It’s Day 2 of my 17-day odyssey, sharing ideas with people from Seattle to Mauritius.

I’m writing while on a flight from Seattle to Newark, 25 rows behind Rudy Giuliani, who is sitting in the aisle seat in the first row of first class. Rudy got on the plane early, and did a great job of keeping his eyes glued to his BlackBerry as people stared when they crowded past him. (Update for those of you who read yesterday’s post: After much hassle, I got my suitcase back from United Airlines. And, I stayed calm throughout it all.)

One irony of my travels is that, although I’m traveling alone, I’m constantly engaged in conversations. Conducting interactive workshops, side conversations with people during these events, engaging in a stream of phone calls as I move from place to place, chatting with people in lines at the airport; I’m always talking with people.One thing I always try to be aware of is the quality of the conversation I’m in.

How fluid is the dialogue? Is there too much monologue? Are we connecting and sharing? Are we both present? I grade myself pretty hard. If you’re speaking with me, and I drift into monologue, you can bet that I know it and I’ll chastise myself later. If you catch me spacing out, not paying attention to what you’re saying, you should be confident that I caught myself also. (Even though I’m spacing out.)

In fact, if you’re ever speaking with me, in person or by phone, and you think my quality of conversation is lacking, I invite you to call me out on it.I think of this self-monitoring as “The Conversationometer”, and I think it is a really healthy tool to use, all the time. In every conversation, especially those with customers, continuously monitor the quality of your dialogue. Is the dialogue fluid?

Am I listening, and responding based on what I’m hearing? Are we locked in together in true dialogue, or are we committing “monologue disguised as dialogue?”In an interview on page 83 of my book We, Karyn Kedar uses the metaphor of a sailboat tacking with the wind to explain how to keep a conversation on track. You’re paying attention, constantly feeling the wind, and making adjustments as needed to move swiftly through the water.Why is it so important to self-monitor your contribution to a conversation? Because your customer is also monitoring the quality of the conversation.

Don’t believe that you can get away with monologue, or weak dialogue, without being found out. Use The Conversationometer to ensure that you are totally engaged in genuine dialogue with your customer.When I witness someone entrenched in monologue, it often seems like they aren’t even aware of what they’re doing. They get on a roll, blabbing away, without even noticing that they’re not really in a conversation. I want to hold an aural mirror up to their ears (that’s a bizarre image) and say, “Listen to yourself!” Which is ironic, because most of the time no one else is listening to the monologuer.The most important asset your business has is its relationships, and true conversation is the blood flow of relationship-building encounters.

Think of The Conversationometer as being like one of those heart monitoring machines in the hospital. Don’t flatline.


  • Jay Riley
    Jun 12, 2009 - 06:49 am


    Thanks. I needed that.


  • Eliot
    Jun 12, 2009 - 07:44 am

    Steve, Could you invest a VERY tiny Conversationometer monitoring machine and please make sure it is activated when I speak to my spouse!

    Thanks, Eliot

    PS – We need a graphic to go with this great blog!

    • Dan Gunter
      Jun 12, 2009 - 11:25 am

      Eliot, you’re giving me a mental picture of something of a cross between a hearing aid and the device they make that a driver can wear that senses when your head nods (as in falling asleep) and it alarms. I can hear it now: “Honey, if you would… BEEP… I mean… BEEP… Look, I just… BEEP… BEEP… BEEP…”

  • Dan Gunter
    Jun 12, 2009 - 09:09 am

    Steve. as you have a habit of doing, you’ve hit on points of benefit to all of us. If I might add a related comment, one thing I learned about (and admittedly catch myself doing) is hearing only part of what the other person is saying in a conversation. Perhaps a form of “selective hearing.” If I take time to monitor my contribution to the dialogue (provided I make myself do it, which is not always easy, I’ll be the first to admit) I often hear only part of what the other person says then I stop effectively listening. What is really happening in such an instance is I’m busy rehearsing in my mind what my reply (or argument) to the words I did hear will be. This may sound like a normal thing to do, but it’s the wrong way to go about it. I *should* let them finish speaking and listen to every word. Failure to do so often robs me of the additional information that they are going to the trouble to share — information which might actually answer my question or already clear up my mental disagreement with them and avoid any misunderstandings or miscommunications.

