Living in the Era of Conversation


happy conversations are surely bestOver the past few months, I have had several opportunities while speaking, to experientially teach people the power of conversation to create understanding between people that goes beyond our choice of words. In each case, someone in the audience (or in a meeting) misconstrued what I was saying because my word choice did not match their own perceptions regarding an intention or point of view around a particular subject. Through the give and take and back and forth of conversation, we were both able to realize we were merely describing the proverbial different parts of the elephant as the blind men might do.

The idea of widespread participation in ‘the conversation’ is a very challenging thing for corporations to embrace because you not only lose control of the message, but also because you risk losing control of the messenger, and their personal judgments and speech. Last night this came into focus more clearly when my colleague Josh Bancroft criticized our efforts with Social Media Club when he wrote a blog post that said we had “nuked the fridge”. Now, we have received some criticism and some praise throughout the day, which to me is good because it means we are no longer in what Kathy Sierra has referred to as the zone of mediocrity, which is where we were for too long (IMHO).

My challenge isn’t with criticism, it is with a set of broader issues which I guess you could consider as the ‘hot buttons’ that set me off. For this, I want to apologize to Josh for snapping back at him, but I also would like to ask you to indulge me in looking at the bigger picture here, which is a bit complex and for which I am afraid my ability to communicate is not sufficient. I don’t mean to call Josh out specifically here, but this incident really has helped to clarify my thoughts around this issue and I think it is a valuable lesson to share.

While this is not a complete list, as I see it today, there are five things we should understand and consider when living in the era of conversation.

First, it is the matter of intention

Second, it is the matter of making assumptions

Third, it is the matter of familiarity and respect

Fourth, it is the matter of ethnocentrism (or technocentrism)

Finally, it is the matter of responsibility

Intentions matter a lot, and for us to disregard this in public discourse and/or in understanding each other through our actions is to completely misunderstand what being social is all about. In a very real sense, at least from my perspective, I was largely given a ‘hall pass’ on the failures of Social Media Club (SMC) because most people know that my intentions are good, that I am living my values, that I am honest and that I am working for positive change despite falling short on occasion. Last night, I was talking to my Conversation Group colleague Eric Doyle (our office Buddha) who was discussing the meaning of influence with someone who doesn’t believe in PR. He mentioned that influence was largely understood to mean manipulation. I pointed out to Eric that influence itself is not inherently good or bad, but rather it was the intentions behind the use of influence that determined whether it was helpful or exploitative. My drinking of a Peroni may have influenced others who joined our group to also drink a Peroni (it was so tasty!) but there was no intention of manipulation there, or for that matter of being helpful – I was just drinking a cool refreshing Peroni 🙂

In another exchange yesterday, a colleague from Intel Kelly Feller pointed out that there were not a lot of corporate practitioners on the SMC Interim Board (there are in fact 6 or 7). I had worked hard to invite a wide range of people to provide different perspectives and was taken aback by this a little. Since I don’t know Kelly all that well (we have only spoken by phone/email a few times, but I clearly understand she has value to contribute and generally ‘gets it’), I was able to keep a more level head. While a bit ‘perturbed’ at this pronouncement, I engaged her in Twitter conversation to determine her intentions and ask if she was interested in helping, to which she answered “who would I be to criticize and then not be willing to help? 😉

But when Josh decided to say that we nuked the fridge, his use of colorful language, in my mind (and based on prior observed behaviour), was used to draw attention and demean our efforts, not make them better or engage in conversation. This was in stark contrast to the approach that Lloyd Davis took in the comments when noticing that we had made a mistake in claiming 42 interim board members, when in fact there was only 41. Had Lloyd’s intention been anything other than to respectfully get to the facts, he may have written a blog post calling us liars and committing a fraud on the public, though clearly this was a simple, and all too human, mistake.

This leads me into my second issue, which is about making assumptions. Now we all have to do this generally to get by in the world (is this person I am dating ‘sponge worthy‘ for instance), but largely we tend to make assumptions when we should be asking questions and seeking clarifications. This is one of the central points of what I think is the most important book of our time (and my favorite), The Four Agreements. Clearly I am not perfect in this regards because I assumed that Josh was attacking me and SMC for his own gain rather than calmly engaging him and trying to get at the root of his concerns.

