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Conversation Therapy

11 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Think about the last person you met, or were introduced to.

Maybe they were a new member of your coworking space. Or they were a new perspective client. Or an attendee at a meetup or event.

Can you remember your first 5 mins of conversation with that person?  How much detail was worth remembering?

One of the best things about being in a coworking space is that you get to talk to a lot of people. A lot of different people, who have had different life experiences, have different ideas, and have different perspectives.

Then why do so many people choose to start conversations with to such unmemorable, unremarkable, cookie cutter conversations about what we do for work?

When we talk about our work first, conversation potential instantly narrows. 

It might seem counterintuitive, but think about it. Once somebody knows about what you do for work, how often do you talk about anything other than that?

It’s tough to transition naturally out of that conversation – either they’re interested in your work or they aren’t, and neither of those paths leave a lot of room for new topics to naturally emerge.

If these these conversations continue it’s only by brute force, and they usually skip awkwardly around…to the weather…to sports…to current events…_yawn _

You’ve been there. I’ve been there. These kinds of conversations are exhaustingly uninteresting, and they all blur together. You pray that somebody texts or calls you just so you can escape the conversation and move on. You catch yourself glancing around for the nearest exit…

There has to be a better way, right?

It was 9am on this past Saturday. A crowd of caffeinated conference attendees shuffled into an intimate black box theater in Durham, North Carolina.

I only knew a few things about this group:

  1. They were interested in coworking. Some of them were running or working in coworking spaces. Others were considering starting a coworking sapce. A few of them were even coworking space members.
  2. The vast majority of them had never met each other before today, except for from the opening reception the night before and the 30 minutes of coffee and pastries.

Meanwhile, I’m in the front of the room, all mic’d up for a 1 hour keynote presentation. It’s a position I’ve been in plenty of times, but each time I can’t help but think, “There’s no way they want me to talk at them for an hour.”

This time I paused, slightly anxious, wondering if the experiment I was about to run would work as well as it had in the past.

An experiment in Tummling

Traditionally, the expectation is for a keynote speaker to deliver something inspirational and tone setting for the audience to chew on. Great keynote speakers often use vivid, story-like narratives to drive home lessons, or provoke the audience to ask themselves questions.

Keynoting a conference is undoubtably a center-stage activity. But I decided to turn that on its head, and Tumml with this audience.

“We’ve got the next hour together – and after that, an entire day together. Not just you and me, but you and the person sitting next to you. Maybe you’ve already talked to them for a few minutes, but I bet your first question was about their coworking space, right? Of course I’m right, you’re all obsessed with coworking. That’s why you’re here. But that’s not who you are.

So I’m going to give you a chance to start fresh with a stranger. Here’s how it’s going to go: 

You’re going to partner up with a stranger in the room, someone who you haven’t met before. If we end up with an odd number of people, trios are totally cool. 

Once you’ve found a partner, you’re going to have 5 minutes to talk with that person…but I’m going to give you a little direction. This time, you’re going to talk about your goals. Two kinds of goals, in particular.  

First, think about a personal or professional goal that you’d like to achieve in the future. 

Goals don’t need to be something that you can do today, or even soon. Where would you like to be in 5 years or more? 

You don’t get points for the size of your goal, so don’t choose a goal because you think it’ll impress the other person. There doesn’t even need to be an obvious path to your goal.

And remember, projects aren’t the same thing as goals. If there’s a big project that’s taking up a lot of your attention, think about why that project is worth giving your time to? What’s the goal BEHIND the project?

Second, think about a goal that you’d like the coworking community to achieve in the future.

That includes people running coworking spaces, people working in coworking spaces, people writing articles about coworking spaces, people who want to learn more about coworking spaces…

Where would you like to see this community in 5 years or more? What do you want to see coworking accomplish?

Share both of these goals – and maybe your reasoning behind them – with your partner. Remember that you’ve only got 5 minutes, and to make sure your partner gets to share theirs.”

iPhone timer set for 5 minutes. “Go.”

Light chaos of reshuffling, followed by the warm eruption of conversations. Any anxiousness in the room – including my own – vanishes. People are smiling, laughing, encouraging each other.

And it’s only been 90 seconds.

A full 5 minutes passes, and the first (and only) real challenge in this exercise emerges in getting people to stop their conversations.

“Welcome back! 5 minutes flies….but you’ll get to continue that conversation later during a break.

In the mean time, a pop quiz! 

Who can share one of your partners‘ goals with the group?”

