Starting Dialogue: An Example

Yesterday I found myself scheduled to spend my day in our drop-in employment resource centre instead of running a workshop. These days are good mental breaks and diversions from planning, running and evaluating workshops and are a welcomed change from time-to-time.

Now I find you can do one of two things while you are scheduled to staff that area. You can on the one hand circulate around the room, engage visitors in conversation and spruce the place up a little by tidying up etc. On the other hand you can choose to sit at the staff desk and deal with people as they approach you. I generally opt for the engaging style myself, but on most days you’d find me doing a mix of both.

So it was when I was at the desk printing off some job postings that a woman came up asking to use the stapler. Rather than saying, “Help yourself” and returning to my task, I said, “Help yourself. Hey is that your resume? Would you like me to cast my eyes over it for you?”

That initiative; the decision to engage with the person, start a conversation and extend an offer of assistance is such a small thing. I point it out however as a tangible example of a decision to simply and effectively start a conversation, creating an opening where a user of your service can voluntarily choose to also engage or not.

Now in this instance, the woman handed her resume over and sat down. I was immediately conscious of trying to accomplish two very different tasks simultaneously. First and most obvious, I began to scan the resume, looking for ways to strengthen it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I started to size up the person sitting across from me. How open was this stranger to my feedback? To what degree was she able to grasp, understand and be receptive to the changes I was recommending?

Starting with a suggestion to not staple the two pages together that collectively made up her resume, we went through content, grammar and spelling, layout and format etc. All in all we spent about 15 minutes there together until she left to return to her computer and input the suggestions before leaving.

A chance encounter? Maybe. What if she hadn’t needed that stapler and had brought her own? What if someone else had been there instead of me, or I had been too caught up with something else and she came and left quickly just using the stapler without asking at all? Was it fate?

If you break things down, a lot of things go into that 15 minute engagement. She started things off by taking the initiative to approach me and had the manners to ask for use of the stapler which created the possibility of a conversation. I made a decision years ago to engage people where I can and find opportunities to start conversations so it was natural to initiate the offer of help and she was wise enough to accept feedback.

Furthermore, like peeling back layers on an onion, as things were pointed out on her resume to correct, improve, add to or re-format, she was patient and open enough to accept the comments made, making further and more meaningful suggestions possible. Had she been defensive, close-minded or downright impervious to new ideas and dismissed the ideas presented to her, I’d have been less helpful and would have hoped for a better reaction another day.

As someone else needed assistance after our 15 minutes together, she returned to her computer station. I made another decision to go ’round and saw she was in the process of already implementing the ideas I’d given her. That initiative on her part to implement the ideas presented also shows me her wisdom. Wisdom I say, but not because the ideas were mine, but because the ideas and suggestions are borne out of experience accumulated over many years, current best practices, and supported through evidence of job seekers getting interviews when using those ideas themselves.

I wanted to share this encounter with you precisely because it is such a small thing to accomplish. Whether you are the professional employee in a position assisting others, or you are a job seeker, you can interject yourself in either position and see how the engagement process works from both perspectives. What I find noteworthy is that unlike some interactions, this one started off spontaneously without any stress leading up to the conversation.

You might feel mounting stress for example were you to book an appointment with a resume professional or a career counsellor. You might agonize over having your work criticized, judged and by association being judged yourself. If you are a quieter, reserved or introverted person, you might not have the assertiveness to even initiate contact and seek help. These opportunities are in front of you everyday however. Instead of lamenting or beating yourself up over missed opportunities yesterday, jump in and risk a conversation today. You could start with, “Can I use your stapler? Would you mind looking this over?”

On my side of the desk, remember colleagues that there are opportunities before us each and everyday. They don’t always present themselves in scheduled appointments, and can often start as chance encounters. It’s about being in position, having the knowledge, looking and acting receptive to help and serving.

A pretty simple encounter broken down.





But What If The Other Person Isn’t Hearing Me?

I bet you’ve had this experience. You know, you’re talking to someone and they nod their head at the appropriate times, and from their facial expressions you gather that they are giving you their full attention. So far so good. Then at the conclusion of your point, they ask a question that baffles you because it would appear that while they were listening, they didn’t appear to hear you.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience by way of illustration. I often make it a point to introduce myself to job-seekers who are working independently on their resumes. From a quick look at the work they are doing on a computer, I can generally tell if the resume they are crafting is likely to produce the hoped for result of generating an interview for them or not. I often end up sitting down and explaining the things I’m recommending, and almost always they actually do realize that the suggestions I’ve made improve the overall document. Like I said, so far so good.

It’s at the conclusion of this process that I get surprised. After saying several times that the resume should be specifically made for a single job, and then revised each time a new job is applied to, they will often say something like, “That makes sense. So how many copies can I make?”

At this moment, I want to ask them why they want 20 copies of the resume if they just a few minutes earlier appeared to understand that a new revised resume would be required for each job they are applying to; but I don’t. After all, I figure that I may have just given them 20 or 30 new bits of advice and ways of marketing themselves that they previously hadn’t been aware of. To expect others to ‘get it’ entirely is not always a fair expectation on my part.

Truth be told, I can’t think of a specific example, but I’m willing to bet that there are some people I deal with who also wonder about my own comprehension when dispensing advice to me. In fact, my neighbour might speak to this. He’s a Roofer by trade and is a fast talker as well. He launches into stories about the various clients he deals with and almost all his stories deal with clients who just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to their own roofing needs. While he’s talking he may name 10 people – many by first name only – and assumes I know who he’s talking about, but I don’t. Then later he figures I’ve got this fantastic memory for all the names of these people and recall their various parts in his stories. My memory isn’t that good either.

