Teaspoons: A Story of Abundance and Scarcity

Earlier this year a colleague was bemoaning the availability of teaspoons in our office’s shared refreshment making facility. This had become a regular gripe, but not one that I regarded as critical or one that I should resolve.

This is the same facility that I wrote about some months ago in The Sub-optimal Kitchen – The 10 Steps to Getting a Cup of Tea where making a cup of tea is a challenge at the best of times.

One evening, however, a thought came to me: “I wonder how many spoons I can buy cheaply to resolve this situation for good, and perhaps I can have a bit of a laugh while I’m at it?”

Spurred on by this though I reached for my iPhone and discovered that I could purchase 48 teaspoons for the princely sum of £7. At 14.5p per spoon I decided that it was worth a giggle. I purchased the spoons and arranged to have them anonymously delivered directly to my colleague at the office. The delivery nicely aligned with a week of vacation and hence I wasn’t around when the cutlery arrived which extended the period of mystery. Returning from holiday I, of course, chose to stay silent on the matter which had clearly become a subject of discussion while I had been away.

What happened to the teaspoons?

Initially the teaspoons were retained by my colleague, but eventually a large proportion of them were placed in our Sub-optimal Kitchen for everyone to use.

For several weeks the spoons stayed where they were, in the Sub-optimal Kitchen, being used collectively as a shared asset. We didn’t monitor the number of spoons closely because they were just there. A few went missing, but mostly they resided where they had been placed. People weren’t great at washing them, but that was fine, a few of us undertook the duty of washing all of them from time-to-time. The teaspoons had become a shared utility which was being used as a shared asset for the benefit of all.

In recent weeks that situation has gone through a dramatic change and today there were just 6 teaspoons left in the Suboptimal Kitchen. Within the space of just a few days the abundance of cutlery has been transformed into an asset of scarcity. The occasional washing duty has been turned into a requirement to wash a spoon every time you want to use one. We have returned to bemoaning the lack of teaspoons.

Why the change?

I don’t know what happened to the teaspoons, for sure, but I have some theories.

Theory #1: I suspect that most of the teaspoons are now on people’s desks and they are taking them with them every time they make a cup of tea. They were initially comfortable to leave the spoons in the Suboptimal Kitchen because they were abundant. The abundance meant that they didn’t need to worry about whether a clean spoon would be available so they didn’t need to have their spoon – they had an Abundance Mindset. At some point the volume of spoons reduced to the point where people regarded them as scarce and their mindset shift to a Scarcity Mindset. This scarcity triggered a concern that there might not be a clean spoon available, and worse than that, there might not be a spoon available at all. Once this mindset shift had occurred in a few people it precipitated a rapid depletion of the shared asset as people sought to secure their own access to the facility for the long term and, in so doing, further depleted the asset.

Theory #2: Someone is a teaspoon hoarder.

Theory #3: Someone has taken the teaspoons home to give them an extra-special clean and forgotten to bring them back.

Theory #4: The cleaner has decided to throw them all away.

What are you going to do about it?

There are a few approaches available to resolve this situation:

Resolution #1: I could send an email to everyone in the office pinpointing everyone’s inconsiderateness and asking them to return the spoons. This would be a perfectly legitimate response to an obvious breach of office etiquette, but perhaps this is a little petty. This will be highly embarrassing if someone has taken the teaspoons home for an extra-special clean.

Resolution #2: I could spend another £7 and return the Sub-optimal Kitchen to a status of teaspoon abundance and reestablishing the shared asset. If my abundance mindset theory is correct this will enable the Sub-optimal Kitchen to function a little less sub-optimally for another period of time. If, however, we have a teaspoon hoarder, this approach will give someone the joy of extending their collection. If it’s because someone took them home to wash them, then we will have an over-abundance, but I doubt that will be a problem.

Resolution #3: Forget all about it and leave the Sub-optimal Kitchen in teaspoon scarcity.

What do you think I should do?

When was the last time you were bored? Are you too distracted to be creative?

I recently watched this video by Kyle T. Webster entitled: Make Time for Boredom.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to be bored? We live in a world of constant distraction, spending hours interacting with our screens, mostly doing nothing at all.

