Up Your Business - October/November - 2020

Conversation Killers

Up Your Business is an exclusive GEARS Magazine feature where I share stories, insights, and reflections about business and life. Conversations are an essential part of life.

In fact, prisoners who have endured solitary confinement report that the most difficult thing to deal with was the loss of conversation. They’d even engage in discussions with invisible friends, rodents, insects, or inanimate objects like their cot to establish some form of normalcy within their isolated confines.

Those of us who’ve never experienced extreme isolation tend to take conversation for granted. We don’t fully appreciate the importance of conversation skills. Our conversation carelessness turns many of us into Conversation Killers.

In this article I’ll identify some of the things we do that kill conversations. I’ll also offer some tips to help you avoid being a conversation killer. Good conversation and communication skills are vital when dealing with everyone in our lives.

Note that I just added the word communication to this discussion. Who hasn’t experienced a conversation that failed to communicate? Not all Conversation Killers kill the conversation itself, but they kill any hope of communication. Let’s look at some of the things we do or fail to do that kill conversations and communication. While there are many, here are six Conversation Killers and some suggestions for avoiding them.

  1. Failing to listen sits in the “pole position.” When I say listen, I mean actively listening to what the other person is saying. Often, we don’t listen to what they say because we’re looking for an opportunity to jump in and say something we want to say. And sometimes, we’re just tuning them out. In either case, it’s dismissive and invalidating for the other person.

    Some of you might relate to this story. One time, shortly after I’d gotten some new hearing aids, I didn’t hear something my wife said to me. When I asked her to repeat herself, she exclaimed, “Thom, you don’t have a hearing problem – you have a listening problem!” Between you and me, maybe she’s right.

  2. Related to number one is talking over the other person and interrupting them. You frequently see this on the news shows that pit two or more “talking heads” against one another. Suppose the show host doesn’t step in. In that case, the conversation will ramble on and on, with the guests continuously talking over one another. Nothing gets communicated. Interrupting is rude and disrespectful. It tells the other person that what they have to say isn’t important, or at least, as important as what you have to say. In either case, it prevents communication from happening.

    Tips for avoiding Conversation Killers 1 and 2:

    • Form new listening habits. Here’s one you might consider. Listen with the intention of paraphrasing back to the other person what you just heard them say. If you hold yourself accountable for doing that, you’ll listen more actively and with purpose.
    • Affirm their point and ask a follow-up question to restart the conversation.
    • It might go something like this, “So you’re thinking about getting another car instead of fixing the transmission on this one. That’s certainly one option, and many people do that. Are you considering a new car or a used car?”
    • Now, you’ve opened a new conversation that opens the door to helping them make a “Fix or Trade” decision.
  3. Evidence gathering is another conversation killer. This is common in conversations involving differing points of view or disputes. The parties often only listen for evidence to help them prove their point. They’re not listening to try to understand the other person’s perspective. When this happens, the parties become guarded about what they say. Honest, open conversation goes out the window because there’s low or no trust. Stephen Covey observed, “When trust is high, communication is easy, but when trust is low, communication is impossible.” He added, “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.”
  4. Like number 3, in conversations involving differing points of view, some people attempt to make the other person wrong to make themselves right. One doesn’t have to be wrong for the other to be right. They could both be right, and for that matter, couldn’t they both be wrong?

    It’s hard to imagine, but some salespeople do this with customers and some managers with employees. Imagine a service advisor saying something like, “People often sell their cars because they’ve been told their car is developing a transmission problem. You should have had the car checked before you bought it. Now you’re the one stuck with having to fix it.” The salesperson might not be this direct, but it’s what the customer hears. How does that make the customer feel?