In my mind though, this was for a good reason, which brings me to my 3rd point of familiarity and respect. There have been a few times where I have been personally offended by assumptions and statements made by people I know who didn’t bother to respect our relationship by seeking clarification directly before making public statements/posts which in my mind were inaccurate. I had mistakenly thought that Josh understood my intentions here and what we were working to accomplish with SMC, which can broadly be thought of as trying to ensure we use this social medium properly for the positive benefit of us individually and collectively. So when someone published what I perceived as an attacking post instead of asking me for clarification personally first (he does follow me on Twitter despite my original mistake in thinking he doesn’t), it really hit my hot button. As I clearly hit Josh’s when I made another statement on Twitter, and for which I again apologize for upsetting you Josh. Hopefully you can see that there was a point to it here that I was trying to make, one which is clearly taking more then 140 characters to explain.

This of course brings up a larger question of responsibility, my fourth point. We have been given a great power in freedom of speech with these social media tools, and of course in the use of that freedom people are free to do with it as they please and we have little control over it, if any at all (at least in this country). This is why it is so important that those of us, like Josh and myself, have a responsibility to use the power of this medium responsibly. We have a responsibility to not just pass judgement in a hastily formed opinion that could cause harm to others (personal, professional, or otherwise). Journalists have this responsibility to the truth hammered into them from their very early days of ‘J’ school, and by all their editor/mentors over the years. It is a tradition passed on from master to apprentice and it is missing from the ‘art of blogging’ to such a degree that I do think it is one of the biggest issues we face. The behaviour we choose to model for those who follow us will determine what society as a whole thinks is the difference between right and wrong – if we choose to use inflamatory language to draw more attention to our hastily formed opinions which may not be based on all the facts, we are setting a bad example.

In my mind, this is made an even more egregious mistake when such snap judgements are formed about people or situations to which we have direct access to the people involved. It amazes me to think about how many times someone I know has written something that was simply not correct, when a simple email, direct message or phone call could provide clarification about their concerns…

As I am getting rather long and I am afraid people will misconstrue my final point, I won’t dive too deep into why ethnocentrism is an important matter to discuss here, but let me briefly talk about the relevant analogy I am trying to make. In this case, the idea of technocentrism is perhaps more important to discuss. It has its roots in the same general principles of ethnocentrism – the distrust/dislike of people who are not like us and a feeling of superiority – but it is perhaps more divisive in our society today then many realize. As part of my regular speeches I often talk of the chasm of mistrust between technology and marketing folks as being responsible for trillions of dollars of lost value in the economy. I mean it, and I wish I could fund a study to prove it – the number might be even bigger.

The challenge here is that oftentimes when a technologist sees someone in a suit, or with a particular title, or using some of those ‘marketing words’, many will make a snap judgement that this person is not to be trusted. Online, we make similar snap judgments based on the words and writing styles people use. In the situation with Josh Bancroft’s dislike of Social Media Club’s announcement, it had to do with a particular paragraph of text that to him made it sound like we had ‘sold out’ and gone ‘corporate’.

To be clear, I am not perfect here myself. The only reason I know about this or have thought about it is because I have made the same sort of mistakes and faced the same issues personally. Had I not felt the pain that such thinking and behaviour has wrought, I wouldn’t have learned the lessons myself. In fact, for many of these points, I still make the same mistakes, but I am quick to admit when I am wrong or when I realize I should have responded differently.

Why invest so many words in trying to explain this situation? It is not for my sake or for Josh’s, but rather for all of our benefit. If we don’t learn how to live in this era of conversation with one another better, all of the command and control hierarchy people in institutions who don’t want us talking to one another will win the day. This is one of the few places where the group that plays Amanda Chapel is right – seeing the world as it is rather than how it could be – there is little reason why corporations based on the principles of profit and growth should risk their existence by allowing an individual to express a hastily formed opinion or speak out of turn when we are not thinking more conscientiously about what we are saying and how it will be perceived. If we are to really have conversations with companies, and with each other, openly and freely, we have to learn how to talk with one another better. We need to accept responsibility for our actions and our speech.

In short, we need to apply good intentions, stop making assumptions, respect one another regardless of our differing opinions, stop judging books by their covers and embrace the fact that we are all responsible for the communities in which we live.

If we can’t get by these problems as a society and start to move in the direction of open and respectful conversation, we won’t ever realize our full potential or live in the sort of world I hope and pray we can create.


Photo by CC_Chapman under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works license.

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