We flick from Instagram to Message to Email to Twitter to Facebook to Netflix to YouTube and back again hoping that something there will distract us. Apart from wasting time, have you ever wondered what all of that time-slicing is doing to your brain? Perhaps, if your brain wasn’t doing all of that stuff it would be bored, but perhaps that boredom would help you to be more creative? That’s what the video is about, and I think it’s a message many of us need to hear:

Header Image: a rather dull, yet pleasing seascape across Morecambe Bay from Silverdale. I stood for a while and pondered.

The 6 Whiteboard Writer Archetypes

Whiteboards have become a vital and ubiquitous member of the office environment since their invention in the 1960s. They hang on walls and partitions around the world ready to serve owners of marker pens around the clock. So vital have they become that in some locations the entire wall has become a whiteboard.

As I observe, and take part in, gatherings around the whiteboard I’ve observed a number of different archetypes of marker pen usage. I wonder if you’ve noticed the same ones?

The Stabber

It’s easy to tell when The Stabber has been present at the whiteboard, the tell-tale sign is the state of the pens, once beautifully crafted nibs have been reduced to a stub of their former glory.

The resulting calligraphy on the whiteboard is bold and brash, it has to be, the state of the writing instruments leaves no option. If there was a font name for this type of writing it would be something like “Drawing with Crayons – Extra-Extra Bold”.

I’ve also observed that they prefer to start in the middle of a whiteboard, but they really aren’t bothered about where they write.

It’s also worth noting that The Stabber rarely wipes anything off a whiteboard.

The Detailer

The Detailer carries their own pens with them. The thought of getting to a locations and having to use pens that have been subject to a Stabber regime fills them with dread.

Their creativity is governed by strict rules of precision and neatness. One of these rules governs where they start a creation, generally in the top left-hand corner of a whiteboard.

Not only do they carry their own pens The Detailer always knows how to get a whiteboard clean and regularly re-craft their visual musings. wiping and redrawing. They often go so far as to carry their own cleaning apparatus.

The Ghostwriter

Offices around the globe are littered with dried-out pens, they are placed there so that The Ghostwriter has the required instrument for their markings.

The Ghostwriter is happiest when they stand at a whiteboard and faintly craft, in broad strokes, a resulting design that is unintelligible. Their favourite colour of dried-up pen is red, the resulting pink hews seem to hold a powerful influence over them and add to the sense of mystery.

The Ghostwriter doesn’t need to worry about cleaning their whiteboard, there’s little to clean away.

The Overwriter

You are sitting in a meeting room and the whiteboard is mostly full when the Overwriter stands up to try and communicate through a diagram that, in their mind, needs to be on the whiteboard. Rather than clearing the necessary space on the already partially occupied whiteboard they will start in a section where some space is available.

It’s obvious from the start that there is never going to be enough room for the expansive design that the Overwriter is, slowly, formulating in their mind. As they encroach on the creations of other they could clean some space for their plot, but they don’t. The Overwriter has reached a creative flow that would be broken by the inconvenience of wiping, and so they carry on drawing, blending together different outlines as they go. The resulting mess means something to them.

The Hand Cleaner

Some people, I don’t know why, must love the feel of whiteboard against their skin. That’s the only reason that I can think of for wiping a whiteboard clean with your hand.

One of the joys of the whiteboard is its resilience to all sorts of harsh cleaning treatment, yet, people still clean them with their bare hands. Hands are amazing general purpose instruments, intricate and uniquely skilled at a myriad of intricate activities – I have no idea why you would choose to use it to wipe down a whiteboard.

The Post-it Noter

Why write when you can write and stick.

The post-it note was conceived in 1974, I wonder whether it would have been as successful if it hadn’t been for the already ubiquitous whiteboard. Most whiteboards are magnetic and can be adorned with all sorts of magnetic paraphernalia, but this feature is rarely utilised. Perhaps the most common magnetic thing that gets put onto whiteboards is a wiper. The utilisation of whiteboards as a repository of post-it notes must outstrip the use of magnetic features by many multiples. I suspect that there are many whiteboards that long for the long forgotten day when they knew the caress of a pen.

