Conversations that Count

Some advice to the lovelorn I read many years ago suggested that the best way for a young woman to reel in a young man was to ask him lots of questions about his favorite topic — himself.  From the vantage point of the 21st century, there are any number of objections one might raise regarding the assumptions underlying that advice, but even so there is something there that I’d like to explore further in the context of law firm knowledge management. Namely, the connection between conversation and relationship.

The best law firm knowledge managers build relationships with their lawyer and non-lawyer colleagues that develop over time into something rich and productive, yielding mutual benefits and, often, benefits for their firm.  This means relationships that involve good communication, cooperation and collaboration.  And, it all begins with good conversation.  However, a law firm isn’t always the easiest place in which to hold a conversation. In an environment conditioned by hourly billing, we all tend to be extraordinarily time sensitive.  As a result, our electronic and in person exchanges are often rather transactional – designed to achieve a limited (usually urgent) business purpose.  This can make it difficult to initiate and sustain conversations that don’t necessarily have a direct bearing on immediate client needs.  Yet, it is precisely the conversations with a perspective that reaches beyond the urgent and immediate that can have the greatest beneficial impact on client and firm.  Equally, sometimes a quick conversation held as you pass each other in the hall can surface key facts that shed new light on an old problem or help move a project forward.  Not every conversation needs to be heavy, but knowledge managers should work hard to ensure that every conversation is meaningful.  In other words, they should focus on conversations that count.

So what are the hallmarks of conversations that count?  Here are some suggestions:

  • They are smarter conversations: They  focus on something that matters. As Hugh MacLeod has noted, taking a leadership position on something that matters is critical to success.  So why waste your time and talk on the ephemeral or the immaterial?  Make a commitment to yourself to hold smarter conversations.
  • They enable a two-way exchange: They don’t follow a social script — “Hi, how are you?” “Fine.” <end of conversation>.  They are not data dumps.  Rather, they provide and elicit useful information.
  • They move understanding forward: They are powerful tools for learning.  (And this means learning more in a conversation than the sad fact that your interlocutor is a self-referent bore.)
  • They are strategic: Jo Haraf has written on how to use conversations strategically to discover unmet needs.  She provides a guide to structuring these conversations so that they yield tangible results.  Best of all, if your conversations are strategic (and well-executed), they often leave the door open to another conversation.  In other words, doing this right allows you to do it again.
  • They are not self-referent. They are not focused exclusively on … YOU.  Enough said.

To be clear, this post is ABSOLUTELY NOT advocating more meetings.  In fact, meetings are sometimes inhospitable environments for meaningful conversation.  This post is advocating a focus on smarter conversations — conversations about things that matter, conversations that help build productive relationships. In fact, these are the relationships that make your work as a knowledge manager possible AND enjoyable.  So make your conversations count.

[Hat tip to Greg Lambert for reminding me to revisit Hugh MacLeod’s blog.]

[Photo Credit: Hugh MacLeod]

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