2.2 Sharing And Negotiating The Purpose Of The Conversation

Dialogue goes better if both conversational partners understand the purpose of the conversation. Think for a moment about why we talk. There's always a reason or a combination of reasons behind every conversation. It could be anything from making a plan or discussing a problem to just getting to know someone better. If you don’t give your conversational partner a reason for having the conversation, then they’ll make one up. It’s human nature to attribute motivations to other people’s actions. We often assume the worst-case scenario. For instance, if someone fails to return a phone call, we assume it’s because they no longer care for us, not because they’ve lost our number.

So it is with conversations. If you don’t make it clear why you’re having a particular conversation, the other person will automatically assign a reason — which might be completely wrong. You think Anne is out to ‘get you’, when what she really wants to do is help you learn from your mistakes.

a. Avoiding conversations at cross-purposes

Let's list, in no particular order, a few of the reasons why we have conversations:

To get a point of view across

To gain clarity about a project

To deliver a message

To close a deal

To plan for the future

To get the right kind of medical care

To identify, clarify, and solve problems

To identify and develop opportunities

To deal with conflicts

To pass the time of day

To relax and have fun

To build relationships

To develop intimacy

To clarify one's thinking

To clear up a misunderstanding

It’s evident that there are not just a few reasons for conversations. There are hundreds if not thousands. The issue is making sure the other person has the same vision of the conversation as you. If you and I don't share the same purpose in our conversation, then we’ll probably end up talking at cross-purposes. Let's consider a few examples.

Suppose Mary wants to tell you about her day at the office as a way of unloading her anxiety. Her expectation is that you will listen to her story, capture her point of view, and show some understanding. However, if you fail to understand what Mary wants, you may begin talking about careers in general. Then you and Mary are talking at cross-purposes. That's not what Mary wants.

Suppose you want to talk to Francis, in order to sort out your own thinking. It's amazing how often we discover what we really think only when we hear ourselves saying it. Francis listens carefully, shows that he understands your point of view, and shares some of his own experiences that help you sort out your thinking. You are not talking at cross-purposes.

Suppose you want to talk to Yvette just to get to know her better. You'd like to become closer friends with her. Yvette talks freely about some things, for instance, her political views, but she is quite hesitant to talk about more intimate things. Since you are quite open about yourself, you find her hesitancy a bit annoying. For you, the conversation is less than satisfactory. You and Yvette are talking at cross-purposes.

Suppose Gail wants to have a chat about nothing in particular. She just wants to pass the time enjoyably without dealing with any particular issue, certainly not world-shattering issues. It may just be Gail's way of saying that she enjoys spending time with you. This is fine with you. You enjoy spending time with her, too. You are not talking at cross-purposes.

If you understand what the other person wants from the conversation, you can be clear about your role as a partner in the conversation.

Having a shared purpose doesn’t mean that you have to state explicitly at the beginning of each conversation what it’s about. What a stilted world that would make for! If Jason opens a conversation by saying, "The most wonderful thing happened to me at work today!" - then it’s pretty clear that he would like to talk to you about what happened. If Jill starts by saying softly, "About last night … I think I owe you an apology," it’s fairly clear that she’d like to straighten things out.

Of course, any given conversation may have multiple purposes. Most do. Jill talks to Jack in order to start the decision-making process about where to send their son to school, to apologise for her unreasonable anger the night before, and to relax a bit now that their son has gone to bed. Jack shares these purposes and has a couple of his own.

The main point is this. It's often a good idea to understand the reason why a conversation is taking place - both from your perspective and from the perspective of your conversational partner. Only then can both of you have a clear idea of what part each can play to help fulfil the conversation's purpose.

b. What happens if the other person has a different conversation in mind?

Imagine you’re having a one-to-one meeting with a close colleague, Belinda. You explain what you’d like to talk about. “It’d be great if we could sort out when we’re taking our holidays this summer, so we aren’t both away at the same time.”

Belinda replies, “Fair enough, but at the same time, I’d like to talk about my current workload, which is beginning to overwhelm me — even without taking holidays into account.”

Since your intention is to have a genuine dialogue, it’s fair enough that Belinda negotiates the scope of the conversation so that her interests are taken into account as well.

You quickly agree to Belinda’s suggestion and you go on to have a very satisfactory conversation, since Belinda is now as keen as you are to make it work.

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