A Thought

In a world with so much collaboration technology, why are we still spending so much money on whiteboards?

The global traditional whiteboard market was valued at USD 2,450.6 Million in 2016, and is expected to reach USD 3,026.8 Million by 2023

Global Traditional Whiteboard Market Outlook, Trend and Opportunity Analysis, Competitive Insights, Actionable Segmentation & Forecast 2023

How do I have fascinating conversations? | Questions?

Some conversations are better than others – agreed?

Some people appear to have far more fascinating conversations than the rest of us – agreed?

Why is that? That’s the subject of this set of posts.

It’s worth a bit of a recap of where we have got to so far. In the first post I looked at some of the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations, sometimes looking at the opposite of something helps us to see the way to a positive outcome. Whilst each one of these anti-patterns were defined in the form of a person, I acknowledge that I’ve been every one of these people and I suspect I’m not alone in that. In the second post I looked at the impact of listening on these anti-patterns and in particular we looked at the power of reflective listening. I also introduced a new anti-pattern the Reflection Robot.

Imagination Time

You have been invited by a friend to a celebration. As you walk into the venue you recognise that there are people there from the various sections of your friend’s life, some are family, some are friends like yourself, some are work colleagues, there are also people there from the charity where they help out. You look around and see some people you know sat around a table, but there isn’t any room left at that table. As you look at the other tables you realise that there are only two seats left at a table where you aren’t sure that you know anybody, and what’s more you aren’t sure how these people relate to your friend. You can’t stay standing all night, so you and your partner sit down.

You turn to the person next to you and you say “Hi.”

They say “Hi.” in response.

Conversation protocol dictates that it’s your turn next. The other person is looking at you expecting an interaction.

You are convinced that the next words to come out of your mouth will significantly impact upon the rest of your evening.

What do you say? Do you make a statement? Do you ask a question? Do you play it safe and ask one of those questions that you know will get a safe response? Do you go bold and try to open the conversation to going somewhere interesting but risk looking a bit weird?

You decide to go safe “My name’s [name], how do you know [friend]?”

Inwardly you are disappointed by your lack of courage expecting a suitably safe response. There are a number of possible responses, but you know that the answer is likely to be a bit dull.

They respond “Hi [name], pleased to meet you, I’m William and [friend] and I work together. How do you know [friend]?”

This response has set the course of the conversation for the next few minutes. In the case of a work colleague my next response generally leads to quite a short conversation. When you tell people “I work at an IT Consultancy” their response is often quite short. I’ve thought about finessing the answer to this question to help people out a bit, but never settled on a set of words which enabled people to stay engaged in the conversation.

Questions are such an important part of conversations. Asking great questions is a skill. Actively listening, and asking great questions, are the basic ingredients of fascinating conversations.

What do we learn from the Anti-Patterns?

Let’s keep it a bit shorter this time, I think we are starting to get to know these anti-patterns now.

THE SOAKERS

Soakers are easy – they don’t ask question.

You ask them questions and they respond and before you know it you’ve run out of questions. If you’ve ever been the one asking the questions you’ll recognise how tiring this is.

I suspect that most Soakers can be turned around, but I don’t have a formula to achieve that and I’m rarely successful at it. What I will say is that I think that there is a link between the Soaker and the quality of the questions that we ask but I don’t want to make the questioner the one responsible for the entire interaction.

THE SMART BOMBERS

The Smart Bomber makes statements, they don’t ask questions. There’s a secondary challenge here though, quite often it’s difficult to know what the follow on question to the statement should be. The statement is so often so far from the flow of the conversation prior to it that no-one knows what questions to ask and quite often just stare at each other wondering what just happened.

THE AGENDA ENFORCERS

The Agenda Enforcer, does, at least, normally start with a question. The problem is the question being asked and timing of that question. Rather than going with the flow of the conversation that is already taking place, they want to push a conversation in a particular direction by enforcing their question into the flow.

THE DISTRACTED DISTRACTORS

Asking questions requires engagement in the conversation, if you are distracted, you aren’t going to give the level of engagement required. The question you are most likely to ask, as a Distracted Distractor is “Pardon? What did you say?”

