The Lessons Of A Bad Conversation

One of the trendiest refrains in social marketing today is the command to "join the conversation." Sure, this command is trite and generalized. After all, it is marketing speak. But, it's also subjective and relative. As marketers, our definition of "conversation" -- what counts for participation, what constitutes a conversation at all, let alone a quality one -- matters.

It certainly matters within the human relationship, doesn't it?

It's obvious over one's social lifetime how broad the definition and standard for quality conversation is. Walking home from a painful dinner conversation of a certain droning variety this summer, I found myself creating categories of conversation type and also contemplating some of my own quirks. My dinner mate kept falsely apologizing at random intervals for droning, but then breathlessly continuing the diatribe. I took notes as I quietly wept in my sake.

But we've all been on both sides of this table.

Me on a bad conversation day? I may rail about my own strife. I may deflect personal, probing questions to the point of creating something that comes across as a wall. I may go silent and pensive rather than engage, because of other mental distractions. These qualities are me at my worst in conversation.

On the flip side, I have self-perceptions of me in good conversation -- but those are self beliefs. I know that I thrive on conversation across a broad scope and love the art of the give and take. But how this really comes off within my social fabric is not up to me alone.  How a supposedly meaningful, quality conversation transports my relationships, on any level big or small, will ultimately be the proof of its value.

How might strangers, passersby, inner circles of friends and family regard you in conversation - both at your most tedious and your most positively engaging? As businesspeople, of course, but also as marketers engaged in an increasingly socialized discipline, this self-awareness is precious professional intelligence. Pay attention for a while in your day-to-day world to see what lessons you might apply to your social marketing approaches.

All around, you will find certain types of conversation styles that were probably seeded by positive behaviors taught in one's youth or in therapy: be thoughtful, share of yourself, practice empathy, convey insights, ask questions. But how quickly can a good core intention spiral to a bad place? I count at least four.

-    The woman who sits quietly across the table, furrowing a brow, cradling her beer stein. Long silences persist. Cryptic, short, smart, one-way statements are made. She is obviously disengaged. When asked to elaborate or provide context, she says, "My mind is just going in lots of different directions. I'm very complex. Everything you say triggers a thought path. I can't explain." Sounds really sexy, really complicated, and so cerebral! But, it does not play well in conversation; it's broken communication. It's too smart for its own good. Overly clever and disconnected from the audience's reality.

-    How about the companion who plunges onward for two hours about himself, in excruciating, unpunctuated detail?  Your only opportunity to engage with this is to riff off certain inflection points in the speech and steer it toward mutuality. You let silences linger to see if he will engage in a two-way. But he always resumes his relentless stream. At the end of two hours, with his plate still full of food (yours is empty and you are probably drunk), he asks, "What's up with you?" But, you are exhausted and ready to go home. He doesn't mean it. The prospect of continuing this pretense of a conversation is mortifying, so you give short, closed answers and eye the waiter for the check. This guy is over-programmed; all content, no community.

-    There's the woman who, throughout conversation, instead of leaning in and engaging you on your point of view repeatedly says things such as, "Yea-yea-yea, I know you would say X because of Y - so, yes, we agree on Z." She projects your thoughts as though to complete them, believing she knows everything about you without your having to tell her. Bad execution on behavioral marketing?

-    Another curious form of civil conversation gone awry is the militant question-asking format. Someone was told to ask questions, to be curious. But instead of allowing for any organic flow or even sharing of oneself, this conversationalist unleashes blunt question after blunt question, head cocked and doe-eyed in what cannot be true engagement, because it is one-way communication whose purpose is questionable. You shut down and bow out. Someone needs to shorten his forms and tighten his path to conversion.

For me, the best conversations are electric, fluid, mutual, and motivating, on simple or grand scale. They connect and inspire movement. Looking inside the discipline of social marketing, great care must be given to language, mechanics, and the enabling of call and response. If we attend to this, our social world, and our own personal journey through conversation after conversation in our daily lives,  just might help us be more intuitive and get the knack with consumers



4 comments about "The Lessons Of A Bad Conversation".
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  1. Jeff Einstein from The Brothers Einstein, August 23, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    Quick question, Kendall: How do you scale the best conversations?

  2. Susan Roane from The RoAne Group, August 23, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    Your thoughtful, insightful article is a must-read for all those who claim interest in "The Conversation". I have a friend who sits on the sidelines at gatherings and says she is an "observer"...which is good. Unless it's not.
    Attending a party, a conference, a meeting even a family celebration makes it incumbent on us to avoid getting caught in the conversation traps you delineated.
    Disclosure: I wrote How To Work a Room®

  3. Linda Michael from Webolution, August 23, 2010 at 1:43 p.m.

    Oh how some of these sound too familiar. It would be great to get tips for how to turn the conversation when caught with an egocentric.

  4. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks, August 23, 2010 at 2:21 p.m.

    In the early days of eLearning one of our "trainers-in-training" demonstrated a powerful truth about 'conversation' that still stumps most marketers. You cannot "demand" a conversation. It has to happen. And, the conversation does not start with something you say, but rather with something you hear (or apprehend through some other means). We were several sessions into the program when we realized that one of us, "Steve," always had the 'best sessions' =the ones where nearly everyone seemed eager to participate. I started listening to playback of the sessions to figure out what he was doing that the rest of us weren't doing: It was simple. 1. He was truly interested in what other people had to say. So interested, he would take the spend a personal moment with each person, and tell them something about what he planned to talk about, and then ask them what they thought of his plan.(This was not a device. I think he really wanted to know.). 2. He managed the dynamics masterfully. When a 'talker' would begin to dominate the conversation, he'd interrupt, and say something like: "Funny you should say that. I was talking to Mary about this, and she had something really interesting to say. Mary... what was it you were saying... something about... getting a client's attention? Could you tell us what you meant?"

    In most "Steve" sessions he provided 10-20% of conversation but 80-90% of it flowed from the thoughts others had. Marketers too often "have questions" for which they "want answers." They should really just let the dynamics of conversations take their own course. There's more truth it it.

    Your comments about "movement" reminded me of Steve. That was his thing I think. It was his curiosity about what other people were thinking that drove was not just a technique. He really wanted to know.

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