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Who's driving the car?

"Always be in control of the meeting Ariana." A coach once told me as we prepared together for a sales conversation I was about to have.

Letting others influence the direction a conversation went was something I viewed as a weakness at that point in my career. And so I did as I was instructed. If my prospect started to drive the conversation towards the off-ramp to go on some obscure back roads, I took control and kept us on the highway.

In ways, that approach made for very streamlined conversations. I strove to keep my sales meetings rather tight. But I started to notice that these meetings became less fun and I felt rather inauthentic.

I wondered, do I have to be the one driving the car? Is there another way?

So I stopped "being in control" of the conversation and my sales meetings started to get a lot more interesting. I heard fascinating stories. People opened up to me. But sometimes my meetings would last over two hours.

There's something magical that happens when conversations meander and evolve in organic ways. The energy of finding random connections, the insights from hearing another person's story, and the inspiration to explore new possibilities are all incredibly valuable. It's invigorating and energizing. And it only happens when we let go of complete control over the conversation.

What's more, these seemingly boundless conversations are where we are able to co-create new ideas together. That's possible because we are going below the surface. We are gaining a deeper understanding of each other and expanding our perspectives.

It turned out this notion to always be driving the car in meetings did not serve me well. Sure, as a facilitator, coach and consultant, I am responsible for keeping conversations focused and on task. I literally redirect people's attention for a living.

But engaging in a quality conversation is not like driving a car, where one person is at the wheel and everyone else is a passenger. It's more interactive than passive. It's a matter of give and take.

Allowing for that give and take to happen is an art-form. Possibly a better analogy is that conversations are like playing jazz.

Jazz is improvisational. No one knows what the other musicians are going to play yet they all sound good together because they are proficient in music theory and adept at their instruments.

Like any art, there are some basic skills that are helpful to develop in navigating more effective conversations. One such skill is becoming attuned to the needs and expectations of others. When someone’s body language changes or they become disengaged in a conversation it’s important to pause and take stock of what’s going on.

Another skill is learning to listen well. At a basic level, people want to feel seen and heard. Listening to their story and perspective is a simple way to fulfill that need and in the process build trust.

The third skill is Conversational Agility. It’s important to artfully redirect, reframe and refocus a conversation that goes off the rails. While meandering can lead to amazing new insights, a team bitch session is typically counterproductive as well as a morale downer. In order to do that effectively, there’s a fourth skill one needs to cultivate.

The last skill is clarity. Having clarity around why this conversation or meeting is taking place and what you hope to accomplish allows for an organic conversation to unfold with a focus in mind. Without such clarity, conversations that wander tend to go nowhere.

You may think of clarity combined with Conversational Agility as your guardrails for keeping a co-creating conversation focused. While being attuned and listening help you pickup on the nuances and subtleties which lead to profound new ideas.

It turns out, we benefit greatly reframing the premise of conversations from driving a car to playing jazz. When bringing these four skills into conversation, be them sales meetings, board meetings, retreats or even on date night, you'll experience a deeper sense of connection. More and better ideas will be expressed. And you've paid the path for meaningful progress to be made.

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