THE NON-STOP TALKERS

One of the strange things about Non-Stop Talkers is that they do, sometimes, ask questions, what they don’t do is wait for responses.

“Do you remember when I fell down the stairs? I do it was so painful, I had to call for an ambulance. Do you remember how long it took for the ambulance to arrive? It must have been 2 hours. Did you stay here with me all that time? You did didn’t you…” I’ve put punctuation in here to make it readable, but often these people talk without punctuation.

THE GUESSING FINISHERS

I suppose that the Guessing Finisher is permanently asking question. Each time they guess a word they are really asking a question, they’ve not very good questions, but questions all the same.

THE REFLECTION ROBOTS

This is the new anti-pattern from last time. I did receive some feedback from someone who thought I was being a bit harsh on counsellors in this anti-pattern, this wasn’t my intention, actually it was the opposite of my intention. Rather than providing constructive reflection the Reflection Robot is using a reflection formula to bounce the question back without actually engaging in the conversation. The questions are there, but they are without feeling or interpretation. Good counsellors don’t use a formula for their reflective questions.

What have we learned?

The anti-patterns have told us a number of different things:

  • Some questions are more interesting than others.
  • Asking the right question for the situation is important.
  • Asking the right question at the right time is even better.
  • Even the right question at the right time isn’t always enough.
  • Don’t forget to listen to the responses.
  • There can’t be a formula for questions.

How do we know what a great question is?

This is one area where the internet is littered with advice, far too much of it to know where the golden nuggets are, so here are some observations from a mediocre asker of questions (me):

  • Be prepared – If you are going to have a fascinating conversation you need to start well. Starting well requires you to ask good questions from the beginning.
  • Be sensitive – The right question depends on the depth of the conversation. Most conversation don’t start deep, they become deep. If you force a conversation too deep too quickly it will stall. Shallow conversations generally aren’t fascinating.
  • Be natural – You need to bring something of yourself into the questions that you ask. The best quesitons are the ones that would fascinate you.
  • Be open – Yes or No answers don’t lead to a fascinating conversation. The trick is to learn to ask questions that solicit an open response. Example: “What is it that you love about your job?” generally results in a better response than “Do you love your job?” to which the answer is Yes or No.
  • Be reflective – Reflective listening is a skill and works well with reflective questions.
  • Be responsive – The best questions are often follow-on questions, by which I mean, questions that build upon the previous response.

If you’d prefer the advice of others try these on for size:

In summary I think that these two quotations will suffice:

“To be interesting, be interested.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

Voltaire

Header Image: We live quite close to some gorgeous Lancashire countryside. The other night we decided to go for an explore and enjoy the sunset. The lambs in the fields were particularly excited to see us.

How do I have fascinating conversations? | Are You Listening?

Are you a good listener? I can be a good listener, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect that most of us struggle a bit.

Every conversation is an exchange of ideas, with some exchanges being deeper than others. A conversation usually requires someone to be talking, but it’s not a conversation unless someone is listening. Even then, someone talking and someone listening isn’t a conversation that’s just a speech, to be a true conversation the role of talker and listener has to change. Most people don’t struggle with the talking side, the struggle is with the listening part.

In the book “Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age” Edward Hess describes it like this:

You may think that you’re already a good listener. I (Ed) thought I was, but after truly digging into what it means to listen “reflectively,” I realized that in fact I interrupted people frequently to finish their sentences or to put forth what I thought was the answer. I often was creating my response in my head while people were still talking. In fact, I was a very poor listener. I did everything wrong. I listened for cues as to whether I had an opening to make my point. I “read” people to accomplish my objectives. Most of my conversations had a personal objective. I was not into casual conversations that I considered idle chitchat. I looked at a conversation in most cases as a transaction—as a vehicle to accomplish something. My mind wandered a lot when I “listened.” I got bored, and if I didn’t actually interrupt, I fidgeted and lost eye contact with the speaker. Winning, looking smart, and telling what I “knew” to advance my cause were my only purposes in listening to others. Today it’s embarrassing to write that. I was a piece of work. I was an awful listener at home and at work.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 116). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

