How to Begin a Conversation

Dynamic communication skills are one of the keys to career and life success that I discuss in Straight Talk for Success and 42 Rules to Jumpstart Your Professional Success.  If you want to become a dynamic communicator, you need to master three basic, but very important, skills: conversation, writing, presenting.

Several years ago I read an eBook by Dennis Rivers, called Cooperative Communication Skills for Success at Home and at Work.  I came across the eBook in my files the other day.  Chapter 2 really caught my attention.  It is entitled “Explaining Your Conversational Intent and Inviting Consent.”  Dennis makes some common sense, but seldom seen, points about conversation skills in it.  In summary, he says, “Make sure that you tell the other person what type of conversation you want to have.  Ask him or her if he or she is ready to have this type of conversation at that time.”

Check out some of what he has to say…

In order to help your conversation partner cooperate with you and to reduce possible misunderstandings, start important conversations by inviting your conversation partner to join you in the specific kind of conversation you want to have. The more the conversation is going to mean to you, the more important it is for your conversation partner to understand the big picture. If you need to have a long, complex, or emotion-laden conversation with someone, it will make a big difference if you briefly explain your conversational intention first and then invite the consent of your intended conversation partner.

Why explain? Some conversations require a lot more time, effort and involvement than others. If you want to have a conversation that will require a significant amount of effort from the other person, it will go better if that person understands what he or she is getting into and
consents to participate. Of course, in giving up the varying amounts of coercion and surprise that are at work when we just launch into whatever we want to talk about, we are more vulnerable to being turned down. But, when people agree to talk with us, they will be more
present in the conversation and more able to either meet our needs or explain why they can’t (and perhaps suggest alternatives we had not thought of).  Many good communicators do this explaining intent/inviting consent without giving it any thought. They start important conversations by saying things such as: “Hi, Steve. I need to ask for your help on my project. Got a minute to talk about it?” “Maria, do you have a minute? Right now I’d like to talk to you about… Is that OK?” 

When we offer such combined explanations of intent and invitations-to-consent we can help our conversations along in four important ways:

First, we give our listeners a chance to consent to or decline the offer of a specific conversation. A person who has agreed to participate will participate more fully.

Second, we help our listeners to understand the “big picture,” the overall goal of the conversation-to-come. Many scholars in linguistics and communication studies now agree that understanding a person’s overall conversational intention is crucial for understanding that person’s message in words and gestures.

Third, we allow our listeners to get ready for what is coming, especially if the topic is emotionally charged. (If we surprise people by launching into emotional conversations, they may respond by avoiding further conversations with us or by being permanently on guard.)

And fourth, we help our listeners understand the role that we want them to play in the conversation: fellow problem solver, employee receiving instructions, giver of emotional support, and so on. These are very different roles to play. Our conversations will go better if we ask people to play only one conversational role at a time.

To be invited into a conversation is an act of respect. A consciously consenting participant is much more likely to pay attention and cooperate than someone who feels pushed into an undefined conversation by the force of another person’s talking.

It’s not universal, but to assume without asking that a person is available to talk may be interpreted by many people as lack of respect. When we begin a conversation by respecting the wishes of the other person, we start to generate some of the goodwill (trust that their wishes will be considered) needed for creative problem solving. I believe that the empathy we get will be more genuine and the agreements we reach will be more reliable if we give people a choice about talking with us.

The common sense point here is simple.  Successful people are dynamic communicators.  Dynamic communicators have mastered three basic communication skills: conversation, writing and presenting.  Inviting people to participate in a conversation and getting their agreement before jumping in is an important, but often overlooked conversation skill.  People who are invited to join a conversation, and choose to do so, are more likely to be better participants.  If you want to become an excellent conversationalist, take a few minutes to explain why you want to have a conversation.  Ask the other person if he or she has the time and is willing to participate in a conversation on that topic.  Your conversations will be better and more productive if you follow this simple common sense advice.
That’s my take on how to begin important conversations.  What’s yours?  Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts with us.  As always, thanks for reading.

Bud

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