Death to the mono-blog - The “world-changing” art of business conversation

8 October 2012

John Niland

John Niland

Business Coach

Markets change; organisations deploy people, processes and technology to adapt to these changes and get ahead. But maybe there's an overlooked area that could make the biggest step-change of all - not just in terms of how we work together, but how the world works - Conversation.

The art of dialogue (the process - where conversation is the output) is more than just the exchange of words; it's the embrace of different points of view - literally the art of thinking together. There's increasing recognition that to change, we must listen, challenge and most importantly be challenged, thus improve our ability to converse.

Dialogue moves beyond the limitations of "what is" to begin a conversation of "what could be". These ideas are best expressed by Physicist David Bohm of MIT, who has been running The Dialogue Project since the mid-80s. In his words, dialogue works by bringing to the surface the "tacit infrastructure" of thought. Interestingly "thought" in this context covers feelings, emotions, intentions and desires as well as the obvious conscious intellect. He doesn't limit himself to business; Bohm is convinced that better dialogue will change the world.

So what could this mean for business and the conversations and relationships we strive to engage to add value? What happens if we start to think together?

John Niland "converses" with Kate Daly, MD, Kate Daly Counselling Psychology & Solutions.


JohnNiland-Small"I had a superb meeting last week. Though it was long, I came away with more energy than when I went in.

Funnily enough, it was a business meeting that broke most of the rules in the book. We didn't prepare the agenda beforehand, though we tell others to do so all the time. There were frequent interruptions. The wrap-up was hasty, the actions were hurriedly agreed and the documentation was fuzzy...

… and yet, it was one of the best conversations I've had this year. It gave me new perspective, crystallised my thinking and challenged some of the assumptions I was making. Most of all, it gave me new energy and enthusiasm.

Yes, at times, it felt uncomfortable.  It wasn't always clear where the conversation was going. Yet this discussion has probably done more for my business-development than any other conversation I've had this year. 

Why might such a disjointed, challenging meeting be valuable?  To answer that, I need to introduce the other party to the meeting - Kate Daly".


KateDaly-Small(2)"John and I were working on the strategy for the launch of our book. It was obvious by the first coffee and bourbon cream that we had some very different understandings about this.

Conventional discussion would have us defending our pre-set ideas against each other. This is how most people go into meetings. Think about the last one you went to - you had a point of view, right? Or you quickly found one once the meeting had started? We tend in these situations to spend most our time defending our position, and waiting to speak. Its natural and it's what the business world has traditionally rewarded - clear thinking, decisiveness, knows his/her own mind etc. etc.

But what would happen if it wasn't like that? How would it be if we went along to meetings or sales pitches genuinely open to the possibility (and when you get really skilled at this, probability) that you would come away from them thinking differently? What if the idea you had been desperate to put across could be enhanced by letting go of it and your ability to listen well and not stay wedded to your idea would delight your clients and colleagues?

So Instead of a traditional business discussion, what we did instead was to go-Greek. No, I don't mean over-borrow, fail to collect taxes and have a less productive economy without the flexibility to weaken our currency! I mean we set up the conversation along ancient Greek lines.

We went in believing in the benefit of the discussion; positive mindset and an expectation of change.

We held each other in mutual respect; we didn't feel we had to prove our superiority or our expertise - we suspended our egos and we don't have job titles/salaries to justify.

We took turns, and listened as opposed to waiting to speak - this meant abandoning many of the things we intended to say.

Most importantly, we went in willing and expecting to change our views, our ideas and have our thinking challenged - we didn't defend positions. Our minds were truly open.

Don't misunderstand me here, we had positions, all very carefully rationalised and grounded in our various experiences and beliefs about what we were trying to do. But what enabled us to do something special was letting go and surrendering to what might be rather than what was (the limit of our understanding).

It was disjointed, it didn't flow and there were times when each of us was wondering what planet the other was on and where it was all going. But the skill (if I may blow our own trumpets) was sitting with the disjointedness and going with it and using the uncomfortable feeling for benefit. It really brought a fresh perspective, but it took quite a bit of courage to keep going when it felt so uncomfortable and so disjointed".


JohnNiland-Small"You're right it was uncomfortable, but I hate the alternative - slavishly following a process. I've been in too many structured brainstorming sessions and they just move too slowly for me.  Hours later, you end up with some nice pictures that may well be clearer and more comprehensive, but they are rarely worth all the hours that went into producing them.

So we started to wonder, why we don't have these sorts of conversations with our clients to help them address their issues? What is it that's stopping us?

B2B buyers, for example, want to get value from the buying process, even before a purchase is made. By implication, service-providers (and that's all of us) need to add value as part of the pre-sales process, and that means doing more than scoping or documenting requirements. It means challenging the client, reframing requirements, changing the game.

