What a Difference a (Genuine) Conversation Makes

When you go for a coffee, bring a tent.
— Carol Guzy (Photographer for the Washington Post)

Switching off the autopilot of polite small talk can lead to truly amazing stories. If a picture tells a thousand words, missing out on a genuine conversation is like wasting a thousand opportunities to connect.

When I was in high school, a wellbeing coach came to visit my class. As a teenager, hormonally programmed to think the eyes of the world were solely on me, I couldn’t help but be very skeptical of this particular outsider. Whilst my face wore zits, my head donned a tinfoil hat.

In a packed assembly hall, the wellbeing coach trained his eyes on the class. The class, on the other hand, fixed their collective gaze on the glossiness of the varnished wooden floor and the matte blandness of their weather-weary shoes. Sensing the inevitable mood of a room full of teenagers being forced to be somewhere they didn’t want to be, the coach walked around greeting random individuals with a smile, a handshake, and variations on a common question-driven greeting:

“How are you?”

“How’s it going?”

“How are you doing?”

His goal wasn’t to start several conversations simultaneously. Rather, it was the beginning of his simple but frightfully important lesson to the class and to me. He noted the defensively average response that came from every person he greeted. Every student picked out from the crowd had answered the coach with “OK”, or “fine”, or “alright”. No one answered with how they were actually feeling. Few people ever do. This is where conversations go to die.

Standard conversation starters can help break some ice but they won’t go anywhere productive. Worse still, failing to have meaningful conversations can lead to missed opportunities. This is true, for example, in conversations between you and someone in your team.

In the loneliness of early academic life, choosing my team was not an available luxury. I didn’t hire anyone. I couldn’t, not right away. Instead, I volunteered my services as a supervisor to any student who would have me: the youngest, the greenest, the most inexperienced. I was fortunate to have several kind colleagues who pointed some keen students in my direction for a chat.

On one occasion, a student came to see me about a project that I thought had been crafted to perfection. When they joined the team (we both had limited options elsewhere), it looked like, together, we might be able to spring from the traps and start the new project quickly. However, after several deeper conversations together, waxing about science, TV, board games, video games, family, school days, fears, and ambitions…I realised I had it all wrong. I had designed a project looking to have a student shoehorned into it. I should’ve been designing the specifics of the project later, around the student, after our conversations. In realising this, the student and I crafted a refreshed project that has since become a spearhead of the research efforts in my team. It was a project remade from the passions of the person I was working with. It brought out the best in their ability, meeting their needs in moving towards their own goals in life.

I was reluctant to hear the wellness coach back in high school but the message stuck. Moving beyond the predictable dead-end of basic conversational questions brought out a team dynamic that endures as one of my fondest memories of starting an academic research team. Turning off the autopilot took discussions from being transactional to conversational and collaborative. It was (and still is) a privilege to behold.

Cal Fussman is a writer and interviewer whose wisdom lies in the ability to ask good questions.

Writer and interviewer Cal Fussman lives by the philosophy that if you change your questions you can change your life. If you can go from the heart to the head, you map out a path to the soul. The possibilities thereafter are simply endless.

Conversations are critical to workplace success, for employers and employees alike. We all stand gain from finding out what makes our team members tick. What drives them? What do they want to achieve? What are they afraid of?

If you want to be interesting to them, be interested in them.

How will you open up to deeper conversations with your own team?