conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Posts Tagged ‘collaboration

Praise an Adult: “You’re a good eater and sleeper.”

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And that’s saying something.

According to Mrs. Kirkistan, these are two of my (many?) positive traits:

You’re a good sleeper and a good eater.

She is right: I am. Both.

That’s the kind of stuff we say about an infant, in which case it is high praise indeed: getting that little human to sleep and eat bodes well for future growth. It’s some of the first stuff we can say with any authority about a newborn.

But we struggle to praise an adult.

If we look at those same qualities on the other end of the lifespan, “good sleeper” remains a positive. Older folks have a hard time sleeping (it turns out all sorts and ages of people have a hard time sleeping). What constitutes a “good eater” changes through the years as well. Moving from a voracious eater to a judicious eater seems an especially praiseworthy approach that can span the years.

Still, how can we offer praise to one another in a meaningful way? The trophy for “just showing up” is nearly worthless and most of us see through that. But acknowledging the contributions we each make goes a huge way toward helping each other find and lay hold of our better meaning-making activities.GreatBlur-05202015

Yesterday my client drew a red star next to a paragraph he liked. It’s a small thing, but in conversation I told him it was meaningful that he did that. Our best work, it seems, goes by mostly unremarked. That’s how we know it is good—no one says anything. This is in contrast to when we are kids and our parents praise us for picking up our toys or finishing our Brussel sprouts. Even in school we look for praise from teachers and professors to know that we are doing the right thing/on the right track. But most of life doesn’t work that way.

Giving feedback can help us close the circuit for each other. Even if barely acknowledged, a complement does a whole lotta good.

But it better be true. Otherwise it’s just pandering.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why Work Out Loud?

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Living out loud—even at work

Way back when our first child was born (lo these many years ago), back before there was language, when crying and inchoate grunts were the sum total of signals this small being could muster (along with unblinking stares), a strange communication pattern emerged in our household: narration.

Mrs. Kirkistan and I both found ourselves narrating in real-time to this youngster. His wide eyes and (relative) silence seemed enough to make us think he was curious about, well, whatever. We narrated pacing the floor at 2am (“We’re walking back and forth because someone is crying. But we’re not pointing fingers. No sir.”). We narrated cooking and cleaning. We talked about sitting on the couch and driving in the car. We told the story of outside—every window had a story.

It seemed to work if only because it was met with silence which we took for interest. Eventually he started narrating back at us.

Thank you, Veterans.

Thank you, Veterans.

I’m reminded of this as I read John Stepper’s blog and anticipate his book, Working Out Loud: How to build a better network, career & life (Due Feb, 2015). Mr. Stepper makes the case that we do ourselves a favor when we “work in an open, generous, connected way.” The benefit is to ourselves and to others. Check out his “5 elements of working out loud.”

Lately I find myself talking more with clients about how they communicate internally and externally. I continue to see the emphasis wrought by free and open social venues (Twitter, bloggery, Facebook) working their way backwards into the way organizations conduct business. I predict more collaborative encounters and less monologue from a guy with a tie and a pen to sign your paycheck.

Stepper’s “working out loud” codifies some of that collaborative energy that rises like Spring sap with honest and open communication. I think of it as another perspective on the “dumb sketch” approach to life.

Narrating our day, asking for input, remarking on a remarkable idea—it’s all part of human contact and cannot be separated from the business of making meaning.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Ditch Your Job to Woo Collaboration

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Sure it’s a mess. But it’s a glorious mess.

Focused, nose-to-grindstone is certainly simpler. Get it done so you can go home on time and watch TV.

Bring another person into your process and suddenly things get messy. You find yourself explaining rather than doing. And explanation is a time-sink—just like small-talk. Plus collaboration is not guaranteed: will you have to redo everything your collaborator attempted?

This is why students groan audibly when I introduce a group project in a writing class. Especially when their grade depends on successful interaction. They hate it hate it hate it.

