Friday, March 07, 2008

Do we really need to know how to have a conversation?

We all know that one of the key foundations for relationship building is the ability to have a conversation. We all assume that we know how to have a conversation, since many of us have been talking since long before we got out of diapers.

But do we really know what we are doing?

In the book Language Development: From Two to Three (1991), Lois Bloom summarized the research regarding basic conversational strategies. Likening conversation to a game of catch, she explained that each conversationalist participates by throwing balls into the air. The rules are that only one ball can be in the air at a time. Throwing a ball into the air is seen as a contribution to the conversation.

So what happens when both people in a conversation are willing participants? One throws the ball, the other throws the same ball back, and the conversation is ongoing until one or both get tired of “playing catch.” Another option is that one player throws the ball into the air and the other watches it hit the ground. The second player then picks up a new ball and throws it back. The first player (or a third) takes yet another ball and throws it into the air. This is not a conversation. The challenge is to get the game of catch going between two, three, or more people in order to engage. Knowing "the rules of the game" facilitates a smooth conversation. As with the game of catch, as we practice conversations, we usually get better at having them. Conversations often result in the transference of knowledge and enrich the lives of those involved, but in order to have conversations we have to actually engage someone else.

Has that changed with the recent advances of technology?

Years ago, people all over were asking whether the next generation would be able to engage in a conversation. They were spending all their time on instant messaging (and less time on the telephone - go figure), and there were some doubts that any of them were developing the social skills to actually communicate.

And then we realized that technology wasn't replacing interaction, it was supplementing it. The instant messages and now the social networking sites were being used like the telephone used to be. They were used to arrange meetings and follow up after them! They were enhancing the conversations, not replacing them. Wouldn't it be great if that worked in the business world?

The reality is that, for many, this is exactly what happens. People who arrange to meet face-to-face, whether in small groups or large, will plan the meeting in their choice of online communications forum. Many will also follow up the meeting with ongoing dialog, often including people who weren't even there. Ultimately, technology (once again), appears to have provided us with yet another way to communicate.

And technology based conversations are happening all around us. If you have access to Facebook, check out “The Conversation on Comcast” (covered in much depth by Mark Kerrigan) and the foundation for this conversation at The ConversationOn.Com. For some rather deep analysis of conversations in marketing, check out Doc Searls' post Can marketing be conversational? Jay Deragon has observed that the social web is the new marketplace of influence fueled by conversations and relationships formed at the intersection of people and technology, and refers to these activities as conversational rivers.

And we can manage our conversations with all kinds of tools. RIM Blackberries started the move to allow us to skip the return to the computer if we needed to check email. Mobile phone text messaging allows us to get messages on the fly (even while we are having a voice conversation), and all the feeds from a variety of providers including Twitter, and social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, let us know what all of our contacts (some of whom are friends) are doing, with minute-by-minute coverage.

I just wonder if we have mastered the art of conversation . . . are we able to play catch, or are we juggling?

What do you think?

1 comment:

Marc Miller said...

It appears no one has anything to say. Hmmm, I wonder why?

Maybe if this article were a two line text message we'd be seeing a thousand one word answers in response to it.

Great article CarterFSmith!