How to make your work conversations more productive and vulnerable so that you can foster connection, according to an expert

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty ImagesClarifying the meaning of key words or terms helps employees understand how to handle or approach different kinds of conversations.
  • Fred Dust was a senior partner and global managing director at international design firm IDEO and is currently the senior design advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation.
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, “Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Conversation.
  • In it, he explains why the inexactness in language can lead to misunderstandings and conflict, and explains how using more meaningful words can encourage open discussion and learning.
  • Dust shares tips for how to have more productive, vulnerable, and connected conversations at work, home, and in our daily lives.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There is an inexactness in language, even when we speak the same language. Especially among well-intentioned, highly motivated people, we frequently assume that we share the same assumptions, values, and goals. The impulse to assume the best can put productive conversations at risk, especially when the conversation is based on values and personal experiences. Our differences may not be obvious at first, which is why these words require explication, translation, and often redefinitions.

Making Conversation.DustCourtesy of HarperBusiness‘Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication,’ by Fred Dust.

Establishing meaning

One way to make sure we’re clear on the meanings behind the words we use is to set our terms and definitions up front.

The notion of establishing meaning sounds like it could be pedantic and time-consuming. But it’s not — it’s assertive and often provides momentum to move forward.

When you find yourself in a conversation that is centered on a singular word or term, a term that is essential to the topic, establish its meaning early. Struggles over words and definitions often reveal a deeper struggle — not only about words, but about ideas. Figure out whether the issue is semantic or ideological, fast. Establishing meaning, helping people get clear on key words or terms up front is fundamental to helping them understand whether this is a conversation they should be committing to in the first place. My approach to this is “Assert and Agree.”


Read more:
5 major players in internal comms making it easier for companies to communicate with staff in the new remote world

When words really matter, define your terms straightforwardly. Assert a definition and ask that people agree to that definition for the duration of the conversation. Go to a common and collective resource. Not to sound like a sixth grade teacher, but dictionaries still exist, and that’s a good thing. Share the standard dictionary definition, and then ask the room to agree to that definition at the outset.

If you are designing dialogue with terms that have some potential to cause confusion, conflict, or disagreement, take the time to define them even before entering that dialogue. If the group can’t agree, the question becomes: “Is this the right conversation for them?” In clarifying the key terms up front you are also giving participants a valuable tool to assess their commitment to the dialogue.

If we had seen a definition of the word empathy before we went to the Himalayas, the conversation that ensued would have been different. Based on a simple definition source — a definition culled from a dictionary — disagreements would have been impossible to ignore. Asking people to agree to a definition beforehand might have made the assembly smaller, but the results more satisfying to everyone. Establishing meaning through “Assert and Agree” surfaces differences and ultimately leads to group commitment.

Extracting meaning

The other way is to continuously explore and excavate hidden meanings, the beliefs and biases that linger in the background and sometimes hang in the air. This investigative process is about pulling the hidden meaning behind what we say forward into the conversation.

Think about a word you use frequently. One of my favourites is inspiration or inspirational. But I need to get better about clarifying what I mean when I say the word.

If you say something like “I need inspiration” or if you hear someone say “let’s get some inspiration,” that word does not have enough to stand on its own; it needs more context. We may find out that our idea of inspiration is not aligned when it’s too late: I might have been thinking of a Hudson Valley landscape painting, whereas everyone else was thinking of a TED Talk they heard the day before. They’re both forms of inspiration, but they’re both pretty different.

Words like this pop up in conversations more than we realise. When you say the word revolution, are you thinking about the French one or the introduction of the iPhone? When you hear the word creative, do you have an image in your mind of a painter in her studio or do you see a team brainstorming in a conference room? Neither is wrong, but they are different, and that difference matters.

These kinds of words are deceptive; when we use them, we assume we all agree about what ethical, inspirational, or creative means but the meanings can be remarkably different. Not only that, but the meaning behind the words is rich with potential for building connections between our differences. Humanising these words by sharing our personal backstories enriches discussions and encourages learning.

Extracting meaning, as opposed to establishing it through the more tactical “Assert and Agree” approach, is gentler, subtler, and more playful. When you find words coming up often in a conversation, the practice of extracting meaning allows you to delve deeper, to probe participants for anecdotes and examples that reveal what these phrases personally mean to them. You might also encourage people to bring words to life by sharing visuals and images with the group.


Read more:
9 books to improve your virtual communication skills, according to a public speaking expert

Getting visual … with words

I’m not asking you to draw. Well, not really. But showing a strategy — envisioning what that strategy looks like in action — can catalyze a common vision. So, for instance, when you want to develop a shared vision, why not take the word vision seriously and flesh out that image? Draw a picture. If you’re in a conversation with someone where a word is coming up a lot, ask yourself if there is a visual that comes to mind when you hear that word. If you do, it’s likely that others do as well. Pause and ask the question: “When you say inspiration, what does that look like?”

When you draw a picture to convey meaning, you’re forced to be specific. It’s harder to misunderstand what someone means if they draw a picture.

Even if your terms and language don’t immediately evoke a visual element, consider adding language that does. A visual can take something quite complex and somewhat mystifying and familiarise it.

Great public speakers are experts at using visual language to simplify complex topics and issues. Alas, it’s also true that those who aren’t clear on their meanings may also rely on visuals to hide that fact, but that, too, can provide important information about the gaps in understanding that may put the conversation at risk.