In the book Hess goes on to describe the characteristics of “Reflective Listening” something that the book regards as a core skill for the future workforce:

To be a good listener you have to be totally focused on the speaker with an open mind. You have to listen in a nonjudgmental way, with the only goal being to try to understand what the other person is saying before you prepare and deliver your response. Good listeners ask questions to make sure that they understand before responding, or they paraphrase and repeat back what they believe that the person said and ask if they’ve understood correctly. Good listeners then reflect, and as Bourne explained to me, they “try on” the other person’s idea to see how it would feel if they believed that, too. Taking the time to slow down and try on a new idea and see how it feels is what we mean by Reflective Listening.

Hess, Edward D.. Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (p. 117). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Is this second description you? Or do you identify more with the first one?

Whether you call it Reflective Listening or not, I suspect that many of us can think of people who embody this kind of listening – but they aren’t the protagonists in our anti-patterns.

Listening and the Fascinating Conversation Anti-Patterns

Let’s take a look through the anti-patterns that I outlined last time and see what they have to tell us about listening.

The Soakers

For a fascinating conversation to occur it’s important that both of the people are playing their part, talking and listening.

The problem with The Soaker is that they only have one mode, talking. They respond to questions, but they aren’t in any sense, listening to the person asking the questions, nor are they asking reflective questions of the other members of the dialogue.

You through a ball against a wall and the wall bounces the ball back. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not a fascinating game of tennis.

There are times that no matter how hard you try as a listener, your correspondent isn’t going to make the grade required to turn the conversation into a fascinating exchange. The danger with that statement is that we give up too early on what could, given the right questions from us, become a fascinating conversation.

The Smart Bombers

These are the people who destroy the flow of a conversation by exploding a statement-bomb in the middle of it.

Smart Bombers are not listeners, they have something to say and they are going to say it even if it’s only barely connected to the conversation that’s already underway. The only thing that they are listening for is a gap into which they can make their statement, and they don’t always do that.

Listeners aren’t statement makers. Listeners ask questions.

The Agenda Enforcers

The Agenda Enforcers, those people who insist on a conversation following their set agenda, are sometimes good listeners, but more often than not they aren’t listening at all.

There are times when a conversation needs to follow an agenda to get to the required outcome or the needed interaction. In these instances, the Agenda Enforcer needs to be listening to the interaction and to keep it going in the required direction. These aren’t generally fascinating conversation, but sometimes they can be.

Where Agenda Enforcers generally fall down is in their need to control the dialogue too tightly. They often do this from the start. Many of us will recognise those situations where a discussion is taking place between members of a team about a subject only for the Agenda Enforcer to enter and say, “Right then, progress update.”

Everyone in the room is thinking “You mean the progress we were just talking about and the progress you’d understand if you’d only just sat and listened for 10 seconds.”

the Distracted Distractors

Many of us are so easily distracted that the slightest thing will drag us away from an interaction.

Listening isn’t a passive activity, it requires effort and focus – it requires attention. The Distracted Distractor’s lack of attention is still communicating, it’s communicating on many levels but probably the loudest thing it’s saying is “I don’t care about this conversation.”

Listening says “I care about this conversation.”

There are practical things that we can do to reduce our level of distraction, removing the primary distractions being the main one.

I, like many, get distracted by screens, so I try to remove them from the situation. When I get home in an evening, I place my iPhone in the study which, for me, is conveniently by the front door. The aim is for it to stay there all evening. This weekend we were at some friends for lunch and I wanted to be as engaged as I could in the conversation so as soon as I entered the house I placed my phone and keys in another room on a shelf and set to silent (the phone). When we do things like this it doesn’t take us long to forget that the screens are even there, we are just as easily distracted from our distractions.

the Non-Stop Talkers

I don’t think I need to say much here. Those people who won’t stop talking are only listening to one person and that’s themselves.

Listening in these situations isn’t easy and there are a couple of reasons for this. The first one is that the Non-Stop Talker is expecting far too much of our ability to retain information. If we are given too much information in one go we simply shut down. The other reason is, and it’s difficult to admit this, we get bored.

