George Bernard Shaw pointed out that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Communicating is an integral part of our everyday life. We talk for several hours to people each day while we also communicate through emails, texts and video calls. A study shows that we spend more than three-fourths of the waking hours engaged in some kind of communication.

With new technologies, communicating with others online is faster, convenient and easier than meeting in person. There is no pressure of responding immediately, and a conversation can be resumed at any time. Yet, real, meaningful conversations are hard to come by. Endless talks, unproductive meetings, or social media chats have replaced real conversations in personal or professional spheres.

How is conversation different from ‘talk’?

‘Conversation’ is all about sharing ideas, exchanging thoughts and learning from one another. It involves talking and listening to equal degrees (sales conversations have a different ratio). Conversations are at the centre of all relationships, whether political, personal, or professional. Often, it is the quality of the conversation or lack of it that can make or break a relationship.

A ‘talk’ typically involves a single person who is talking ‘to’ or ‘at’ people who are either listening or pretending to listen to the speaker. The primary difference between a ‘talk’ and a ‘conversation’ is that while the former is ‘one way,’ a conversation is two-way. A conversation, by definition, is ‘informal’ in nature and involves two or more people. As opposed to the dynamics of power and compliance associated with talks, conversations are about being open, human and about being heard.

As Theodore Zeldin says, “Only when people learn to converse will they begin to be equal.”

Why people ‘hate’ meetings

Most people have poor listening skills. People retain about 50% of what the speaker has said after listening to an oral presentation lasting ten minutes. After two days, this level sinks by another 50%, which means we end up with only 25% retention. This is because listeners think faster than the person who is speaking. While most people speak at a rate of 125 words in a minute, the mental capacity extends to understanding 400 words in a minute.

The difference between the speed of thought and speaking speed results in listeners using only 25% of their mental capacity when listening to the average speaker. With 75% of the brain’s capacity not engaged, the mind tends to wander. This is the reason why many of us have to make more effort to concentrate and channel our mental capacity towards listening.

While effective meetings are crucial for organisations, unproductive ones do not just cost money but enhance stress and affect the productivity and motivation of team members. As a result, employees are frustrated; there are little, sometimes no, positive outcomes, and problems continue to persist within the business.

Poorly organised meetings lead to:

  • Loss of focus on what matters.
  • Unclear messages lead to confusion.
  • Slows down progress.
  • Weakens professional relationships.

Staff who frequently have to attend unproductive meetings believe their workload is higher. While employees at larger companies spend approximately 5.6 hours per week on meetings, 70% believe they’re not productive. Most people dislike meetings because apart from being poorly structured, people are not actively engaged.

Why real conversations matter

Real conversations generate interest and enable people to engage actively. People speak freely when they know they are being heard and are naturally interested in how the other person is going to respond.

People want to be heard and understood. They want others to really listen to what they are saying. From attracting customers to improving personal and professional relationships, meaningful conversations help accomplish these positive goals.

Conversation is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used gainfully towards achieving many objectives, such as:

  • Improve understanding
  • Stimulate action
  • Build relationships
  • Transform leadership
  • Identify opportunities
  • Spur innovation
  • Explore possibilities
  • Solve problems
  • Reveal hidden problems
  • Dissolve departmental silos
  • Give a voice to people
  • Share knowledge
  • Generate ideas
  • Identify risks

What sets conversations apart from other verbal exchanges, such as focus groups or interviews, is their organic nature. Conversations are neither predictable nor scripted, and, in fact, can be messy. They can travel in unexpected directions and do not follow linear patterns. Being spontaneous, conversations tend to go from one topic to another. No single authority ‘moderates’ a conversation, which flows freely without a set agenda or expectations. (This can be achieved within the framework of a structured meeting, IE meetings with agendas and outcomes.)

It is their unpredictable and free-flowing nature that makes conversations important. In a genuine conversation, people are more honest, open and feel safe about sharing opinions, beliefs and thoughts. Not every occasion warrants a conversation, but if you are going to have one, make sure you really have one.