The Enduring Importance of Communication & Curiosity

Last week I saw a thought provoking video of Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management on the Enduring Importance of Curiosity and Communication. In the last 10 years, the world has become more complex, inherently unstable, a world that is reaching for a new equilibrium. The technological capabilities have far outstripped our very rudimentary human ability to organize effectively. Sally is amazed how important effective communication still is, and how important and well curiosity serves a human being.

She talks about “organizational intelligence.” We can see social networks in our brain; who is linked to whom; which groups convene regularly or not; and how if you interact and intervene in that system, you can change outcomes over time. By being an architect of collaboration, you can affect outcomes through team meetings or Facebook, for example. You need to orchestrate conversations in person and virtually to move the team forward.

As the school’s dean, she comes into contact with Millennials frequently. There are two things she would like to see them do since their brain works in new ways due to their early exposure to technology. They are excellent data collectors. She would like to see them get away from collecting information and into generating insight and inspiration for what to do with that information. The only way she knows to do this is to step away from the chatter and the stimuli.

Secondly, she ponders on how we develop more organizational intelligence. How do we think with more deliberateness about the conversations that we need to have in order to move humankind forward? Her hope is that the sacredness of face to face interaction isn’t lost.

I am also reading MIT psychology Professor Sherry Turkle‘s book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. From her extensive research, she concludes that people look at technology for ways to be in relationships and yet protect ourselves from being in them at the same time. In her 15 years of research, she describes the “always on, always on you,” relationship that many people have with their smartphones, which keeps them from living in their present space.

Short, shallow, frequent bursts of communication via Twitter, Facebook or texting do not develop deep and emotional relationships, whether among friends, parent to child or between business colleagues. Taking all this time to be social media connected has reduced individual’s time and capacity for solitude, which nurtures relationships and critical thinking that Sally Blount also alludes to.

I fear that people are losing their ability to hold a conversation in our infected society of social networks, which favors many forms of digital connection with numerous people who are practically strangers, rather than really getting to know fewer people a whole lot better.

I spend a lot of time talking to people on the telephone. They answer even though they have caller ID, and don’t know who I am. Some of these folks don’t use social media so they aren’t part of that overstimulated world. Most do, but many still answer their telephone since they are inherently curious, and there aren’t enough listening ears these days, at work or at home. Technology will never replace true human connection.

What has been your experience?

Interviewing Versus Elicitation

People often ask, “What is the benefit of elicitation versus the standard interview?” Actually they have a lot in common.

Preparation in similar. You want to learn as much about that person as you can before you talk to them. Is there something about their profession that you can comment on to get the conversation flowing? Do they work in an interesting industry? Is there some industry jargon that you better know to be believed? What is their communication style? What will put them at ease to share with you early in the interview? Do you have something in common that you can build rapport with?

For an interview, I list all the questions I want answered and then rephrase them in a way that makes it easier for the person to become engaged based on my research of their personality, preferred communication style and profession. This is a great exercise since mentally I start thinking about all the different ways they might respond, and in turn what other questions I might ask, that are not on my list, based on their response. I create something like a decision tree for interviewing, and you thought decision trees were just used in statistics. You can never be too prepared to talk to people, since interviews seldom go as planned, especially over the phone.

Whether you have an appointment or make a cold call, you are interrupting the person’s day, so you need to use your words wisely so as not to waste their time. With some people, a little small talk is all it takes to jump start the interview. With others, state your purpose and get to the point. Others will ask you questions to test your knowledge before they’ll share.

Elicitation is a conversational interview, a planned conversation. People remember the beginning and the end of a conversation more than what is spoken in the middle. If you are asking a series of questions they might wonder why you are asking those questions, and how they should answer. How is the interviewer going to use the information I share? Hmm, I wonder how much I should share? What’s in it for me to share this information?

