“The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” Dorothy Nevill, British Writer 1826-1913
Recently, I climbed into a taxi for an hour-long ride from the Heathrow Airport to my hotel. After I informed the driver of my destination, he turned to me and asked, “You have an American accent. Are you American?”
“Yes,” I responded, thinking that I really have a ‘southern American’ accent.
He then made a bold and unflattering generalization about Americans.
It was raining. I was tired. I considered ignoring his comment but found myself more intrigued in a dialogue. I had no intention of trying to change his mind, but I thought, “Here’s a guy who wants to be heard. And if there’s hope for the world, it is only if people like him and me can disagree in a respectful way.”
“Not too worried about your tip, I take it?” I bantered and smiled at his eyes in the mirror.
A broad grin broke across his face as he continued to share his point of view about Americans. His voice got louder and his face more flushed. I began to wonder if I should just nod and smile or really engage. Five minutes into his monologue, I patted the back of his seat.
“Hey, my friend. May I ask you a question?”
He looked into the rear view mirror and paused. “Sure. This is your taxi at the moment.”
“I am interested in hearing your views. And, I may agree with some of them but disagree with others. Are you interested in mine, too, or should I just hear you out?”
“Oh, no,” he practically crooned. “I want a debate!”
“Okay, then how about this. You take the first five minutes and then I get the next five. At the end, we may not agree on everything, but I’m guessing we might both be a little smarter.”
He laughed heartily, turned to face me full on and said, “That is a deal!”
I don’t know if my taxi-driver friend ended up seeing the world any differently when our ride ended, but I did. I was encouraged to discover that dialogue was possible with someone who held strong views and who seemed initially uninterested in anything but a monologue.
Be prepared: during organizational change, you can expect many such conversations. You have the choice on how to handle them.
If a conversation seems one-sided but you would like a dialogue, then pause and agree on ground rules. You can do this in a respectful way by letting the person know you are interested in his views and want to continue the conversation. Then, suggest boundaries – such as equal talking and listening time, lower volume, or less eye-rolling – to help you engage in a healthier way.
Be sure your interest in the conversation is sincere. If you just want a chance to demonstrate the perfection of your opinions, expect the same from the other person. But if you want dialogue, be sure you are open to new information or perspectives. If you are sincerely interested in getting smarter and not just looking smart, you’ll behave in ways that will invite the same from the other person.
People are okay with you expressing even strongly held views so long as you are equally genuine in your invitation of their disagreement. Before sharing your opinions, make a statement like, “You know, I’ve got a strong opinion on this. I’d like to tell you my point of view. Then, at the end, if you see holes in it, or if you have new information I don’t have, I hope you’ll challenge me with it. I want to learn from your view in any way I can.” This sincere invitation takes the fighting wind out of others’ sails. They realize they don’t have to beat you over the head with their opinions because you’re asking for them.
Finally, don’t go for efficiency. When we agree on 50 percent of a topic and disagree on 50 percent, we tend to move quickly to the disagreements because those are what interest us most. If you want worthwhile dialogue, take time to listen for points on which you agree. Point out and confirm them. Then—and only then—move to the areas of disagreement. When you do this you reaffirm that your goal is not to win, it’s to learn.
I hope these ideas are useful to you as you engage with others. Developing mutual purpose and mutual respect can happen…one conversation at a time.
In addition to inspiration from my taxi driver, the tips were adapted from Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High.