For a while there was a wine store in Chicago called Valhalla where I used to send people to understand the power of visual language.

Many people are intimidated by wine stores, but almost everybody is afraid of the sommelier. A sommelier, after all, has mastery of a very specialised, very intimidating language, the language of wine. Wine words — technical terms like malolactic or tannins — just don’t exist in everyday language. More confusing, seemingly everyday words like breathing or brilliant don’t mean the same things to sommeliers as they do in our daily lives.

Good sommeliers, the ones who try to be the least intimidating, will strive to use simple language that evokes images and flavours. Good sommeliers will never say the word malolactic; instead they will use a word like buttery or creamy to describe what a wine might taste like. Buttery is the opposite of intimidating. I have a friend who is quite good at translating wine language, and it’s not uncommon for her to use phrases like “cat pee” or “wet dog” to describe a wine. It’s funny (and sometimes disgusting, yes), but it’s definitely not intimidating.

That language, visual and suggestive of how something might taste, is a good start. But the wine store Valhalla took it a bit further. The owners recognised that even descriptive words that wine people use can be confusing and off-putting to the rest of us. The word earthy suggests what a wine might taste like, but it’s hard to discern if that’s a flavour you’d actively seek out (never mind cat pee). Valhalla got rid of this kind of language altogether. They replaced the language of wine with a language that most of their shoppers seemed to understand better, the language of celebrities.

If you were shopping there, you might find yourself in front of a bottle of rosé topped with a handwritten card that might say something like: This wine is like Britney Spears, light, fresh, cheap, and surprisingly fun to drink. A bottle of red wine might have a card beneath it that said: This wine is like Madonna, sinewy, tawny, and ageing well.

This might seem absurd. But replacing the language of wine with the language of People magazine made the wine store easy to navigate — in fact, a complete delight.

Applying evocative visual language can be used whenever you’re trying to extract and establish meaning.


Read more:
I’m a diversity and inclusion coach who’s helped Amazon and Shell improve their workplaces. Here are 4 concrete strategies to make your business more inclusive.

Telling stories about words

Words like ethics, values, power, and, yes, empathy are not simple and straightforward words; they have remarkably nuanced modes of interpretation based on where you sit in culture, class, and context. These are also words where asking for a visual isn’t really going to clarify much. I don’t think I could easily come up with an image for the word empathy.

If you want precision around these types of words, dictionary definitions will not suffice. So don’t ask for a definition, ask for an example. Ask for a story. (Are you already getting sick of this instruction? Well, asking for a story is a piece of advice I’m going to return to again and again in this book because it’s so intuitive and so useful.)

Frequently, when I’m first working with a group and starting the conversation in earnest, I ask everyone to introduce themselves and share a personal experience that relates to that term or concept.

A few years ago, I worked with a diverse group of people who had come together to identify how they might develop a new learning experience for teens. While we may intuitively get the idea of what learning means, when you’re talking about developing a new learning experience, the word learning can be a liability. Learning has surprisingly different meanings depending on who you are and how traditional — or not — your idea of learning might be.

At our first meeting, I asked everyone to introduce themselves by telling a short story of one of their most impactful learning experiences.

The stories were, as expected, varied.

One person told a story of having to teach their twenty-something child how to prepare their taxes and how that experience forced her to get really clear on the nuances of filing taxes, things she thought she knew but it turned out she wasn’t completely sure about.

Someone else related a story about her mother teaching her to drive, and the stress of driving on real streets. Actually, a lot of people told stories with the same theme — stories about learning that weren’t easy, pleasant, or free of stress.

On the surface, everybody’s story was different, but several common themes emerged. By the time we’d completed introductions, we knew each other better and how our personal experiences had led us to this moment. We also had developed a set of themes that gave us insight and background about what kind of learning we would be talking about.

Identifying those themes becomes even more valuable than simple definitions of key words. These themes become touchstones as the conversation progresses. As you discuss, say, a new learning experience the group might want to put into the world, you can hark back to these themes as a way to ground the conversation in a common vocabulary. When someone says learning, you can push further about what kind of learning, referring to the themes and root stories that motivated the group in the first place.

So try to make sure that you’ve established the definitions of tricky terms before the conversation even begins. You’ll lower the obstacles that might stand in the way of making conversation and help people decide that they want to be in the conversation in the first place.

Essentially, what we’re doing here is building a glossary. Gather and collect the key terms you use in a conversation.

These terms will be critical to building a common language. Use visuals to make sure everyone has a similar picture in mind. Try short personal stories that help us make a human connection to abstract words or concepts. Keep track of all the references: visuals and stories that come up as a way to define language become a rich background to the conversation being had.

“MAKING CONVERSATION.” Copyright © 2020 by Fred Dust. Reprinted here with permission of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Fred DustJesse DreyfusFred Dust.

Fred Dust was a senior partner and global managing director at international design firm IDEO, and is currently the senior design advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation, helping organisations in media, finance, retail, and health confront disruption stemming from shifts in consumer behaviour, social trends, economic pressures, and new technology. Prior to IDEO, Dust worked as an architect and spent eight years working with independent artists and major art organisations. He chairs the board of Parsons and sits on the board of the New School, NPR, and the Sundance Institute. He lives in New York City.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.