The art of conversation

I’m fed up with jargon. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know I have been guilty of using jargon myself in the past, but I’m trying to make a conscious effort not to.

When I started this job just over a year ago, I came in wondering if anyone else really knew or cared what the term “knowledge management” meant.

It turns out that lots of people don’t – know or care. But what they do care about is learning from each other, sharing experiences and getting to know others who are in the same boat. You might call the facilitation of this process knowledge management – I’m not saying you shouldn’t. But in an effort to clarify the jargon, I quite like the idea of just calling it… conversation.

Conversation is king

Or more accurately, I suppose it’s helping people have conversations. But not any old conversations, conversations that matter.

Now, I make no apology for some of this blog being directly attributable to Arthur Shelley, author and creator of the Organizational Zoo. I blogged a bit about him last year and had the pleasure of attending a Knowledge and Innovation Network workshop recently led by him.

Arthur talked a bit about conversations that matter and about “knowledge management” people being at the forefront of making those conversations happen in organisations in order to meet business objectives. He also said that none of what he was talking about was “rocket science”. It’s true, I’ve been saying it for as long as I can remember, none of this stuff is complicated – it’s about enabling people to have useful, valuable conversations that help them do what they need to do.

What could be simpler? So why does it all end up being so hard to do? Is it actually just because we overcomplicate everything with jargon and waffle?

Conversations that matter

So, how do we make sure that we’re having focused conversations that end up achieving the right result? And how do we make sure we have an understanding of the “real” sense of what’s being said?

Arthur Shelley believes that “effective conversations follow a simple structure defined around understanding what you are trying to achieve”. The key is focus. It’s easy to have conversations that don’t end up anywhere. How many of us have been in meetings or events where the conversation rambles around a theme, but lacks a point?

Perhaps we should simply ask ourselves, “What are we trying to achieve with this conversation?”

It doesn’t matter what the focus is, as long as there is one. You might be looking to achieve something specific and measurable, a document or plan perhaps. Equally, you might be looking to create a feeling or an idea – not as tangible or measurable, but clearly can be achieved through conversation.

A lot of the work we do in our team is about bringing the right people together to have the right conversations at the right time about the right stuff, so they can learn from each other and achieve what they need to. To quote Arthur Shelley again, “Managed well the facilitator ensures everyone in each conversation understands the purpose of the conversation and what benefits will be delivered to which beneficiaries.” Indeed, that is the responsibility of a good Knowledge Hub group facilitator. (Find out more in the online facilitators community.)

I discovered an interesting podcast the other day discussing how leaders use conversation to power their organisations. I loved the quote from Karen Dietz in the accompanying review, “I have to laugh – now we are teaching leaders how to have conversations – something we do as naturally as breathing.”

We may have conversations all the time, “as naturally as breathing”, but are they worthwhile?

Michael Slind, author and interviewee in the above podcast says, “…if you think about it, a real, good conversation is open, but it's not aimless. A real conversation, even if it's just between two people, if it's not just about small talk, there's an agenda there. We want to get something out of it.

“…This has to tie back to the strategy the company is pursuing.

“And just as in an ordinary personal conversation, you want to make sure you get something out of it. A really good organisational conversation is very strategically minded. It aims to tie back every aspect of communication to the fundamental competitive and strategic objectives of the organisation.”

Conversation is two-way

The biggest challenge with conversation is that it’s two-way. It isn’t just about spouting off, it’s about listening too.

The ancient Chinese character for listening includes the symbol for the ear, but it also represents you, your eyes, your undivided attention and your heart, demonstrating that listening is not just with the ear. It’s real engagement with the whole of yourself, which is the essence of a good two-way conversation. (Thanks again to Arthur Shelley for sharing that one.)

Chinese character for listening


It’s something we’ve been trying to do in the Knowledge Hub. We set up a feedback group especially for users of the site to tell us what’s not working and their ideas for improvements. We’ve been listening hard, working to fix issues and considering potential changes. We've also had (and are continuing to have) lots of individual and group conversations with users. Granted we can’t do everything immediately, but we’re doing what we can to include you in the conversation.

Sharing through conversation

If we consider how we usually find out about things, it’s often by asking other people. OK, we’ll probably “ask” Google for help somewhere along the line too, but in fact isn’t the easiest thing just to ask someone you trust? Someone you know will give you a reliable answer. To quote Arthur Shelley, “we trust, therefore we share”.

Think about the books you read, the restaurants you go to, even the films you watch, they’re often influenced by individuals you trust. I often recommend good reads to friends and vice versa. We don’t always have the same tastes of course, but more often than not, their recommendations are brilliant. This good experience makes me go on trusting their recommendations – even if once or twice I don’t really agree with them.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why sharing knowledge online can be a lot harder than sharing in a face to face situation. You can perhaps feel like that bond of trust isn’t there with individuals in an online community. There’s something about posting in an online forum (however closed or secure) that doesn’t feel quite as safe.

It can also be difficult to convey the real meaning of the conversation online. There are no gestures, no facial expressions, there’s no body language and it can be difficult to convey the tone.

So, is it possible to have effective conversations and share learning with people you can trust online?

Conversations in the Knowledge Hub

I think it is!

There are loads of ways to have good conversations with people you trust in the Knowledge Hub.

1. Create connections – make connections with people you know first. You can have conversations with these individuals via instant messenger when they’re also online.

Connect with people

2. Follow people – if you’re shy of making connections with people you don’t know, why not follow their activity for a bit? See what they’re saying and whether you’re interested in it. You can always connect with them later.

Follow people's activity


3. Direct messages – start a conversation with trusted individuals by sending a message.

Send a direct message to someone


4. Join groups – join the conversation in the group forum. Groups are a way of individuals from different places and different organisations all with an interest in a similar subject to share conversations. You might not know and trust them all, but they’re probably all there for similar reasons to you, so it’s worth giving it a go.

My groups


5. Write a blog – it’s true, not everyone is going to agree with your blog. It’s quite a brave thing to do if you’ve never done it before, but blogs can create some of the most diverse and interesting conversations of them all.

My blog


There’s an old Chinese proverb that says,

“A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month's study of books.”

Let's keep sharing conversations across the Knowledge Hub table!

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