Talking At, Not With: The Problem of Disconnected Conversations

Ever watch two people having a conversation, and neither of them are talking about the same thing?

A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend about politics. It started off pretty even keeled, but the longer we talked the more heated it became. I would make a point. My friend would make a point. Then I would make another point. Then so would my friend. And so that cycle of point-counterpoint continued, each of us building up our points as if there were an imaginary judge that would declare a winner.

Eventually, I had a moment of clarity: neither of us were actually disagreeing; we were actually having two parallel conversations that agreed with one another. However, instead of talking with each other, we were talking at each other. Instead of having a joint conversation, we were having a competitive conversation. While I was trying to draw my friend into my conversation, my friend was trying to draw me into his conversation.

What I had wanted was to be heard. But every time my friend built upon his point, I felt like mine had been ignored. And so I would repeat myself. And it turned out my friend was doing the same thing. We were both talking, but not exactly about the same things. If a conversation is supposed to be a two-way street, my friend and I were each driving separately on two completely different streets.

When I realized what was going on, I brought it up. I laughed and said, (paraphrasing):

You know, it sounds like we’re arguing about something, but I’m not sure we are. I think we’re actually agreeing with each other about different points. What you’re saying supports what I’m saying, and I think what I’m saying makes a good case for you as well.

My friend thought this over, and agreed. And with that, the individual points we had been accruing became team points. By recognizing our conversational disconnect, we were able to create a mutual conversation: we were able to merge our conversational streets together.

In this conversation, we agreed more than we disagreed. But when this conversational disconnect happens during conversations with significant disagreements it can make a bad situation even worse. I experienced this first hand a while back with another friend during an intense argument, which took a familiar course: I would make a point, my friend would make a point, and, as the argument got more and more heated, we both got angrier and angrier.

It was only after we exchanged harsh words that we realized (almost too late) there were two different conversations taking place. Only after this realization were we able to start talking about the underlying issues that we disagreed about. It was only then that we were able to turn an argument into a conversation. Had that realization not set in, we both would have gone our separate ways and a good friendship would have ended.

Both agreements and disagreements are part of any given conversation. But conversations are about more than just those agreements and disagreements. They are about our engagement with one another as we share information and build relationships. This means that conversations are not zero-sum: in a conversation, being right or wrong does not create winners and losers (that’s the purview of debate). Rather, conversations are an opportunity to create value through interpersonal exchange.

Considering how often we talk with one another, we ought to be good at having conversations. And good conversations are often easy to have, and easy to take for granted. However, our most important conversations are often the hardest for us to have, and have the most at stake if they go sideways. When we fall into a conversational trap, like a disconnected conversation, that’s when we take something that can create value and turn it into something that can destroy value.

So, when you are in a conversation, keep in mind: are you driving on the same road as others in your conversation? If not, merge the conversational roads together. Talk with each other, not at each other. Dig deep into your conversational toolkit, and be creative in creating a positive conversation.

If you are interested in learning more about creating positive conversations, two books I highly recommend are Difficult Conversations and Crucial Conversations. Both cover conversations from slightly different angles, and complement each other quite nicely. For more resources, or if you have some you’d like to recommend, contact me.

Recommended Books:

Patterson, K. (2011). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high (2nd ed.) [Unabridged Audiobook].

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most (2nd ed.) [Kindle]. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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