  5. Another no-no is finishing the other person’s statement or presuming you know that they’re thinking. I’m not talking about when you help someone who’s struggling to find the right word. When you do this at the appropriate time, it shows that you are listening. I’m talking about when you jump in, assuming you know what they’re going to say before they say it. Like interrupting, it’s rude and disrespectful. But this one also becomes very frustrating for others, especially when your assumptions are wrong. In either event, this habit kills the conversation because you’re virtually speaking for the other person, and from their perspective, making their presence nonessential. It also presents a barrier to quality communication both now and in the future.
    • Imagine if an employee came to the manager and said, “I think someone with more training than I have should do this repair job.” The manager hijacks the employee’s suggestion, assuming the tech is taking a swipe at the shop’s training policy, “I told you that we don’t pay for tech training until you’ve been with us for 90 days! I’ll just have Charlie do it! Here’s another job. I hope you’re able to do it.”
    • Whether the tech intended to poke at the shop’s training policy or was trying to help the shop avoid a comeback, this manager just made sure the tech will never trust him enough to offer another suggestion.
  6. “One Upping” and “Me Tooing” are camouflaged Conversation Killers. People who do either of these think they’re building rapport, adding energy, and making a positive contribution to the conversation. However, their good intentions camouflage the negative impact, turning the conversation from being about the other person and making it about themselves. Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between Joe and Sally that illustrates these two Conversation Killers.
    • Joe: Hi, Sally. I haven’t seen you around lately. What’s going on in your life?
    • Sally: Thanks for asking, Joe. I’ve been gone for a couple of weeks on vacation to Costa Rica.
    • Joe: Costa Rica! I love that place! It’s probably my favorite vacation spot! Tell me about your trip. Did you go to the natural hot baths up by the volcano? That’s an amazing experience. It’s so relaxing. They have a great little restaurant and bar there too. I did the hot bath, got a massage, and topped it off with a relaxing dinner and drinks. It was terrific!
    • Sally: That sounds wonderful. I didn’t get up to that area. We stayed on the coast the whole time.
    • Joe: Oh yeah, the coast is nice too. But I’ve always found it to be too hot this time of the year. If you ever go again, you really should plan on going up to the volcano.
    • Joe probably thinks he’s having a great conversation. How do you think Sally feels? It would have been better if Joe had initially replied, “Costa Rica! I love Costa Rica! Tell me all about your trip.” Then he should have shut up – just listened and asked questions instead of making it all about himself.

Tips for avoiding Conversation Killers 3 – 6:

  • Encourage others to talk about themselves and show a genuine interest in learning more about them. Always make others feel important. “Talk to people about themselves, and they will listen for hours.” — Benjamin Disraeli
  • Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, “You’re wrong.”
  • Try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Henry Ford said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
  • In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie observed, “There’s positive magic in such phrases as: ’I may be wrong. I frequently am. Let’s examine the facts.’”
  • Focus on the things where you agree and seek a mutually positive outcome. That outcome might not be what either of you believed before going into the conversation, but rather a synthesis or compromise of your previous positions.
  • Ask questions instead of making close-ended statements or giving direct orders. By doing this, you can often make it their idea.
  • Don’t criticize others. They’re doing or saying the same thing you’d likely be saying or doing if you were in their same circumstances. Try saying something like, “I don’t blame you for feeling as you do. If I were you, I’d undoubtedly feel the same.”

If you get just one thing from reading this article, I hope it’s a new perspective on conversing with purpose. Aim to gain the other person’s point of view, seeing things from their angle as well as your own. That one thing could be a significant stepping-stone in your career. It will also help you build deeper, more meaningful relationships with all the people in your life.

Most of the ways we participate in conversations are habits. In last month’s article, The Habit of Rest, I mentioned that researchers have concluded that nearly half of the things we do each day are habits. Maybe it’s time to reconsider your conversation habits. Why not start today by choosing to eliminate habits that are Conversation Killers and replace them with new conversation building habits?

If you found this article helpful and would like to improve your conversation skills, I think you’ll enjoy Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. I was 20 years old the first time I read it, and it was life changing. Over the years, I’ve recommended it to many people. It was required reading for my sons before they headed off to college, and they’ve each told me that it’s profoundly influenced their lives. The book is packed with timeless principles, and it’s perhaps the most valuable of all the great success literature.


About the Author

Thom Tschetter has served our industry for nearly four decades as a management and sales educator. He owned a chain of award-winning transmission centers in Washington State for over 25 years.

He calls on over 30 years of experience as a speaker, writer, business consultant, and certified arbitrator for topics for this feature column.

Thom is always eager to help you improve your business and your life. You can contact him by phone at (480) 773-3131 or e-mail to coachthom@gmail.com.