I’ve not, yet, found a good way of breaking into a monologue from the Non-Stop Talkers. Even when I have managed to interrupt it’s generally resulted in them returning to their monologue quite soon afterwards.

The Guessing Finishers

Let’s start with a positive statement for The Guessing Finishers – they are listening to the conversation; you need to listen to the beginning of a sentence if you are going to finish it for someone. The problem is that they are impatient listeners and that’s not good listening. Finishing someone’s sentence is not reflective listening. Great listening requires patience and time.

I have a friend who had a stroke some years ago this impacted her speech and her ability to recall words. Sometimes she does need help with a word, but she’ll ask if she does. Having a conversation with her can take a long time but what she has to say is always worth listening to.

When we are tempted to become a Guessing Finisher we need to slow down and to listen.

A New Anti-Pattern

Having reviewed our existing anti-patterns it occurs to me that we need a new one when we think about listening:

The Reflection Robots

I’ve done a couple of courses with the aim of building my listening skills. Each of these courses focused on a form of reflective listening based on a number of techniques. This anti-pattern comes out of a caricature of those sessions.

You are sat in a small room where there is some occasional furniture, but the most obvious furniture is two armchairs occupying the middle of the room. They are strategically placed at a 45-degree angle with a small coffee-table between them.

In one of the chairs is seated a person (you decide whether it’s a man or a woman, both are applicable) who is wearing safe casual clothes. Around their neck is a decorative scarf (I have no idea why these people like scarves so much). Their back is straight, their legs are bent with knees together and their hands are placed palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on their lap.

They beckon you to sit down, which you do. You’re not quite sure how to sit and adjust your position a few times before accepting that you are now as comfortable as you are going to get. Without realising it you are now sat with your back straight…your legs bent and knees together…and your hands are, yes, palm to palm with fingers intertwined resting on your lap.

The person in the chair 45-degrees from you tilts their head to one side and asks in the softest voice you’ve ever heard “How can I help you?”

You then go on to explain that you’ve been feeling a bit glum recently.

They respond by saying in a voice that sounds like marshmallow “What I am hearing from you is that you are feeling a bit glum at present, is that correct?”

You reply that they understood correctly, and that the glumness had been continuing for some time.

They respond by stating in a cotton-wool tone of voice “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness has been continuing for some time, is that correct?”

You look at them and ponder whether Alexa would ask better questions, but you continue. You explain that you think the glumness started when you were recently upset by an incident with a close friend.

They respond, with their head still tilted at the same angle “What I am hearing from you is that your glumness started when an incident with a close friend occurred, is that correct?”

It’s then that you realise that you are paying for this.

This is not reflective listening, this is not a fascinating conversation, this is interacting with a robot.

How do I learn to listen?

There are some techniques to listening and some practical things that make listening better. There are a number of good articles and many good books available to help you understand these techniques. I’ve picked a few:

What you will understand from reading each of these articles is that there are techniques to help you become a good listener, but that truly great listening is a skill that requires practice. You’ll also notice that listening skills are linked to other of the so-called “soft skills”.

The great thing about developing the listening skill is that there are so many opportunities to practice. Imagine how far you could get if each conversation you had was just a little bit better than the one before.

I’m off now to find a scarf and to practice holding my head to one side.

How did that make you feel? 😉

How do I have fascinating conversations? | The anti-patterns

How good are you at conversations? I think I’m in the “OK, but not great” group of people. I know people who are brilliant at turning even the most mundane encounter into a fascinating interaction, I also know people who struggle with conversing and some who are conversation murderers.

I can have fascinating conversations, but I’m not great at it. I can also find myself in the conversation wilderness wondering where the best route out is.

Conversations are a skill which I believe can be developed and improved. I’m expecting this post to be the first of a series, I’ve not planned the series out (which is unusual) but I know that I have more to say than this single post, at least. Hopefully, we’ll learn some new skills along the journey.

