13 From Zeldin’s 36 Topics for a Serious Conversation

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Demos, skmurphy

The last chapter in Theodore Zeldin‘s “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives” lists 36 topics for conversation. I have selected thirteen I think would lead to a serious conversation between entrepreneurs and listed them below (retaining their original number) along with some additional commentary.

4. Emotional Wavelengths: How does one improve one’s skill at guessing what people do not actually say?

Reading intent is a challenging but important skill in sales and negotiations.  A conversation is about mental models as much as facts and events. I think you have to distinguish between unstated or implicit assumptions or things left unsaid that can be surfaced with the right question. If you can become more sensitive to facial expressions, breathing, body language, tone, and cadence–all things that don’t come through in an email or text chat session–you can start to fill in some of the blanks. I sometimes find that it’s easier to discern intent on a phone call than face to face, a paradox that may be due as much to not needing to control my own facial expressions and body language so that I can concentrate more on what the other person is saying.

8. First Impressions: Why do we talk of love at first sight, but seldom of love at first sound.

There are many people that 30 seconds into a phone call I can tell we are going to work well together. I am not always right but there is something about voice that builds trust. I would rather have a 30 second audio clip than a 30 second video clip without sound if I needed to make a quick assessment of someone. A warm laugh in particular is hard to fake (in the same that that a smile that does not include the eyes is insincere).  Someone who is trying to communicate a sense of wonder or curiosity about a topic often makes a positive impression on me.

18. A Room of One’s Own: What are the virtues of silence?

You can also learn a lot from careful observation. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes a shared silence can provide a lot of comfort to someone who is in pain that words may not improve upon. When my boys were younger and I wanted them to take a nap I would lie down with them and breathe deeply. I would remain calm and often they would calm down and take a nap. Of course sometimes they would let me go to sleep first and move on to other rooms.

20. Team Spirit: What place is there in conversation for the competitive instinct?

Teamwork always involves not just communication, coordination, and collaboration but negotiation. Sometimes a competitive challenge–if I can get this part done by Thursday can you be done by then as well–can break a deadlock or move the conversation forward in a useful way.  Good managers cultivate  esprit de corps because it’s much harder to let the team down than the manager alone. The trick is to discourage competition that cuts off listening or a willingness to share good ideas, bad news, or misgivings and concerns.

22. The Specialists: Can you tell from the way someone talks what their work is?

I have blogged about the Deformation Professionelle Of The Software Entrepreneur.

24. Human Resources: Is it possible to have a conversation with the customer, if the customer is always right?

It’s useful to point out the contradictions between different things the customer has said–providing you are not just nitpicking. Good customers know that the may need help making the right decision or selecting the best way to work with you so that even though they are “right” they are still very interested in your opinion. I think it’s difficult to have a useful conversation with someone who does not respect you, your ability to make a contribution or add value, or provide insight. If the customer believes they are right and are not interested in what you have to say you can still listen and ask questions to clarify. At some point a lack of respect indicates they may not be a good customer for you.

26. The Engineer’s Dream: Is the most worthwhile conversation one which takes the most risks?

It can be hard to tell how much risk the other person is taking. I think a better model is progressive mutual disclosure and that takes time. It may take a series of conversations–trust is built over time.

28. Audience Figures: How much do you rely for your topics of conversation on the suggestions of the media?

If media is daily/weekly/monthly publications and “short from writing” websites perhaps a tenth to a quarter of the time. If you include books and long form writing  more like a half. I think the media can make it harder for two people to reach common ground. I find it easier to accept an alternate point of view that’s been shaped by someone having very different experience than I do one based on reading different newspapers and magazines.

29. Baby Alarm: What is the effect of electronic toys on conversation?

It’s funny but watching someone take notes with a ballpoint pen on a pad of paper has as a different nuance than taking notes typing on a tablet than typing on a smartphone. I have seen shared note taking in a collaborative document editor or a text chat window in parallel with a phone call substantially improve the quality of the conversation. The challenge of breaking through the continuous partial attention syndrome seems exacerbated by cell phones but that may be because they are the new technology.

33. The Scribe’s Contribution: What can a letter do that a conversation cannot?

I include email as an epistolary medium for my comments here. A letter or email can allow you to compose your thoughts and present a clear argument or line of reasoning without interruption. For a topic that does not rely on the emotional subtext (e.g. filing a bug report) email is more effective. Introverts are much more comfortable receiving email–it does not require an immediate reaction the way a face to face conversation does–because it allows them time to think before responding.

34. I Didn’t Catch That: Is it ever worth pretending to understand when you don’t?

If you are sure it’s a minor point, yes.

35. Maturity: Do you like to have your opinions changed by conversation?

If I am confused about something I am certainly open to escaping my confusion. If I am inviting or open to change on a topic, yes. It someone is trying to tell me something “for my own good” not so much.

36. Thinking For Oneself: What kind of space, or time, is best for conversations with oneself?

I find meditation, writing morning pages, going for a walk, looking at old pictures, writing a journal, drawing a picture or diagram, taking a shower, waiting to fall asleep, and immediately after I wake up are all helpful. For the last two I keep a pad of paper and pens next to my bedside. I carry 3×5 cards with me so that I can capture random insights without forgetting them.

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