In 1983, Mortimer J Adler, the author of How to read a book published his next volume on the art of communication. How to speak, how to listen appeared some forty years after his first volume.
You might, perhaps, think that these are simplistic topics. If you do, it indicates that you haven’t read either of them, but may benefit from them. What Adler does is what our education system doesn’t do, not even at a tertiary level. That is: Teach the critical topics of reading, speaking and listening at a truly advanced level.
While I could plumb the depths of Adler’s works for you, here is not the place in which to do so. Instead, I want to illustrate a key failure in business by way of one of the points Adler raises in how to speak, how to listen.
That point is, communication is not conversation.
Communication is not conversation
How often do we hear that businesses need to communicate better? That we need to communicate with our customers? That our teams benefit from improved communication: From us as leaders and managers; from our business as a whole.
How much do we talk about communication, really?
As a topic, the Harvard Business Review has Communication listed with some 22 recent articles, dating back only to April 2016. It has 20 products in which it is a key topic.
The McKinsey Quarterly has published so much on communication that it is not only a topic, but a subtopic, covering organisations, strategy, skills, leadership, processes, employees, and — probably — more besides.
In the communication topic alone, at the McKinsey & Company website, there are some 2,087 results.
Running a vanilla Google search for communication in business, we are faced with an astonishing 1,390,000,000 articles. These articles run into the billions.
It’s such an important topic that it is covered by every outlet you can imagine, from the keystones of corporate life, like HBR to small business magazines. It is a program inside courses at universities right across the world. It is the subject of leagues of books, news articles, webinars, blogs, conferences, podcasts.
Coaches, mentors and speakers teach people how to communicate.
Technology developers frantically create applications of all kinds to make communication easier.
But do you know what communication actually is? Or what people are actually trying to achieve?
People aren’t writing about messages, but relationships
The word itself comes down to us from the early fifteenth century, from Old French in the fourteenth century. Tracing its etymology down the line, we learn that the term communication means ‘to make common’.
Is this what all of the frantic publishing activity is about? Making something public, or common? Except in the case of technology apps like Slack, which indeed does make the act of communicating a public, or common asset, this is not what writers tend to mean.
Some of them do get it right: That communication is a transactional function. That it is about ‘getting through’ or sending a message from one place to another.
But all of the rest? They are not talking about communication at all, but conversation.
Conversation is a social activity
As Mortimer J. Adler writes, it is conversation that is social. It is that moment when we have a turn‐and‐turn‐about experience with someone, or a group of people, that we enjoy. Of course, he goes on to explore the notion of conversation not just as an enjoyable moment, but also a functional one, a business one, an important one. As he points out, ‘not all conversation is a discussion, but all discussions are conversations’.
To balance this argument, it is only fair that we understand the term conversation like we did communication.
Let’s better understand ‘conversation’
The term itself came about earlier than ‘communication’: It’s from the mid fourteenth century. Originally, it meant ‘the place where one lives or dwells’, and one’s manner of conducting oneself in the world. Passively used, it means ‘to turn about, turn about with’. As a means of exchanging thoughts, that meaning was later.
As a topic being written about, there are far fewer items even in a basic Google search. Instead of billions, we have some 984,000,000. At McKinsey & Co, there are 1818 results, instead of more than 2,000.
The dwelling in the world, the conduct, the behaviour aspects of conversation, they are all relational. They involve yourself and your impact in the world. The turning about, or turning about with, also indicates that someone else is involved, no? That to have a turn, there is someone else also having a turn. If you are turning about with, then you aren’t doing it by yourself. Unless, perhaps, you’re a little bit mad.
We have people writing about conversational artificial intelligence, and yet so many business writers consider relational elements of messaging and shared experience to simply be the movement of messages and signals. If there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the terminology, how are we able to create technology to solve this problem and expect it to be amazing? It’s borderline insanity.
How business would change if we thought ‘conversation’ instead of ‘communication
If you and I decide, however, to reorient the business articles referred to above, such that they discuss conversation instead of communication, we suddenly have a very different world.
Instead of ‘getting the point across’, we have an interaction that listens to, considers and addresses the other party.
Instead of being ‘the way employees, management and administration communicate in order to reach to their organizational goals’, it becomes a warm network of supportive relationships, in which we take turns listening to and validating our understanding. It may result in a better outcome, like smashing organizational goals.
Instead of ‘monitoring employee reactions’, it becomes listening to employees and understanding their perspectives, as a meaningful part of a transformation. It is much more than simply ‘addressing concerns’.
When we think about communication as conversation it changes the way in which business is conducted. It is no longer about you with a message to push, and getting the best uptake of your view. It becomes you and others in an interaction. That interaction has the capacity to change your view, to change your direction.
But it will only do that if you listen.
Conversation can’t exist unless you listen
In the world of content strategy and content creation, there is a clamour of voices shouting at the world to consider their customers. We are bombarded with notions of the ‘personalized experience’, but what is a personalized experience, actually? It is knowing me well enough as your customer to understand what I like in order to give you personal recommendations. It is knowing when to talk to me about the things I care about. It is knowing me well enough that you know what I forget, and what I appreciate in reminders. It is knowing me no matter how we interact.
Yes, a lot of this can be solved with the right data, particularly if we are talking about digital content. But what does it remind you of, in reality?
It’s a conversation. Only in conversation do we understand when people stop listening, or don’t want to hear what we have to say. Only in conversation do we learn what it is that people like, or dislike. Only in conversation do we learn that Annie is forgetful but Sonya remembers absolutely every thing, all the time.
How do you achieve this if you don’t have a conversational perspective to start with?
Community can’t exist without conversation
In the world in which I work, which is content creation, nobody is having conversations. Maybe one of our clients is having meaningful conversations about what is important to their customers. Some have sales teams that claim they do, but who, when it comes to wire, actually don’t know how to listen effectively: They hear what they want to hear. Some just push, push, push, push, push messages all the time, and never have a meaningful conversation with their audience about what they want to see. Some are micro‐businesses, some doing everything by themselves, and those people, too, fail to see their content, their marketing, their publishing, as a conversation.
All of them struggle to build communities. Many of them feel like they could simply be throwing shit at the wall, for all the benefit it does them.
Perhaps it’s as simple as changing how they think. You know, community has one of the same roots as communication. It is about common enjoyment, fellowship, common ownership.
But if all you are doing is pushing messages to people, how do you know whether they enjoy it? Certainly you can’t say that they even own any part of the process: They have no input, they are not being listened to.
So what does this mean for you?
It means, have conversations. It means, structure your content, your marketing, your interactions, your products, inside a conversation.
Yes, you’ll need to talk to them. Yes, you’ll need to listen to them, validate what you understand to make sure it’s right. Yes, sometimes you’ll have to change your mind, your direction, or even your perspective.
This is the price that you pay for community. It is not being A Figurehead, an almighty, all‐powerful person with the right perspectives or messages, shouting them down from on high. It is being vulnerable enough to put yourself fully inside a conversation, and be willing to change not only what you do — but also how your business, marketing, sales functions — in response.
Brutal Pixie has been advising businesses like yours about conversational content ever since we started. To find out how we can help you, contact our experts by email today.