The Fascinating conversation Anti-Patterns

Before we understand how we have fascinating conversations, let’s start with the opposite, the characteristics of terrible conversations. As I’ve been thinking about conversations in recent weeks and months I’ve come across a number of anti-patterns that interrupt an interaction and leave it flapping around with nowhere to go, I’m sure that there are plenty more and each of these is just a caricature, but sometimes those caricatures teach us something.

The Soakers

You are placed next to someone at a dinner who you don’t really know and you think that it might be fun to get to know them. You turn and say “Hi” or something equivalent.

They say “Hi” back and all appears to be good. They haven’t snarled at you which is always a bonus and they aren’t so shy that they can’t enter a conversation.

Having made the initial advance it’s time to get started and you reach for one of your semi-interesting opening questions: “What do you do?” or even “How long have you know {name of host}?” perhaps “Do you have family?” may be appropriate.

Whichever question you choose will be answered, but the answer will give little away. The respondee may talk for several minutes, but somehow what they say gives you no footing for a follow-on question about their answer.

You wait a second to see if they want to ask you a question, but that doesn’t appear to occur to them.

Your left with few options and decide to pick another question from the list while still hoping to gain an insight that opens up an avenue of insightful conversation.

Again it is answered, but still little is revealed.

You wait a few more seconds to see if they will ask you a question, again nothing. Your inner voice wonders why they don’t want to ask you a question.

The list of semi-interesting opening questions is starting to look a bit depleted, but you persevere.

Another answer, still no opening.

Still no question in response. Your inner-voice wants to shout at them “ASK ME A QUESTION!” but you are far too polite for that.

You return to your list of questions and decide that the next one on the list is just too boring to ask.

The conversations dies from lack of interest and you look around the rest of the table for someone, anyone, to talk to.

The Smart Bomber

You are stood with a group of people you know reasonably well and the conversation is OK, but not quite fascinating. You’re enjoying the interaction and everyone is contributing.

Then someone joins the conversation.

Within seconds they have contributed to the conversation.

The conversation is now dead.

Silence.

The flow of the conversation was stopped by the contribution of the newest member of the group.

Everyone looks at each other desperately seeking a way of restarting the movement of words but time is running out fast. The conversational heartbeat is flat-lining. Quick, someone, do something, but no rescue is coming and everyone stands there in a silence that gets ever more uncomfortable.

Eventually the silence becomes too painful and the group disperses or breaks own into factions that each start their own, new, flow.

What did the newcomer say? There’s no simple way to define what was wrong with their contribution other than to characterise it as smart. Like many English words smart has a positive and a negative meaning – I’m using the negative meaning in this context. I’m talking here about statements for which there is no reply other than to say “Pardon? (You Muppet)” Politeness precludes anyone from saying this, politeness also stops us ignoring the comment and returning to the state we were in a few seconds earlier.

Notice that I describe these contributions as statements, because they are very rarely questions.

The smarts bomb has exploded and we are all left picking up the pieces.

The Agenda Enforcer

You join a teleconference early and discover that a number of your colleagues are also on the call early and so you say “Hi” and ask a question “How is everyone today?”

One of your colleagues chooses to respond with an insight into some planned special events in their office where things are going particularly well, they’ve been working on this for weeks and are quite excited about the outcome. Another colleague comments in a similar way and asks others in the group about their experiences. Other excited responses follow.

This is when the Agenda Enforcer enters the conversations and says “Today we are going to go around the call and I want each of you to report on how you are getting on with the planned special events? Who wants to start?”

This agenda item is exactly the conversation that you have just been having but no no-one wants to start. No-one wants to give a report, you were happy to have a conversation, but the conversation has left the call.

In your mind you are wondering why the Agenda Enforcer didn’t just let the conversation carry on flowing while also bubbling with anger for the interaction that was needlessly lost. Why did they feel the need to be in control?

The Distracted Distractor

You are sat in a one-to-one conversation in a coffee shop and have found great seats next to the window. Outside is a busy high-street and it feels like most of the rest of the world is going past the plate-glass facade.

The conversation is going well, you’ve caught up on some things and moved a little beyond the semi-interesting opening questions that such occasions demand. You are in the process of asking the person opposite you another question when they look out of the window and say “Have you seen that?”

