(That’s ‘in’ One Direction, not ‘about’ One Direction.)
A conversation is the best way to discover how to help someone.
In Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do (see my review of the book), Euan Semple gives over a whole chapter to the notion of conversations only being possible between equals – an insight he attributes to David Weinberger.
If you currently work in a traditional hierarchical workplace, this notion might strike you as patently wrong. However, that would reflect a misunderstanding of what is meant by ‘conversation’, especially in the era of the social web. Conversation is not a simple exchange of words. For instance, the following are not conversations:
- Asking your bank manager for a loan
- Responding to the inquiries of a police officer
- Telling your doctor where the pain is
- Explaining to your boss how you sent the customer the wrong order
You may have conversations at some time with each of those people but it won’t be when they are assuming their ‘superior’ position and you your nominally ‘inferior’ one.
Much business writing – and marketing material and the content found in customer support channels, especially – defaults to a position of superiority. The business takes on an almost paternalistic role of talking down. We know our products and we know best how to use them and what they can do to make your life better. You can see how that approach would lead to messaging that is distant, pompous, and aloof. There’s little chance of any information flowing back up that channel of talking down.
Like one of those letters you get from your credit card company, for instance.
Empathy is a good place to start. And add a dose of humility. Carry those into your writing and your engagement with colleagues, customers, and your social networks and there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself getting more than you give. For open thing, empathy and humility tend to help you listen more. Then you learn more and find better ways to help others, whether that’s with advice, a product, or a service. And when you listen and help, you’re heard and helped in turn.
It sounds like magic. But you know it’s not.
When I used to read stories to my children at bed time, the stories always worked best when I read them as if I were as excited and interested and surprised by what happened as my son or daughters. If I read the stories as an ‘adult’, as someone who felt the stories slightly beneath my intellectual or emotional intelligence, the children grew bored. As bored as I was.
This withdrawal from genuine connection is what happens with a lot of business writing; huge swathes of company Facebook pages are a great example of this, where ‘conversation’ is limited to pressing the Like button and the marketing department think they’ve truly engaged with their customer base because they had extra ‘likes’ on that last passionless and redundant post.
It’s often fear, I believe, that prevents us from engaging people with our real voices. Fear and the habits ingrained in us. Too often, we feel we need permission to be genuine. That might be the permission of our boss, of the legal department, of the marketing department. As soon as those considerations tiptoe into the edges of our consciousness, we’re doomed to look for a one-sided interchange: to glean information or to dispense it. It’s a one-shot interaction and no conversation is possible.
This fear often stems from the very fact that true business conversations are rare. That’s one of the habits we internalise. We expect to adopt the superior or inferior position, depending on whether we’re buying or selling or advising or seeking help. Social tools are starting to break this habit. Powerfully and, I’m pleased to say, quite quickly. This is one of the reasons that large companies have been slow to adopt their widespread use, especially across the boundaries of the organisation.
If you’re in such an organisation, preempt the adoption of the tools and reach out yourself. Find like minds within the company and set up conversations with your peers. (Check out the ideas that Anne Marie McEwan of The Smart Work Company is developing for the workplace.)
And if it’s a conversation, that’s because everyone involved is your peer.