    If you will forgive me for posting a somewhat lengthy comment, I’d like to share something with you and others that comes from my Native American descent and participation in Native American leadership. It’s the use of the “talking stick” and “answering feather.”

    When participating in “hoops” (the Native American version of meetings) we employ a talking stick and an answering feather to maintain respectful order and ensure the best dialog. Whoever has the talking stick is allowed to speak — without any interruptions from anyone — until he has said everything he wishes to share. Then, someone motions to request the answering feather, or it is passed around the hoop. Each person, while in possession of the answering feather, is in turn allowed to speak or ask questions without interruption from anyone. As does the person holding the talking stick, when finished speaking the person with the answering feather says “washteh” (in our hoops) which roughly translates to “That is all I have to say or ask at this time.” Interruptions are considered extremely rude. I can not tell you what the punishment or chastisement would be for interrupting as they simply do not occur in any of the many hoops (groups) I have attended. This form of dialog does take longer than most people are accustomed to. But I can promise you it is infinitely more effective than the discussions and meetings most people find themselves engaged in (or suffering through) especially in terms of the dialogue ending with understanding, clarity, and everyone knowing what is expected of them; moreover, the dialogue ends with everyone feeling respected and appreciated — something so often missing in the average discussions that take place in groups or even discussions between two individuals.

    I think the real key to effective dialog between people is to begin with the goals of mutual respect and understanding in mind. Unfortunately, we typically begin with the mindset of proving our position regardless of what it takes. Add to that the fact that we are usually in a hurry and trying to be “efficient” instead of going for “effectiveness.” We often make this mistake at work, with friends, and in our relationships. It’s a very hard habit to change. It is especially difficult if you are the only person in the conversation attempting to take a more effective approach. That is why I sometimes conduct special sessions with teams and work groups where we do nothing but learn the concept of the talking stick and answering feather. Sometimes the groups actually end up employing the technique, using simple objects such as a stapler and roll of cellophane tape in place of the talking stick and answering feather.

    I encourage folks to try it. It works, if everyone involved agrees to try. In the case of just two people engaged in a conversation, use just one object as a talking stick. Pass it back and forth, with full agreement that you don’t speak until the talking stick is in your hand. I’ve used it more than once with couples dealing with marital issues, as they are often so emotionally driven that they can’t communicate — their attempts to “talk” become hurtful competitions and shouting matches, and that has to be overcome, which this approach can achieve. And more than once, they’ve left the session holding hands and laughing, making comments like “I can’t believe we’ve been having such a hard time just talking to one another.” Heartfelt apologies are commonly heard.

    This technique can totally change the course of a discussion. Often, after you’ve done it a few times, you’ll discover yourself not even needing a physical object, just as our hoops don’t always need them. Instead, a person speaks without interruptions and then says “I pass the talking stick to…” and very effective dialogue results from it. It is simply our normal way of doing things.

    Try it. I dare you. It’s actually sort of fun, and is often addictive.

  • Trevor Gay
    Jun 12, 2009 - 12:24 pm

    Steve – great post – and, as always, you make me think. I’m sure you have come across this famous quote:

    “Conversation in the United States is a competitive exercise in which the first person to draw a breath is declared the listener.” – James Nathan Miller

    As a Brit I’m not saying we are any better here in the UK by the way. I’ve met plenty of these folks!

  • Dan Gunter
    Jun 12, 2009 - 13:33 pm

    Trevor, in some of the meetings I’ve been in (most especially medical staff meetings) the first person to draw a breath was usually the one about to gasp and have a myocardial infarction from the stress of the verbal battle.

    You’re right, though. It’s truly pandemic from what I’ve witnessed and heard in my lifetime. Not to say I’m any better. I try. But I’m sure I’ve got plenty of room for improvement myself.

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