A Serious Conversation Can Change Your Life

Theodore Zeldin gave a series of six lectures on conversation that were collected in slim book called “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.” I found it offered a number of insights on what is needed for a serious conversation. And since serious conversation is one of the primary tools for early market exploration and customer development; I have curated a list of nine excerpts I think entrepreneurs will find useful.

Conversation Is About Mental Models
as Much as Facts and Events

Theodore Zeldin's Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

“Conversation is, among other things, a mind reading game and a puzzle. We constantly have to guess why others say what they do. But we can become more agile if we wish.”
Theodore Zeldin in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.”

I think this covers a key challenge you need to manage during conversations with prospects; here are a some additional ones:

  • What is their motivation for talking with you? Do they have a real problem or need they want to discuss?
  • Sometimes a positive answer is the fastest way to end the conversation without an argument, are they agreeing because they want to end the conversation?
  • What is the political situation they are operating in?
  • What is their mental model of the problem or cognitive task model for what they want your help on?
  • What is the experience base or prior history that they bring to the conversation

A Lesson for Sales: Be Willing to Change

“The kind of conversation I am interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a different person. It is always an experiment, and results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook  the world together and make it taste less bitter.”
Theodore Zeldin in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.”

If you are “turning the crank” without reflection on what you heard you may be too focused on execution and making the numbers to improve. It’s not a question of to re-think your fundamental approach after each customer conversation, but you should be alert possibilities for improvement.

Effective Networkers Compare Notes on Needs, Problems, and Objectives

“I see the world as made up of individuals searching. The most important, life-changing events are the meetings of these individuals.”
Theodore Zeldin in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.”

Sometimes just the act of explaining what you are searching for to a new person triggers new insights and awareness. Paying attention to their questions and answering them thoughtfully almost always does. Understanding what you are looking for and communicating it in an appropriate context is one of the keys to successful networking.

After a recent Bootstrapper Breakfast I  talked to a successful entrepreneur who had recently relocated top Silicon Valley from Los Angeles, she was trying to get oriented to events she should attend, and organizations she should reach out to, and people she should meet. I found the conversation very stimulating and in reflecting on it afterwards I realized that it was because she was as  interested in what I was trying to make happen in the next six to eighteen months and achieving her own goals.

Winning an argument became a substitute for discovering the truth. Forcing others to agree became a source of self-esteem.

There can be no satisfactory conversation without mutual respect. Respect discovers the equal dignity of others.

Product Features Are The Children of Conversations

“Everything I am going to say to you is the child of a conversation. […] That is the aspect of conversation that particularly excites me: how conversation changes the way you see the world, and even changes the world.”
Theodore Zeldin in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.”

For sales and marketing folks to have influence over product direction you need to be able to extract key insights from conversations with prospects and customers, recapitulate them with appropriate context, and connect a number of them together into a whole perspective. It’s more like a reporter gathering facts and quotes for a story or a detective gathering objective evidence. There is obviously a role for your own insights and judgment but you have to present them in the broader context of conversations you have had.

It’s also true for engineers: it’s not just “I have this great idea” or “I encountered this problem and found a way to fix it.” It’s also, “I heard variations of this need from at least few customers or strong prospects” or “many folks I have talked to also have this problem.”

One of the questions I often ask an entrepreneur with a novel product idea is “how did you come up with this product idea?” It’s often based on a mix of personal experience and conversations with others. If they have not talked to other people with knowledge of the problem or who are likely to have a need for it then I can tell that they are early in their process.

It’s Not Just Getting The Word Out

“It’s good to talk” was the slogan of the twentieth century, which put it’s faith in self-expression, sharing information and trying to be understood. But talking does not necessarily change one’s own or other people’s feelings or ideas. I believe that the twenty-first century needs a new ambition, to develop not talk but conversation, which does change people. Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving information.
Theodore Zeldin in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives.”

Too often entrepreneurs discover content marketing or messaging and have a list of things they have done to “get the word out.”

  • I have tweeted about this.
  • I sent him an email. I have send 1,000 e-mails.
  • I posted this on a discussion group (Google Group, Yahoo, LinkedIn, mailing list, etc.)
  • I am spending $5 a day (or $500 a month) on Adwords
  • I have recorded a podcast.
  • I made an infographic
  • I have a video on my website.
  • I have a recorded webinar I have shared.
  • I have a landing page up

This is all broadcast, self-expression. If you are not listening, if you are not writing in a way that encourages a response (beyond “Buy Now!”), then it may be very hard to engage people.

Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits.

When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, and engage in new trains of thought.

Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

Theodore Zeldin  in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

I actually tweeted this as one of the “Quotes for Entrepreneurs–February 2015″ and  triggered a reply by Valdis Krebs that was so good I am including it here.

… and new organization of the cards.

  • Nodes/cards change
  • Links/associations change
  • Patterns of card organization change

Valdis Krebs / Orgnet, LLC @orgnet

Especially if you bring along scratch paper or have a white paper handy and can both draw and speak you can spark new insights, remove constraints that were mistaken perceptions, and re-arrange an existing plan into a different sequence with new elements (and perhaps some older ones deleted).

Curiosity Enables You To Discover Both the Obvious and the Subtle

“For about a century now, we have been brought up to believe in the virtues of introspection. But asking that same old question, “Who am I?” cannot get us much further. There is a limit to what one can know about oneself: other people are infinitely more interesting, have infinitely more to say.”
Theodore Zeldin  in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

If you start a lot of conversations with “let me tell you about our idea” or only discuss your product with other team members you need to cultivate your sense of curiosity about other people’s needs.  Startup L. Jackson addressed  this in “The Counterintuitive Thing About Counterintuitive Things

If your goal is to build a startup, you need a more proactive strategy; a way to develop a novel thesis and amass the information you will need to execute against it. Think about your worldview—the thing that drives your intuition—as a framework or ruleset which is never fully complete. Intuition is how you apply this ruleset to new sets of facts.

The best way to develop a better framework than others is to approach the task consciously, and to work constantly at it. While others will often suggest the best thing you can do as a founder is learn to code, this is in fact one of the worst uses of your time (unless you enjoy puzzles, in which case it’s great). Most important software startups in 2014 are fundamentally about solving big human problems within the context of human systems with boring technology. If you accept this premise, your time is best spent developing insights into human needs and behaviors that existing frameworks (conventional wisdom) do not account for.

Ask everyone you meet what they believe, and why.

Startup L. Jackson in “The Counterintuitive Thing About Counterintuitive Things

Power of Dyads

I think the hero in our generation is not the individual but the pair, two people who together add up to more than they are apart.

Having one’s ideas challenged and transmuted by verbal interaction makes one aware how much one owes to others, how much a partner can contribute to one’s intellectual, moral, and emotional development, though one remains a separate, unique person.

Two individuals, conversing honestly, can be inspired by the feeling that they are engaged in a joint enterprise, aiming at inventing an art which has not been tried before.

Theodore Zeldin  in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

I have been formally applying the idea of a workout buddy to new product and service development for several years now at SKMurphy. Before that I have stared several businesses with at least one other partner: Woodruff & Murphy (David Woodruff), Leader-Murphy (Jeff Leader), Full Circle Connections (Stephen Pejouan), ValencePoint (Mike Rowehl), to name a few. Since all of my partners have gone on to successful business careers I can attribute any lack of shared success to the one person who is a common factor throughout.

But I remain a huge fan of dyad or pair collaboration models for creative and design endeavors. Most of our win/loss and customer development interviews are conducted with two people on the phone, as are many of our office hours. This allows one person to take an active role and the other to observe and take notes, trading off periodically and de-briefing after the call is over.

Exploring the Edge Of Your Understanding

“I particularly value conversations which are meetings on the borderline of what I understand and what I don’t, with people who are different from myself.”
Theodore Zeldin  in “Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

In the last five years I taken on different clients working in diverse areas and as a result I have learned a lot about workers’ compensation regulation and practices, flow cytometry, the design of photonic systems, heat pipes and thermal transfer networks, just to name a few of the categories of conversations I have engaged in for early market exploration. The common factors for me (or at least the expertise I bring that is portable across these different domains) relate to the way that new products are evaluated, early adopters are identified and cultivated, and solutions are introduced, adopted, evolve, and proliferate within teams and across larger organizations. But the opportunity to talk to people about real problems and real needs and offer solutions that can have positive impact on their task, their job, their workflow, and their business is one of the things I really enjoy about working at SKMurphy.

It’s also one of the reasons I continue to host Bootstrapper Breakfasts and to offer no cost no obligation office hours. Both let me have serious conversation with entrepreneurs about real challenges and I always learn something.

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