Learning Conversations


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Recently, I was reading a particularly vile conversation thread. Inevitably it was about something happening in the political world. It started with someone taking a position about a certain issue in the news.

There were about 80 comments in the thread by the time I got to it.

As you might expect, the comments represented various people staking out positions, reacting positively and negatively to the original premise and to each other. The reactions did nothing to illuminate or expand the conversation. They simply were a death spiral of “I’m right, you’re wrong, you are a clueless jerk, you are one of them……”

It seems most conversations I see follow this trend. People staking out positions on either side of an issue, attacking people who have a differing point of view. As the “conversation” progresses, positions get hardened. But no progress, no deeper understanding, no listening, no learning was occurring. Curiosity was completely absent from the conversation.

This conversation followed the same death spiral until the 62nd comment. The 62nd comment was fascinating, “@Mr. Smith, what causes you to have this opinion about……I’d like to understand….”

Two things happened. First, the majority of the most active people, previously, fell out of the conversation. These are people that had left 4 or more comments in the conversation thread.

Second, the tone of the conversation changed profoundly. It turned into a learning conversation.

It seemed the original active commenters had no interest in learning, they were just interested in imposing their views, declaring themselves right, without defending it, and declaring those that had opposite views wrong, without offering a discussion about why they felt that way.

The 62nd comment changed everything. The participants changed, the tone of the conversation changed. It was people asking questions:

  • What causes you to feel that way?
  • Why do you have this opinion?
  • Why do you think……
  • What if the situation changed and this happened?
  • Have you considered?

The questions and the discussions were asked openly, largely without agenda, other than to learn from someone that had a different point of view.

While political conversations seem to bring out the worse in humanity, the majority of what I see, whether it’s on international/national affairs, business, sales, marketing, whatever, follow the same path.

They are not learning conversations. They are conversations with some sort of agenda.

As we look at many of our conversations as sales people or leaders, how many of them are learning conversations? What would happen if we shifted the majority of our conversations to learning conversations? Would we be able to connect more effectively with the person with whom we are talking? Might we and they accomplish much more?

As I reflect on many of the conversations we have in selling or leadership, very few are truly learning conversations.

We may have “discovery” conversations, in reality, they are “discovery with an agenda.” We are trying to shape the discovery around optimizing the fit of our solution. Through the buying process, our conversations become less about learning, but more about convincing. Our jargon reflects this, pitching, presenting, overcoming objections, closing.

We know we are supposed to “teach” our customers, but true teaching is two way and teaching cannot occur without a willingness of all parties to learn.

As managers, our conversations are not really about learning–yes there is information sharing, but most of that we can get from our reports or CRM systems. But, it’s seldom that we have conversations focused on learning about our people, what they want to achieve, how they feel, what challenges them, where they have concerns.

I believe true learning conversations are two way, each person involved wants to/is committed to learning. It’s those conversations where we seem to achieve the most–even if at the end we don’t agree. It’s those conversations where we grow, where we progress, and move forward.

Without this openness on the part of each participant, we cannot grow and make progress.

We might even start thinking of people’s willingness to enter into learning conversations as qualifiers and disqualifiers. Customers are already using that strategy, they aren’t interested in talking to people who aren’t interested in learning about them.

What if we engaged a customer that is not interested in a learning conversation–perhaps it might be a waste of both our times? If they aren’t open to change–whether it’s changing what they are doing or considering to change their minds, nothing will happen.

Likewise with our people. If they aren’t interested in learning, if they aren’t interested in considering something different–they are uncoachable.

Learning conversations can only happen if we, ourselves, are 200% committed to learning in the discussion. We have to be open to differing points of view, we have to be curious, we have to be interested, we have to care about those we engage in the conversation.

I believe we can transform non-learning conversations into learning conversations by our own actions and commitment to learning and engaging. The 62nd commenter in the referenced conversation profoundly changed a very destructive, dysfunctional discussion. Those that were closed to learning abandoned it and a whole new group of people engaged in what became a fascinating discussion.

What would happen to our effectiveness and our ability to connect, grow, and achieve if we set an objective of trying to make every conversation a learning conversation?

I suspect each of us, our customers, and our people would achieve and grow more. I suspect we would accomplish far more. I suspect we would engage in far more impactful conversations and not waste time on conversations and people who are unwilling to learn. In the end we would be more effective and successful.

Consider your role in changing the conversation. Commit to making every conversation a learning conversation. Be open, be interested, be curious, listen without an agenda. At the end of every conversation, take a minute to reflect, “What did I learn?”

Keep a journal and write it down. It may be difficult, at first, but keep at it. Create the habit of making every conversation a learning conversation.

I’ve been conducting a mini-experiment on myself and the conversations I engage in. I’m discovering I’m learning a lot, I’m fascinated by what I learn, I’m achieving a lot more (including closing more deals), and those I engage are getting far greater value, as well. I, also, have learned they are as eager as I in continuing the conversations and learning more.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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