I read a lot of business books and articles and one of the best books I've read in quite a while is "Conversational Capacity" by Craig Weber. It explains clearly what goes wrong in many conversations and what to do about it.
The idea that any group (more than one person) has a particular level of conversational capacity that limits what is talked about or what is talked about productively is important. The idea that we can improve our conversational capacity and the capacity of a group (often, with help) is even more important. Unless key topics can be discussed, and discussed productively, we are likely to make sub-optimal decisions and are probably wasting at least some of the intellectual capital that we are paying for.
So, what are some of the steps that we can take to improve our conversational capacity?
- Realize that difficult discussion often trigger fight and/or flight responses that get in the way of effective discussions
- Recognize that when people get triggered, rational discussion is often biologically impossible - the brain has been emotionally hijacked
- Understand that true curiosity can get in the way of becoming triggered. Trying to understand what may seem like an irrational or incomprehensible position can lead to new ideas and, at the very least, can slow down our tendency to make quick assumptions that lead to becoming triggered. Ideally, we should be curious about others' positions and the assumptions underlying them as well as about how others understand our positions
- Balance curiosity with what Weber call candor. Stating our position clearly as well as the underlying beliefs and assumptions that have led us to our positions
- Learn about what is sometimes called the "ladder of inference" - the ladder we all climb as we move from observable data to assumptions and beliefs (e.g., not only did your colleage not answer or return your phone call, but he didn't respond because he "must" be mad at you, "clearly" because you disagreed with him at the last meeting you were both in). By noticing and climbing back down our ladders of inference, we can see whether we agree about the observable data before moving on to making our assumptions and beliefs more explicit and exploring them together
The good news is that the ideas behind increasing conversational capacity are powerful and effective. Unfortunately, like so many things, it can be hard to observe ourselves in action and to break old patterns and habits. If you are interested in finding out more about how to increase your conversational capacity, please let me know.