Behind every success story, there’s a crowd. Whether you define success professionally, personally, financially, or some other way, nobody does it alone.

Behind most stories of epic failure, there’s also a crowd. Rarely can the blame for a catastrophe truly be laid at the feet of one person. It’s usually a combination of screw ups by different people.

So what’s the difference between a successful crowd and a doomed one? As communications expert John O’Leary explains in “The Importance of Good Conversation – And How To Have It“, good conversation is key.

Meetings can be good

For any group to make good decisions and optimize their relationships (whether working or personal), they need good conversations. As O’Leary points out, it’s the difference between putting a man on the moon and having a space shuttle tragically explode with 7 souls on board and the world watching.

Good conversation allows people to share the full spectrum of value they have to offer. It puts all the relevant and important information on the table before a decision is made. It enables people to bring up difficult subjects, disagree productively, and engage in constructive conflict.

Good conversation increases productivity, reduces waste, manages risk, enables collaboration, and so much more. It’s a superpower, really.

So how do we get it?

O’Leary offers some solid advice about how a leader can set up conversations to increase their quality. He recommends using:

  • independent deliberation, where you ask the participants to formulate what they want to say in writing first so that they can’t change their minds based on the pressures of the meeting
  • assigning a devil’s advocate whose official task is to critique and attack the plan being discussed in order to identify its strengths and weaknesses

There’s also a lot of opportunity here in the area of developing the conversational competence of individuals so that each of us is equipped to have better conversations wherever we are.

Professional radio host Celeste Headlee makes this point in her talk, “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation“, and offers some really good advice about how to be a better conversationalist.

One of her insights is to use open ended questions, starting with who, what, when, why, or how. The trick is that open ended questions can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. They compel the person you’re talking to into a more substantive answer, giving you fodder to take the conversation further and deeper.

She offers a lot more and I encourage you to click through and listen to all of it but remember that you don’t have to do exactly what she says, or what I say for that matter, to improve your conversational skills. Take what works for you and leave the rest but I assure you, any effort towards improving conversational competence will be well worth it.

In fact, that’s going to be the focus of our next We Hate Networking meetup. I’ll be leading an exercise that will help everyone develop their conversational competence, followed by some unstructured time to continue the discussion if participants would like.