So you start and end your elicitation conversation with some inconsequential questions about the weather, last night’s football score or ask what brings them to the trade show. Other than this small talk, you don’t ask questions. For some this takes practice. For me it comes naturally, since it’s human nature. When John Nolan taught us a workshop on elicitation in 1995, I remember thinking that I had been using some of these techniques and didn’t know this was elicitation.

Elicitation builds off human tendencies that most people have: a desire for recognition, showing off, curiosity, gossip, complaining, correcting you. Most people can’t keep a secret. There are numerous techniques, and I will illustrate a couple.

One of my favorites is flattery. Some people have a strong ego while others get so little recognition that stroking their ego really works.  Simple flattery often coaxes a person into a conversation that otherwise would not have taken place. Everybody, whether prominent, or very low on the totem pole, reacts to flattery as long as it’s genuine. A common way to use flattery is, “I’ve heard you’re the best…an expert…”

Another favorite is coming across as naïve. People just can’t resist enlightening you. Naïve doesn’t mean stupid. It just means that you don’t quite understand something.  For example when I spoke to a trades person about his instrument, I wanted to learn why he liked this particular competitor’s model. I simply said, “I am not as familiar with this company as I only know the market leader’s instrument which you replaced with this competitor’s model.” That’s all it took, and he told me what he liked about the competitor’s model, and why he didn’t replace it with the market leader’s.

This above call didn’t go as planned. According to my client’s database, this trades person was using one of their instruments. However, that was an error, and he was using a competitor’s model. I didn’t hesitate to find out more information about the competition.

I bet many of you who conduct primary research or interviews use elicitation techniques and don’t even realize it. If you want to learn more about this, you can read John Nolan’s book, Confidential. I gave a webinar for SLA’s Competitive Intelligence division. Check out the Slideshare deck.

Are We Losing the Art of Conversation?

As I spend more time at my parents watching my Dad drift towards death, I have less energy for blogging, but plenty of time to ponder.

I recently read a blog by Sarah Perez about a study from Pew Internet and American Life Project which finds that social media is actually social. Those who surf the web and use mobile phones are more social and better connected to the world at large than those who don’t.

But what is ‘social’? I find that the connections I make and the blogs that I read through social networking are shallow in comparison to the connections and knowledge I gain and exchange in conversation. Social networks provide snippets and tidbits of information. As a society are we losing our ability and culture of conversation?

While this is anecdotal, enough friends tell me they don’t like to receive or leave voice mails since they find the phone to be a waste of time. Maybe I am too old, but I find the phone to be a great use of time, since I both speak and listen to words a lot faster than I can type/read them. Granted I can only engage is one conversation at a time, but there is a depth of conversation that I can routinely get to even on the telephone that just isn’t possible through social networks or any Internet communication.

As a researcher I appreciate that I can find and connect with people I could never have previously reached through social networks. However, I also recognize that those connections can be shallow, and that some people take advantage of what they can get from you through social connection. I had one person lead me to believe that he wanted to do business. Instead he took my proposed solution and implemented it himself. I found this out when I saw his firm listed as a user of a database I had recommended. There is even less loyalty among social connections, since many people don’t really know you, and don’t want to know you. They just want to connect with you to get to your connections. That isn’t what I call social: but, this does extend one’s network beyond one’s known business connections.

As a society we have been creeping away from conversations ever since television became common, and many of us remain glued to TV even as we eat dinner instead of conversing about our day. Now we have the Internet with its many distractions, one of which is email.  We have so many choices of ways to connect such as text messaging, and social media such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest . There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t get several invitations to join various social networks or LinkedIn groups from people who have no idea who I am. I get so much spam through LinkedIn connections who are selling me something, asking me to endorse them or to join their LinkedIn Group. There is a lot of noise out there, and many distractions through an increasing number of social networks. I find that it’s a real balancing act to get my work done for all the noise.

But for now I’m having some deep conversations with family members. There is nothing like the impending loss of a loved one to draw out emotion and connection.

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