You look out of the window to see a car driving illegally down the middle of the pedestrianised area. Your companion comments about the daftness of the person who has got themselves in such a mess.

After a few more choice words they ask “Where were we?”

You restate your question and they reply, but part way through their reply they again point out of the window “Look at that, they’re coming back the other way now!”

Again they ask “Where were we?” and you remind them.

A little further through their answer their phone rings, they take it out of their pocket and answer it. After a short conversation they end the phone call but continue to interact with the apps on their phone. You sit waiting, patiently, waiting, in silence, waiting.

Eventually they look up and say “Where were we again?” At this you stare intently at their phone. You flick a switch in your pocket and laser beams blast from your eyes instantly turning the phone into ash. Or, you reach over, take the phone from their hands and drop it into their drink. Or, something like that, or perhaps that’s just me.

A conversation is a flow of ideas and information, without the flow there is no conversation. In general the flow only goes in one direction, forwards. Stop-start is uncomfortable and going backwards is painful.

The Non-Stop Talker

Do I need to describe this person? You know who they are straight away. I suspect that you can picture them without prompting, if you can’t then perhaps this person is you.

They are the person who only needs one question to set them out on a track that gets ever more detailed in its telling, ever more irrelevant in its recounting.

They are the person who is convinced that you care whether it was last Tuesday, or perhaps Wednesday, or no it was Monday.

They know that you know how important time is and whether it happened at 11:05, or 10:45, or no it must have been about 11:15 because it was after the bus had left for town, you know the one, the one that is supposed to leave as 10:58, but always leaves at 11:08.

They know that it’s important that the item cost £11.98, or was it £11.95.

In short, they are verbally hyperactive and you only EVER ask them one question. You simply don’t have enough time to ask them more than one.

The Guessing Finishers

You are sat across the table from a work colleague. You are in a conversation and colleague asks you a question.

You steadily formulate an answer to the question because it’s a wonderful open question that requires an open answer.

Part way through your response you breath and pause a little. In that moment your colleague decides that you need help with your answer and start guessing.

Their first guess is utterly wrong and has you wondering whether they’ve been in the same conversation. You answer with a simple “No”. Their second guess is even more random and your “No” has become a bolder “No”. Why would they think that you would mean that? The third answer doesn’t even make sense and your “No” has become “NO”.

You are now stuck into the loop that uses all of your cognitive energy to answer their guesses and there is little remaining energy to find and give the answer that you were looking for in the first place.

The two of you eventually, somehow, find the missing word without you having to stand up and shout out “NO!!!” There is sweat beading on your neck from the stress.

Your corespondent then asks you another question and your anxiety levels hit max. You pause, trying to construct a whole answer so that you avoid the guessing game, but your stress levels make this almost impossible to achieve.

A wonderful, fascinating, flowing conversation has been replaced by an internal war with stress. The flow has left and the conversation will soon die for lack of freedom.

Learning from the Anti-Patterns

Recognise any of these? Perhaps you are some of these? I suspect that each of us has done each of these things at some point in our life, the wise thing to do would be to learn from these mistakes.

I’m planning to look into the anti-patterns for fascinating conversations as a way of improving my own interactions.

Header Image: This picture was taken on a recent climb up Crinkle Crags in the March snow. The snow was fresh from overnight showers completely covering any visibility of paths – interesting

Do you have a wandering mind? It’s probably making you unhappy.

The other day we revisited the subject of multi-tasking and I talked about a few ways I try to remain focused. Focus isn’t just important for productivity, it’s also a core competency for happiness.

Back in 2010 Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert published a scientific paper titled: A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy.

Let me say that a different way: spending your life thinking about things that aren’t happening is making you unhappy. You would be happier if you focused on the here and now.

So much of the multi-tasking that we do is an attempt to switch between multiple things that aren’t happening, it’s a type of active mind-wandering. How many times do we check our social media to see if something is happening only to be reminded that nothing is happening. How many times have you refreshed your social media site only to refresh it again, and then again without even thinking. The research tells us that this is making us unhappy.

Below is Matt Killingworth talking through his work at TEDx:

Matt also talked through his findings on the TED Radio Hour in 2014.