I know when I'm stuck I need something that unblocks the drain, not draws a detailed map of it. I don't want to continue on the treadmill of thoughts in my head, I want some new insight to change my thinking".


KateDaly-Small(2)"We decided it was fear.  It took courage to sit with the sheer uncomfortableness the other day and not criticise each other. Sometimes I think we get caught up in the whole "what's the role of a consultant thing" and the minute we start to talk about ourselves as experts or showcasing our talent we end up in broadcast mode and we do little to really help the client.

When we listen, we hear rather than wait for our cue to talk to slide 9. When we hear, we give our brains the opportunity (and micro-processing time) to make new connections. This is the source of inspirational thinking - new connections. This is the magic that clients want us to bring to the table".


JohnNiland-Small"In our case, the magic moment came when we were teasing out the changes from old economy to new marketplace. We all know some of obvious ones (e.g. budgets and procurement cycles). Like any service-provider, I was doing my best to position the book, right in the heart of these shifts. Nothing new there...treadmill stuff.

Kate was really quiet. She really listened and then spotted something I had not really seen: that all business conversations will have to change to keep up. Not just sales or business-development dialogue but even the ways in which we talk to each other…and ourselves".


KateDaly-Small(2)"Well to confess, I was experimenting with 'connecting'. I'd been out with a customer last week and the whole idea of sitting with uncomfortable feelings came up.  I announced I was feeling 'disjointed' and rather than instantly strike me off the supplier list, the customer applauded the notion of disjointedness and how that might be a good thing - how it might be a uniquely creative way of changing thinking.

That conversation was still settling and I didn't really know what to do with it and where  to take it, but  having had that conversation, my behaviour was changed and  I was suddenly prepared to tolerate the high levels of ambiguity John's talked about. What I was able to do was "bump" that thought into someone else - to connect it in a way I had not intended at the time.

So John, I think this raises some interesting questions about real-time conversations, random bumping and connecting to others. It's seems it's not just what you think or say (after all, thoughts are molecularly all the same, chemical and electrical impulses) it's who hears them that becomes important. Bumping your ideas into the right person creates opportunity. And the uncomfortable feelings shift from tell and broadcast mode into inquiry and "ask" mode.  And it's all time critical. Going off and honing an elevator pitch (broadcast) is "old economy" - by the time you've perfected it we're all listening to someone else. There just isn't time for all the formulaic stuff anymore: by the time you've figured out how to say it or measure it, it will have changed".



"And that's at the heart of what we have been working on. Our book isn't just a book for creating opportunity; it's for anyone who knows they need to adapt their conversation style for the new, agile economy. Most of those we need to reach will intuitively know this already; if we have to convince them they may just be moving too slowly anyway.

We asked ourselves what is stopping us from pitching differently (Hint - it's us!)? What opportunities would arise if we (or you) didn't follow a conventional pitch format? What if we sent credentials ahead and then turned up with no slides - no "I'm the expert" badge and really listened to the client in order to understand their specific challenges and issues? What if we put aside our fears and had the courage and confidence to challenge a client's thinking?

So Kate and I tried it and admittedly, whilst it a 'scary' step, it did leave me feeling pretty excited. It engenders a loyalty and an equality of relationship that sets the tone for the consulting project. It makes the consulting relationship easier, collaborative and more exciting. In short, the outcome for the client is far superior.

Let's be honest, there are some client's this just won't work for, but stop thinking of those people and start thinking instead about who you dare try it out on.

If that's all a bit too much then Kate and I sagely reflected that the first place we find we need to practice this, is with each other: to ask for help when we are stuck. In my case, when I was fed up of saying the same things to myself and feeling I was getting nowhere. It's not easy to say "I'm going around in circles" and to ask for help. But acknowledging that stuck (or disjointed - however you term it) can be creative is incredibly powerful - and of course the ultimate in authenticity - so can you quieten your ego enough to give it a go?"

John is a conference speaker and coach with a focus on creating opportunities via better business conversations with customers and colleagues.

His first career was that of a systems-analyst and project-leader for 15 years, managing pan-European projects for large FMCG, retail and petrochemical organisations. He then set up his own systems company and soon discovered how little he knew about managing people. The real learning began: how to develop business with people, rather than for them.

Since 2000, John has coached others to achieve success via better business conversations. In parallel, John is a co-founder of the European Forum of Independent Professionals, following twelve years of coaching >500 professionals to create more value in their work.

Author of Hidden Value and 100 Tips to Find Time, John is passionate about motivating contributors to find meaning in work, creating both economic and social value at the same time, cultivating opportunity and encouraging workplaces.

He now lives in Brussels, from where he does cycling trips to Vietnam, walking-trips along the St Jacques de Compostela trail and eating-trips wherever there is good food.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bluefin Solutions Ltd.

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