In all my 25+ years of helping people talk to each other, I can be confident of two things:
1. People already know what they are supposed to do and have the ability to do it;
2. They won’t do it on their own.
Let’s begin with number one. People already know what they are supposed to do. If I asked you to make a list of effective public speaking behaviors, you probably wouldn’t have any trouble. The list would include things such as direct eye contact, dynamism, humor, confident nonverbals, conversational style, blah, blah, blah. People also have a definite idea of which speakers they enjoy and which they don’t. It seems to boil down to how the speakers rate on the snooze-o-meter. People simply won’t listen to a boring speaker. Is it possible to listen to a boring speaker? Yep! I’ve listened to hundreds of boring speakers, most notoriously a speech on math. Of course, it was my job; so I had no choice. With the math speech, I came scarily close to saying, “I’ll give you a C if you will sit down so I don’t have to listen to the rest.” It was more than a little painful and persuaded no one to enjoy math. It could have been the longest five minutes of my life.
Let’s move on to number two. No matter how quick people are to tell me about speakers they love and hate, they rarely employ any of the successful behaviors such as humor, surprise, creativity, provocative questioning, storytelling, or other methods good speakers use to connect with an audience. Left alone, the speech will be a big snoozer. In training, I’m coaching/ requiring/cajoling/forcing the needed adjustments for creating, planning, and performing a successful presentation that will connect with an audience. I find that everyone can use these tools very effectively; they just don’t.
Because people don’t see all the prep that goes into a presentation, it’s possible to think a speaker just comes into the world ready to wax eloquent. So I’m constantly encouraging people to think about how they can connect with the people in the room and how to fully prepare. It’s really exciting to see the transformation as a speaker is genuinely doing their best work, gaining confidence, and connecting with the group with important information. When a presentation is done well, it seems effortless. When done poorly, the experience is painful. According to Nancy Duarte it takes 90 hours to craft a world class, 60-minute, 30-slide presentation.
All this to say, talking to each other requires skill just like giving a presentation. People already know how they should talk to each other. But we rarely converse that way on our own, especially when tensions begin to rise. From birth, the only way we know much about ourselves is by what others communicate to us. How we talk to each other drives every facet of our relationships; and our relationships determine the culture of every group, including our churches. People only know how much we value them by how we communicate to them. It’s impossible to overestimate how important conversational skill is, and all signs suggest we aren’t very successful.
So who is coaching/requiring/cajoling/forcing the needed adjustments in our own conversations? Probably no one, and our relationships are crumbling. God has put a fire on my tongue to ask over and over and over, “If we can’t talk to each other, what else can we possibly do?” We have to drop the notion that conversation is anything else but a learned skill. If you find yourself saying, “I tried to be nice,” or, “They ought to know what I mean,” I might be the only one who will tell you the truth: you weren’t nice and you can’t possibly expect them to know what you meant when you have no relational foundation.
Think about the people you trust and why you trust them. Think about the time required to build trust and the payoff from that investment. Undoubtedly, you’ve had many substantive conversations over the years. The only difference between insulting and admonishing is the time you’ve spent in conversation with someone. The other day, I was correcting my six-year-old and she said, “I can’t tell if you are teaching me to obey or just being mean.” Apparently the jury is still out after six years of dealing with me.
Or try this: aside from deep relationships, just think about people you enjoy talking to. Why does the connection take place? Don’t these great conversationalists have the same characteristics you like in a speaker: humor, great talking/listening ratio, surprise, creativity, provocative questions, and story-telling? Most of all, we love the connection; it’s energizing and just flat-out fun. A great conversation is truly a lovely thing and communicates we value, respect, appreciate, and want to connect with this person God created. When this happens, we can begin to accomplish a great deal.