Last week I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen for ages. To protect his good name and professional reputation, let’s call him Conor. We were swopping general notes about life when he suddenly announced: “I have a great story for you”.
Acting Strange: A couple of weeks back, he was called to the school because his teenage daughter (1st year) was ‘acting strange’. Turns out that she, along with 3 friends, had brought vodka into school in plastic 7-Up bottles and they were drunk in class. They told all of their classmates what they were up to (oh, the innocence); someone eventually informed the teaching staff who’d been struggling to understand their loud, out of character behaviour. It all clicked into place. I empathized with him and agreed that we might consider setting up a car pool to the Rutland Centre! I know Conor reasonably well and his daughter will be fine in the fullness of time – albeit the in-between years look like they could be bumpy. Buckle in.
Missing Ritual: Perhaps there is a missing ritual in western society. In other cultures, teenagers kill a lion, complete a cliff dive or get some weird body tattoo. Assuming they survive, they leap from childhood into adulthood in a single bound. In Ireland, we get ‘vodka episodes’ and conversations around ‘why didn’t you send a text message when you went to a disco in Athlone, we were worried sick about you’ for 7+ years. Then they grow up! (I’m banking on the growing up bit actually happening at some point; you have to cling to HOPE!). Along the way you try to stay positive – what Americans call ‘focusing on the donut, rather than the hole’.
Real Conversations: On one level, this is an awful tale. Who in their right mind would want to see a 13-year-old drunk? But it is a brilliant story in this regard. Conor felt comfortable discussing it – confident of not having to play the game called: ‘I am a brilliant parent’.
Authentic conversations generate energy. In contrast, pretend conversations i.e. making-things-sound-better-than-they-are are energy sapping. And people who play the pretense game (“My department is performing wonderfully” – when it isn’t) are social vampires. They suck all available energy out of the room and ultimately implode relationships. Costume Jewellery is ok but fake relationships don’t work – a point that applies equally in the social and business spheres.
Balanced Conversations: The tricky line to walk is having conversations which are authentic i.e. realistic and yet don’t over egg the negative. Because, the polar opposite (and equally problematical) stance to ‘pretending everything is great’ is ‘believing everything is awful’. Confused? Stay with this for another little bit.
One way to think about it is to ask whether you typically enter conversations with a positive frame of mind. Let’s look at a couple of examples: Ireland Inc. is in a mess – fact – and we all know it. But does it help to reinforce that message even when some things are going well? RTE were reporting on the Augusta Masters when Rory Mcilroy was leading after the first 2 rounds. The question asked by the studio based interviewer was: “How many leaders of a Masters at this point have ‘blown up’ in the later rounds?” Was he willing Mcilroy to fail? I doubt it was intentional, but the question seemed crass. Why not: How many leaders at that point went on to win the competition outright? More recently, on Morning Ireland Kelly Martin the CEO of Elan was asked if the JV with Alkermes meant Elan was deserting Ireland? Alternative: What opportunities does this new link with a major bio tech company present for Elan and it’s Irish operations?
Being authentic is not an ‘open season’ license to focus on the negatives. It requires a balance between what Organization Development Consultants label ‘Appreciative Inquiry’ (discovering what’s going well) and more traditional diagnostics (naming the elephant in the room, without fear of consequences). Of course it requires some skill to determine the appropriate line to take. Like skiers zipping down a black slope, you need to figure out a safe and effective route forward. But like any other skill this can be learned – through practice – and it starts by being authentic about yourself. And the really good news is that you have opportunities to practice this every single day of your life. The central element in the Conor story was that not every part of his life was going to plan. Realistically, he is at the end of a long queue on that one. It’s just that not everyone has the guts to admit it.
Truth Telling: Apart from being freed from the need to be perfect at all times (an impossible and intolerable burden for any of us), authentic conversations have one other upside. If you always tell the truth, it’s simple to remember what you said last time out. Liars need great memories. And, as some of us get older…
So, get out there and find someone ‘real’ to talk to. You can almost feel the energy levels rise during the conversation. It’s good to talk – to some people. Make it a goal to become someone who is great to talk to. Active listening. Real conversations. Not a bad formula. Can you do it?
PS At dinner the other night, my 14 year old daughter Nicole asked: “Does anyone ever actually take your advice?” My wife nearly fell off her chair laughing. Now, that was an authentic question.