Have you ever thought about how something as simple as a conversation could be an opening in your life? I’ve seen it time and time again in my work coaching leaders and in my own life, lived, how talking with someone can be the catalyst for life cascading down a different, more exciting path than if we’d stayed silent.
Conversations have always fascinated me: conversations with friends and family, with colleagues and co-workers, with strangers in the street. In my book Life-Changing Conversations (2012), I shared a story about how a key turning point in my career happened as a result of plucking up the courage to have a conversation with someone who might be able to give me a secondment at the Cabinet Office. As a result of that short talk, I moved from Sheffield to London, which became a springboard for a whole new chapter in my life.
I like to think of conversations not as simply “talk” but as an opening through which a whole new lease of life can unfold. For a conversation to become an “aperture”, it helps to be aware of how we communicate. I believe that there is more than one conversation to pay attention to: your conversation with another but also your conversation with yourself. When we are attentive to both, life can really take off.
Before we can have what I call a “Big Conversation” with someone else – a conversation where something significant shifts, for you, for them or for everyone – we sometimes need to step out of our “story”. Our story is a tale we tell about ourselves, about others and about our situation that stops us from being who we really are. Whether it makes us feel small or superior, a victim or a villain, our story is what separates us from our real selves and from each other. When we become aware of this inner dialogue we can avoid sabotaging the conversation we’re having with another person and allow new possibilities to emerge.
When our minds are full of thoughts about what “should” and “shouldn’t” be happening, we’re immersed in our story. It might be a tale of “This shouldn’t be happening to me”, “They should apologize” or “I’m a failure”. If we become overly identified with our story, we’re not our true selves and our conversation with others is stunted.
To surrender our story, we first need to become aware of it. Becoming conscious of the invisible, unexamined, constant conversation going on inside us makes a huge difference to how we talk with another person and what happens as a result.
Five Conversational Drivers
To raise you awareness about the story that’s going on in your head, there are five common conversational drivers. These come out of a body of work known as Transactional Analysis. Read through the list below and place a tick next to any of the statements that you recognise as rattling around in your head. Where you have most ticks, indicates where a driver might be active for you.
1. Be perfect
“I’ve got to get this right!”
“I hate it when I mess up”
“Why can’t they get it right?”
2. Please others
“I don’t want to hurt their feelings”
“I mustn’t upset anyone”
“I hate saying ‘no’”
3. Hurry up!
“Can’t they see this is urgent?”
“I haven’t got time for this!”
“There’s so much else I need to be doing!”
4. Be strong
“Keep it together!”
“I have to stay on top of this”
“Everything’s OK, really’”
5. Try hard
“I’ll show them!”
“I’ll do better next time”
“This is bigger than I thought!”
Changing our story
Once your inner dialogue becomes more conscious, you’re more likely to be able to change it. Coaching psychologist Stephen Palmer talks about turning our “ANTs” into “PETs” – shifting our Automatic Negative Thoughts into Performance Enhancing Thoughts.
See if you can challenge yourself to replace a common negative thought you identified above with a more positive statement so that your inner dialogue works with you rather than against you. For example, instead of thinking:
“I hate it when I mess up.”
You might think:
“Just because I made a mistake doesn’t make me a bad person.”
Or, you might replace:
“I have to stay on top of this”
“It’s OK to feel shaky.”
Once we’re less identified with our story, we can be with the other person in a new way. We can talk with them without putting them in the wrong and without diminishing ourselves. In the expanded space between us, new insights emerge and new possibilities can flow in.
Big doors swing on little hinges
In the “Life Lab experiment” of Psychologies Magazine (October 2016), health writer Martha Roberts invites us to make room for happiness to emerge. She reviews the evidence that shows that it’s not the big gestures in life that make us happy but the small things, such as enjoying a hot cup of tea, sleeping between clean sheets or remembering a fond memory with a friend.
A study carried out by researchers at the Booth School of Business in Chicago in 2014 found that commuters on trains and buses who were receptive to speaking to strangers had a more positive experience than those who sat alone with their thoughts. In their paper, Mistakenly Seeking Solitude, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder show how brief “social snacks” increase happiness, even though many people predict the exact opposite. Being civil and engaged with others is good for our wellbeing.
We are more likely to be open to – and enjoy – short unexpected interactions if we are not preoccupied by the conversation going on inside our own heads. A true conversation is a co-creation. A simple conversation can open or shut the door on a whole new future, for us and for those around us. By becoming more conscious of how we communicate, a conversation becomes a powerful way to create change in our lives.
Sarah Rozenthuler is a chartered psychologist, leadership consultant and published author. She works internationally with organisations, teams and individuals who want to better serve the whole. Sarah’s book Life-Changing Conversations: 7 strategies for talking about what matters most has a foreword by best-selling author of the Conversations with God books, Neale Donald Walsch. www.sarahrozenthuler.com