Several years ago, while working with a very enthusiastic group of salespeople in Toronto, something totally unexpected happened.
We were all together in a beautiful classroom space in the city’s financial district. All the latest technology was available. The coordinator was charming and funny, the food throughout the day was delicious. Most importantly, everyone there was anxious to learn and more than willing to contribute their experiences, their questions. It was an ideal teaching day.
Then, with about 90 minutes left in our time together, I finished writing something on the whiteboard and turned around to see everyone looking at me with concern. It was as if someone had slammed on the brakes and halted the flow of the workshop.
I didn’t give my reaction much thought. I simply asked, “What is it? What are all of you thinking about?”
Their answer really did “change my life”. At least it changed the focus of my work.
What was their answer? And how has it changed my work?
One of the participants spoke up immediately. “Mary Jane,” he said, “We do understand and value everything you’ve taught us about reaching people and getting a conversation started. But then what do we do?”
I have no clear memory of how I answered that question. As I think about it now, I worry that I allowed a note of sarcasm to creep into my voice with a reply such as, “Ya have a conversation!” I do know that I was, well, flabbergasted. And then a flash of recognition and understanding – people need more information and support on how to have a conversation. Wow!
As I began to work with this new knowledge, I had to find the “why”. Why do people struggle to have conversations? What makes conversations difficult?
Well, of course, there’s technology. Texting, email and messaging have limited, and in some cases eliminated, our speaking with each other in real-time. However, I believe it’s really about what’s necessary in order to have a great conversation.
Having a real-time conversation involves being vulnerable.
In the Toronto workshop, I’d provided everyone with samples of how to get a conversation started. We’d done some fun exercises together, getting them to use the skills. But once they reached the end of the provided scripts … they were lost – they were vulnerable.
The word vulnerable comes to us from the word vulnerabilis (1600 Late Latin) and it means “to wound”. Merriam Webster’s current definition of the word is easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally – open to attack, harm, or damage. Sheesh, no wonder we avoid feeling vulnerable.
And yet, the way to create trust and relationships and loyalty – the path to becoming a storyfinder – demands that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable inside a conversation.
A meaningful, inspired conversation cannot be fully scripted.
It is an improvisation. It takes place in the moment, in a cherished space we create when we are simply ourselves – sharing, asking, listening, responding.
Those who know me well will tell you that I have limited experience being vulnerable. I come from a rough, tough place that taught me to be fiercely independent. And it also taught me the undeniable importance of excellent communication, wide-ranging conversation, inspiring others to share, ask and uncover.
Like so many of the valuable skills in our lives, conversation – and being vulnerable – demands practice. It is through practice that we learn how to unleash our vulnerability and experience the wonder of storyfinding. For me, it is the words of renowned jazz pianist Chick Corea that say it best: “You can’t improvise without practice.” And amazing conversations are always an improvisation.
I’ll add the words of a great storyteller and storyfinder, Dr. Seuss: “Oh, the places you’ll go!”