The Dying Art of Conversation

I started out composing this blog post with the intent of informing on how to start and sustain a good online conversation. As part of my research for the article I came across MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s book on ‘Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age’. There is substantial material available for helping us conduct more effective online conversations. However, if you are like me, there is always that nagging doubt about whether online conversations ever achieve the level of fidelity and depth that a face to face conversation can take. Turkle’s book turned this nagging doubt into full scale distress. The book opens with a story about a junior high school that contacted Turkle with concerns students had lost the ability to naturally converse and develop empathy for each other. The school attributed this behaviour to their pervasive use of online communication devices. This immediately raised a question to me. By pushing more of our conversations online, are we actually harming future generations’ ability to converse in the way that most of us have taken for granted? Are we doing more harm than good? 

Online or Offline? 

How do we decide when a conversation should be conducted online or off? One of the disturbing findings from Turkle’s research was that many of the young people she interviewed actually showed a preference for online chat over real-time face to face conversations. Their rationale was that online communication gave them the time and opportunity to ‘compose’ their postings to be more considered, in contrast to the pressure of thinking and reacting in real-time. And this preference was not impacted by proximity. Several of those interviewed would prefer to text with someone, even if they are sitting right next to them!  

In the business world we will often talk about the value of a trusted relationship; the need to stand in our customer’s shoes to better understand their needs. In other words, the need to be able to demonstrate empathy. Are we creating a new class of millennial employees that have no capability to achieve empathy, even if they so desired? On a more positive front, Networking guru and Sociology Professor Barry Wellman found that much of the texting his students were undertaking was to organise face to face meetups with their friends and colleagues. Businesses might see this as an inappropriate use of enterprise social media, but Wellman, like Turkle, had the view that face to face meetups were essential to developing an effective organisation. 

At SWOOP we hang our hats on the belief that we can use analytics to coach individuals on how to better collaborate online; with a view that good online collaborative behaviours will leak out into the offline world as well. We encourage reciprocated communications and the development of two-way relationships both online and off. What has become apparent, however, is that rather than passively anticipating that learnt online behaviours will seep into the offline world over time; we have a responsibility to pro-actively encourage face to face discussions by blending the online and offline worlds into a unified world of conversation overall. 

A Unified World of Conversation 

I recall a conversation I had with a community of practice leaders in the petroleum industry more than 20 years ago i.e. pre-smart phone and pre-Intranet, but post email discussion lists. He drew me a picture much like the one below, which he felt best described the level of engagement in the community between their face to face meetups. In other words, the face to face meet-ups were the events that brought the energy into the community. The email discussion lists maintained connections within the community, but degraded over time until the next face to face event. 

Based on this feedback, we began to monitor the online discussions over time so that we could alert the community leaders when a face to face event was required.  

Winding the clock forward 20 years we have much more sophisticated online discussion facilities, mobile video conferencing and the like; but perhaps the above graphic still holds true. Face to Face meetings are like an energy injection for groups and communities. We should be monitoring our engagement levels over time and setting thresholds for when we need to schedule face to face meetups. The time frames between meetups may differ by group, but the important thing is to plan and budget for them. It is not always possible to schedule global physical meetups, but we found even local meetups, shared and discussed globally online, could still provide a much needed energy boost to global communities.  

Some Simple Initiatives for Facilitating Face to Face Conversations 

Suggested interventions sourced from Turkle’s book: 

  • Acknowledge that face to face conversations are required and must be planned for; 
  • Aim to schedule regular agenda-free face to face meetups. Perhaps a before-work breakfast where colleagues can just converse and engage about their passions; 
  • Ban phones and laptops at face to face meetings. Turkle reports that even a phone placed on the table, but turned off, can impact the effectiveness of a meeting by sending the message that attendees are willing to be interrupted; 
  • Bring back the secretaries. Where notes need to be recorded from an important face to face meeting, employ a scribe, or record the session, so that all members can be present and attentive during the meeting; 
  • Make an effort to share the outcomes of a face to face event. Not as minutes but perhaps a more engaging story, or summarised and translated for your local audience. 

Ways your online analytics can facilitate face to face contact: 

  • Use your engagement analytics to flag when face to face contact is needed. Set thresholds that suit your group or team; 
  • Encourage your ‘most influential leaders’ to make themselves available for face to face connections; a coffee catch up or the like? We had one community who advertised their identified online influencers on their Intranet and encouraged formal connections to them. Management acknowledged this additional role through extra time allocations for them; 
  • Monitor your two-way connections performance. If your group falls behind those of your peer groups, look to schedule some face to face events with some urgency.
  • Continue to benchmark yourself and your groups against other ‘best practice’ groups in your organisation. Use face to face events to accelerate group performance; 
  • Remember to share stories and insights from any face to face event with your broader audience. Continue the conversation online and use analytics to assess how effective you have been. 

Armed with these insights and ideas, what will you do differently tomorrow morning? 

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