The other day I was sitting on a train on the London underground reading my book. Next to me was a young lady immersed in reading her Kindle. After a few stops I heard a voice say: “Is it good?” I realised that it was the lady next to me asking me a question. It took me a while to register that she was initiating a conversation, partly because it’s such a rare occurrence. The lady had noticed what I was reading and was curious to know what I thought about it. Some of her friends had read it and recommended the book but she wanted to know what I thought of it as I was in the middle of experiencing it. She asked her question not as a way of starting a conversation just for the sake of it but because she was genuinely interested in the answer.
A number of things struck me about this encounter. The first is how many people, both at work and at leisure, prefer the comfort and safety of their own zone. These days travellers tend to do everything they can to blot out the reality of other people invading their personal space, often by withdrawing into their headphones (although many, unhelpfully, share their “music” by playing it too loud. More on that later). One of the most significant problems in large organisations is that of the silo mentality: people think, work and are managed in vertical hierarchies and rarely share or collaborate horizontally. The best organisations foster curiosity (both idle and otherwise) and encourage their people to engage with what interests them. Cultivating knowledge requires us to look beyond both the immediate and the obvious. It necessitates observing, noticing and making connections. However, many of us are simply too busy doing things to step back and observe and to use our observations to inform our thinking and feeling.
The second thing that came to me was how many of the conversations that we have tend to be merely the exchange of information. The lady who asked the question of me did so not because she wanted to tell me what she thought of the book, but because she wanted to hear my view. Too many so-called conversations simply consist of two people taking it in turns to talk. But a real conversation is so much more. As Mark Twain said: “Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other so that we can have some conversation.” Business leaders, especially, express the desire to communicate and have a dialogue with their employees. However, most want the conversation to be on their topics, on their timescale, on their channels, and using their language. Many work on the assumption that other people find them endlessly fascinating and that they hang on their every word. True leadership is less about directing and is more about empowering; and the route to empowerment is through listening to people and allowing them the space to be their own leaders.
Sometimes even asking questions can be the wrong approach as it has the potential to dictate the exchange and to close off the development of the other person’s thinking. As an inveterate talker who is only too happy to share my pearls of wisdom, I am now learning the skill of judicious questioning and active listening. As Proust said: “The need to speak prevents one not merely from listening but from seeing.” As I’ve said before, listening is much harder than it seems and is certainly a lot harder than talking.
The idea of encouraging conversation yet minimising talking may seem oxymoronic. However, I believe that we should all embolden ourselves and seek opportunities to engage our curiosity in conversations outside our comfort zones. And rather than merely exchanging pleasantries with strangers it should be about those things that we know are important.
Finally, here’s a story about loud music on the train. A man was reading his book when a young woman sat opposite him. Loud music was coming out of her earphones. He politely asked her to turn them down. She ignored him. He then started to read his book out loud. She sheepishly moved away. Marvellous.