I recently interviewed a group of 20-somethings to better understand their inspirations and aspirations and repeatedly heard a common goal of “wanting to make a difference.” To hear this group tell it, we live in a troubled world with too much brokenness, and they want to help in some small way that relates to their particular interests and talents. They are less about the paycheck or the rickety ladder to success and more about their communities, social impact and feeling connected to a noble endeavor.
One challenge in being a difference maker is ensuring these ideals survive the cynicism that comes with age. Much is needed to stay the course: a deep internal reserve, the ability to improvise and call an audible when a lesson is learned, a support structure to cheer us on, and the continuing building of new skills. The newspaper I grew up with, the Denver Post, displayed daily on its front page, “There is no hope for the satisfied man.” As relates to acquiring new skills, more prophetic words were never written.
On a typical 21st-century list of valuable skills, one that is never mentioned is a high-quality conversationalist. The list usually cites analytics, technology, communications, problem solving and the vague attribute of “leadership,” which is hard to define, but we know it when we see it. But conversationalist? Not on any job description.
To me, being a gifted conversationalist has huge payback. Imagine entering a meeting where the group is tasked with getting a delayed widget out the door. There sits a person from product marketing, R&D, finance, operations and sales. Because the hats we wear often define us, the product marketing person is focused on meeting customer needs. The R&D person considers the engineering challenges and design trade-offs. Finance wants to know why it’s costing so much. The operations person is drilling down into important minutia like packaging. In the back of the room sits a sales manager with a smirk on his face who finds the discussion to be all about nothing and just wants to sell the darn widget.
In this room of palpable stress, the conversationalist arrives and warms up the mood, making people more comfortable. Suddenly people are talking. Whoa! Is that a chuckle I hear? Suddenly the world feels friendlier, less scary. We are in a far better place to surface our differences and broker conflict.
The same holds true in our personal life. The conversationalist can take us out of our echo chamber where people of like mind reinforce like views. Instead, we get to experience the value of interacting with a more diverse group and stretch our thinking. This is hard and has been known to raise one’s blood pressure. But done in the safe hands of a gifted conversationalist, we get to hear and feel heard. It is nothing short of a miracle.
A conversationalist’s gift can sometimes happen in seemingly small moments. I once had the opportunity to be a guest on a TV talk show. As I sat in the reception area, I was quite nervous — mouth dry, my mind going in a million directions as I sought one catchy phrase I could use. That is until the show’s host greeted me with some old-fashioned schmoozing. “How was traffic?” and then, “Thank you so much for coming.” She seemed like a neighbor, and that brief interaction kept me relaxed, even on the set.
In all these instances, the conversationalist diffuses tension and moves anxious people from feeling irritable to somewhere between civil and warm. But how?
While there is no recipe per se, there are some common practices used to get a conversation going including:
—Activate your curiosity: If you find people interesting and you want to know more, they will feel validated and engage better.
—Ask simple questions that are easy to field: The conversationalist feels no need to be the smartest person in the room. Rather, throw a slow pitch over home plate that is likely to be hit.
—Enjoy listening: Once we get ourselves to the place where we enjoy listening, our best instincts take over. The questions are natural, and the pleasure is mutual.
—Use humor if possible: This does not mean rip-roaring laughter, but something that elicits a smile or a chuckle is welcome. Self-depreciating humor works. Irony can be funny. So can artful exaggeration.
—Read the cues: Visual cues are critical. Are people making eye contact? Smiling? Crossing their arms with a hint of defiance? A gifted conversationalist will know when to raise the surrender flag and aim for another day.
To become a gifted conversationalist begin by valuing the skill. It is not glad-handing or idle chitchat but rather the art of making people feel connected. It paves the way for building relationships within a motley group. In its purest form, it is bridge building. So whether it is twenty-somethings trying to make a difference, or really anyone looking for an assist, consider adding “conversationalist” to your arsenal. You just might be surprised at the benefits it confers.