At work, I’ve had my colleagues debrief with me when finishing up with an especially challenging client. Sometimes I entirely understand the frustration my colleague is feeling. Other times though, I also see the exact moment in the retelling of the interaction when I myself would have ended the interaction, but my colleague didn’t give up.

I believe it’s critical to read your audience and check to see how much what you are saying is sinking in. At some point you’ll reach a saturation point. To continue providing new information; no matter how excited you are personally to provide it to them, well, it may just be a wasted exercise. The problem if you got to that point wouldn’t be the person’s ability to grasp what you are saying, but rather your own failure to say less and walk away satisfied that the other person learned something.

We all have different abilities, limitations, capabilities and attention spans. While you might have the capacity to take in a large amount of information and retain most of it, others you work with may have the ability to only retain a small amount. If you can figure out what someone is really after, what would be most helpful and walk away satisfied that they got what they needed most, be satisfied with that. After all, you can always invite them back to continue your conversation and give them more ideas and suggestions at another time. If they want it, they’ll come back.

Now of course, if you are fortunate enough to work in a setting where you see clients and customers on a continual basis, you can dispense information over a period of meetings. If the customer or client is likely to only interact with you once, or very infrequently, best to perhaps limit your investment in time to what might help them most in the here and now.

By way of example here, I’ve sometimes been asked to do up a resume for someone I’ve never met before who needs a resume immediately. If time allows, I do so and hope that as I go I can talk about why I recommend the things I do over other ways etc. But if that person isn’t interested in what I’m saying and their body language and words just screams that they don’t really care, why would I drone on? Not much chance of getting through that ambivalence.

So be patient and read your audience. Give them an opportunity to take in whatever they are capable of and check for their understanding and retention. Sometimes say less. And from time-to-time, take your own advice that you would give others.


Finding Things To Talk About With New People

One issue that comes up all the time is stress over the looming conversation when I’m speaking with people nervous when meeting people for the first time. “I don’t know what to say. What will I talk about?”

Mentally noting a thing or two ahead of time to get the ball rolling or keep a conversation going is one thing, but a fatal error too often made is trying to play out the entire conversation in your head ahead of time. Conversations are always between two or more people, so even in a 1:1 conversation, you’re only 50% responsible for adding to it and keeping things flowing. Playing it all out in your head is robbing the other person of their 50%.

And because you are talking about sentient beings, that it to say dealing with other who have brains of their own, they will undoubtedly contribute things which will take the conversation in places you may not be able to predict ahead of time anyhow. Of course for some this is again another point of stress. I can just hear them saying, “That’s what I’m afraid of! What if I don’t know what they are talking about?!” Being worried about not knowing every something on every subject that might come up is quite unreasonable, for no one does. But I agree if you feel anxious, that feeling is entirely valid for you.

let’s see if I can’t help you reduce that anxiety by looking at some of the things you can do. To prepare for conversations, consider the purpose of the meeting. Is it a social interaction where you will be drifting around a room and meeting a variety of people like at a party? The advantage of this is situation is that you can start-up many conversations with the same content. “Hello, I’m Julie, nice to meet you. My goodness we’ve had some unusual weather of late.”

And before going further, note that I chose the topic of the weather. Weather is often brought up early in a chat because it is – important point here – a shared experience. Finding shared experiences gives you something in common with the person you are speaking with. It rains on both of you, you both experience minus 34 degrees, or you both have to be aware of floods, fires or intense heat waves. So most people will express an opinion on that subject and it’s a safe bet they’ll do so.

Shared experiences can be found by listening to the radio and hearing about news. The Olympics is in the news today for another week, and people either have no interest, some interest or great interest in it. “Are you following the Olympics at all?”, you ask, and you’ve shifted the dialogue to them. Be it the Olympics, some international conflict, a local politician, favourite sports, music, a public figure in the news, all of these are topics you may share knowledge of with others.

Now let’s say it’s a work colleague you want to know better, but don’t know what to talk about. Well again, think of the purpose of the meeting. Why do you want to speak with them? Perhaps your goal is to find out about a project, get noticed or determine their view on some matter. Knowing your goal ahead of time keeps your objective in mind and will give you the cue to wrap up a chat and depart. In this dynamic, your shared experience is the job or employer you both work for. Or if a colleague from another company, maybe you are both from similar departments, and can talk about that.

Of course shared experiences is one side of the coin and then there’s the other side; where you each have little knowledge of the other. So I’m an Employment Counsellor in Social Services working for a Municipality, and I meet a self-employed Nursery Owner who has 400 acres of trees, bushes, shrubs and other plant life. Little in common. I now have the option to open with, “I understand you’re in the Horticulture field, I don’t know much about that I’m afraid. What’s it like?” People love talking about themselves usually, but even if they are modest, they’ll appreciate your interest in them.

Remember that conversations are dynamic; that is they ebb and flow back and forth and you aren’t responsible for it entirely on your own. That other person will contribute to it as well. And like you, they may be thinking, ‘Oh I hate these things! What on earth will we talk about?!” Sometimes, but not always, this is a topic that folks with poorly developed interpersonal skills dread. It seems so easy for others, and they get mad at themselves for being so awkward or clumsy that they can actually develop poor self-esteem. If it progresses, this can in turn lead to avoiding contact with new people, eventual isolation because of it, and then depression.

Bear in mind that everyone – yes everyone – has varying degrees of ease or anxiety in different situations. Someone really good at individual conversations at work may become privately anxious at a social party. A man at a social gathering who is the life of the party may be awkward and anxious when meeting people at work.

Like any other skill, interpersonal interaction; speaking with and listening to others can be learned. And when learning a new skill, you’ll have bumps in the early stages. That makes you normal.