Conversations That Matter

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My first year at SMU was Andrea’s senior year. (Not her real name.) She was a leader on campus and in student government meaning we had a number of conversations over the year we were both on the SMU campus. Once she graduated, she went to graduate school in education and later to Washington, D.C. where she began her career in educational policy work. But during her first year, she sent me a copy of a paper she had written for one of her courses. The assignment was to use a particular advising model to analyze a conversation she had had with an advisor. Andrea had chosen to analyze a conversation the two of us had had the previous year. Apparently, I had folllowed this model to perfection, as least in Andrea’s paper. But whether or not it was a perfect example of this model didn’t matter, what was clear was that the conversation had mattered to her – at least enough that she thought of it when she was looking for a way to complete this assignment.

It won’t surprise anyone that I only dimly remembered this conversation. Of course, that’s often the way it works isn’t it? Sometimes the most important things we say and do aren’t memorable to us, but they are to others. 

There are all levels of conversation in our daily lives. The chit-chat at the start of a meeting is one example. Not important in content usually, but often immensely important in creating connections between people. In the same way one of the things we miss when we are working from home, is the opportunity for informal conversations in the hallway, over lunch, or at whatever stands in for the proverbial water cooler in your workspace. Sometimes this are conversations about work, but more often they are about family, TV shows, sports, shared hobbies, or any other number of topics. They too are important in the life of an office community. If you have a leadership role, they are one of the ways your colleagues can see you as a real person not just the figurehead at the front of the room. These conversations may be frivolous in topic, but they are essential for organizations. There’s a reason we miss them right now.

Then there are the more formal conversations. Some are one on one and others are large groups and those matter in other ways depending on the conversation. One of the most common complaints about meetings is that they take time away from our real work. Yes, there are always tasks to be done and meetings make it hard to work on our to-do lists. Or even worse, they add to the list. But, as a Vice President, meeting with people was one of the most important things I did. In fact when people asked how I spent my day, I often answered, “I meet with people.” On a good day, we accomplished something in every one of those meetings solving problems, coming up with great ideas, or moving a project forward. Everyone of those was a conversation that mattered.

If you think your meetings don’t matter, then I challenge you to think about ways to make sure they do. I picked the David Whyte quote for today because I love the idea of every conversation as an invitation. In addition to the interpersonal aspect, he is referencing, good meetings are conversations that invite others into leadership work. They invite people to be creative and to do work that makes a difference. And once we issue that invitation, it’s our job to listen deeply and openly to the answer.

Like me, you won’t remember everyone conversation that matters to someone. However, I do think it’s possible to create meetings and conversations that have the potential to matter to individuals and through them, to the people and organizations we serve. Just think what might happen if, each time we schedule a meeting, a conversation, we think about what we can do to create the opportunity for the conversation to matter. What conversations are you having this week and to whom will they matter?

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