And that is too bad. I’ve often wondered why we don’t teach collaboration alongside math and biology and writing and literature in grade school. But it seems collaboration is a thing you are primed for later in life, when you start to see you don’t have all the answers. It is a bent that takes root after we have an experience or two of utter delight at someone else’s contribution.

Wooing collaboration starts with shop talk: where you step out of your job’s established tracks and ask others about their experience. How do they do what they do? What do they delight in? Where does meaning enter into their work? Those answers play into our daily conversations. This is where we learn the eccentricities of our colleagues and see how they bring their diverse knowledge and experience to bear on the work. This is where we learn what it means to be alongside someone.


Just doing your job is isolating—especially when you think you have mastered it and have nothing left to learn. Inviting others into the thinking behind the job is incorporating. Yes it takes time and can be a mess, but in the end it is our connections that pull us forward.

How do you incorporate others into your work?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

October 7, 2014 at 10:01 am

Mind-reading and the Perfectionist’s Dilemma

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“Come here, you big, beautiful rough draft.”

You know what needs to be done.

You know how to do it.

But—given your schedule—you simply cannot attend the details. What you want is to jump to editing the rough draft—but who’s got time to create that rough draft?

This is what I'm thinking....

This is what I’m thinking….

We could be talking about drafting an email, an article or a chapter. We could be talking about a curriculum for a class or a seminar. We could be talking about writing a memo to employees or a letter to partners or a speech to stakeholders—anything that requires focused attention for a time so you can spin out and organize the details. We’re talking about anything you need to create from scratch to deliver to others. Any communication that solves a problem you’ve noticed.

Now is when you need an assistant who can move forward without hand-holding. Now is when you need someone who knows what you know without you telling them. Now is when you need a mind-reader.

But there are no mind-readers.

Are there no mind-readers?

I won’t say copywriters are mind-readers. I will say I find myself in situations every week where my client has provided 15-25% of the details but expects our project to organize 100% of the content in a coherent, compelling fashion.

Sometimes I wonder if our close friends, colleagues and collaborators serve as near-mind-readers. With them we feel free to spit out the raw bits of what we know. And as we say it, we realize what we need to do next. To tell someone what is on our mind is the first step to accomplishing a task. Those conversations are a kind of verbal rough draft.

Don’t be intimidated by the blank page. Embrace the notion of doing something mostly wrong and partly right, which is to say, embrace the rough draft.

It is much easier to change words on a page than it is to put words on a page.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Create a Conversation Zone Today in 3 Steps

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Make Talk Work at Work

If it’s been a while since you’ve had a truly collaborative conversation at work, take some steps toward that today. Collaboration is starting to register on the radar of many leaders in organizations. Collaboration is the love-child of the free speech we tout in social media and the world of work. Collaboration is freed speech working its way backwards through organizations.

Create a conversation zone in 3 easy steps:

  1. Acknowledge the human in front of you. “What?” you may say. “That’s pretty obvious stuff.” Not so fast: how many times a day does your mind go dark when the janitor says something, or the clerk—or the boss? It’s the automatic assumptions that run ahead of those conversations that poison the water. Start with this basic thought and you may be able to strip away some of the power distance that ruins conversations before they even begin
  2. Listen with your eyes. Eyeball to eyeball. No listening happens when my eyes are focused on my Samsung Note II. Don’t fool yourself that you are listening—you aren’t. Not really. Multitasking does not count when it comes to human relationships. I’ve taught enough college students to know instantly who is paying attention, and 93.2% of that is eye contact (6.8% of students have mastered the art of eye contact while entirely absent).
  3. Expose yourself. Really: tell what you honestly don’t know and what you wonder. Stupidity is endearing when offered without guile. Be the stupid guy. Ask the dumb question. Let it be known that you don’t know.

Good things will happen if you take these three steps today.

Oh, and report back, will you? What happened in your conversation today?



Written by kirkistan

February 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

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