want to hear specifics, especially if they intuit that it is information that they are not really looking forward to. Most of us want to avoid fierce conversations.
Is the conversation you are engaging in about imparting simple information — “the asking price is $9 million” — or is it relational — “great to see you, how are the kids?” Then there are the subtexts in the conversation of perhaps wanting to create an impression, let’s call that name-dropping. I have a friend who knows lots of billionaires, although he isn’t one himself. And he often reminds me.
Relational can also be used to “conceal a secret,” which is to say that I am going to lunch with you, but if I play my cards right, you will do all the talking and I reveal nothing; might even get you to pay the bill.
Schweitzer wants us to be “more precise in our objectives,” but being precise does not necessarily mean doing away with pleasantries. I need to work on that, as I am not particularly patient, so my personal chit/chat quotient is low. I view most conversations as negotiated information. Let’s get on with it.
In the end, Schweitzer and his co-authors came up with a model — “the conversational circumplex” — that attempts to balance 20 relational and informational words on four axes.
Now let me complicate things a bit. I have also been reading “Hidden Games” by Moshe Hoffman. His premise is that game theory can explain irrational human behavior. Game theory essentially says that your particular outcome depends critically on the actions of the other participants, and the goal is to get to the Nash equilibrium, which is a fancy way of saying, I don’t think I can do better with the cards I have, so I am standing pat, and we have a deal.
OK, you’ve had enough of my signaling (that is a part of game theory). Now how can I use these tools to communicate most effectively in the workplace today?
First, enough with the remote. Meet in person. COVID, schmovid. If you want a successful conversation, get out of the office. I want something for my prison project from an important guy, and I am getting on an airplane and doing the schlep. It signals that this is a priority for me. And it tells him a ton about relational.
In another puzzle, I am trying to extricate a co-founder from a mess, and I insisted on sitting down over lunch with the recalcitrant other side. I took a pen and some butcher paper, and somewhere between the pasta and the panini, he agreed to a deal. What he wanted was to be respected.
In each example, I am following Schweitzer, I am identifying my objectives. And the question is why is that so hard for so many of us. For one, saying the words makes your desires concrete. You can’t mealy-mouth-mush around. Yes or no?
Now if you marry game theory with the conversational circumplex, you get both options for misunderstanding and miscommunication, as well opportunities for shared goals and mutual agreement.
Still, all in, the key piece of the puzzle is to know what you want and say it. Sounds easy. It isn’t. And one of the reasons we bob and weave in a conversation is that often when you get what you think you want, you find out that you didn’t really want that. You fooled yourself.
You wanted more or different or something else. And then you fear that you may have traded diamonds for beans (and not that beanstalk), or left stuff on the table. And then you want to renegotiate — and that starts the whole process all over again.
Rule No. 714:
We could always talk about the weather.