Over the next 5-10 minutes, a handful of people introduced themselves, their partner, and one of the goals their partner had shared.

By the 3rd or 4th share, we met at least 2 people who HADN’T talked to each other…but some similar goals. At the end, I asked if anybody had heard a goal that they shared. More than half of the audience’s hands went up.

Let’s recap the magic that just happened inside of 20 minutes:

  • Everybody in the room has now met one person that they hadn’t already met on their own. Even the shy and introverted ones.
  • Everybody in the room has now had a conversation – however brief – about the things that were important to them.
  • Several people have demonstrated that they were actually listening to their partner, and reinforcing the rapport that they already built with verbal mirroring.
  • More than half of the audience now know that they share a common goal with at least one other person in the room…if not many more.

And I still have 40 minutes of keynote time left.

Steal this exercise, please!

I’ve been working on variations of this exercise for over 18 months now, and it’s been a powerful success every single time. I want you to use it, evolve it, and let me know about it.

Credit where credit is due, my Indy Hall co-founder and dear friend Geoff DiMasi came up with the first version, a think-pair-share style exercise for his company retreat. Since, he modified it for a small community member retreat, and even wove a variation of it into his TEDxPhilly talk.

Adam Teterus and I modified this exercise, and worked it into workshops that we’ve taught.

And as of this past month, we open Indy Hall Town Hall meetings with the exact exercise I described above.

Every time, it gets results. 

What kind of results?  

Two quick stories to show you what I’m talking about:

Story #1: “I forgot what it was like to be a new member” 

More than one member shared this same sentiment – and a new personal goal – after our most recent Town Hall.

For a tiny Indy Hall Town Hall is a quarterly-ish event that we use to bring our community together and talk about our past, present, and future. Our first Town Hall in 2009 invited 40 members to discuss the our potential to outgrow our original coworking space.

Since then, we’ve grown. A lot. Great, right?

Well, not always. Growth also puts a lot of stress on the community, in many different ways. But we’re a community of Tummlers, so the community works together to relieve those stresses.

One of the things that we work everyday to reinforce as we’ve grown is that existing members should notice unfamiliar faces and welcome them. 

We don’t prescribe what that welcome looks like – and a lot of the time it’s as simple as saying “Hey! I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Alex. Are you new here?” when you bump into somebody you don’t know yet.

The fact that this warm welcome comes from members – and not just staff – is a big part of what people describe as their first impression of our community. Friendly, warm, and inviting.

Then, the honeymoon wears off. 6 months into their membership, most people have gotten into a groove. If things have gone well, they’ve made a good number of friends along the way.

For some of those people, our goal sharing exercise at Town Hall reminded them that there are people in the community who are newer than them, and they’re now in a position to return the new member warm welcoming that they were given when they first joined.

The silent ripple effects of this exercise invited an entire new generation of Tummlers who were already in our community to participate.

Story #2: The systematic slaughter of unremarkable intros

The same conference in North Carolina that I keynoted had another remarkable new experience: a panel of members from a handful of different coworking spaces. I can write 1000 more words about why this was awesome – but that’ll have to wait for another day.

As Alicia Hurst – a former member of New Work City – began moderating the panel she did something that caught me off guard in the best way possible.

As Alicia asked each panelist to introduce themselves, she encouraged them to share a personal goal that their coworking community helps them achieve. 

Those intros were awesome. They caught the audience’s attention. People were listening intently, even taking notes.

And best of all, for the rest of the panel, it was obvious that everyone was comfortable being themselves and being totally honest…rather than the usual “phoning it in” that panels normally incite.

Bam. It was spreading.

And Alicia, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for this before I ran off to the airport: so thank you for picking up this baton and running with it. So thank you.

Your turn

When you use this exercise with your community, I’d love to hear about how it goes.

Find a way to make it better? I’d love to hear that too.

I’ll leave you with this quote from one of my favorites, Peter Senge.

“When we are really ourselves. When we really connect with who we are and what we care about, and we have the confidence and the support to be forthright and honest, we find each other. 

We discover the innate commonalities in our aspirations. 

Carl Rogers once said, “That which is most personal is most universal. If that were not the case, there would be no shared visions.”.

When you really understand that, you get the foundation, the deep underpinning of shared visions. 

Now building shared visions involves more than this, but it always comes back to this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen so much money, time, energy, aspiration wasted by people trying to create a shared vision. 

And I say “Let the people talk to each other.”

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.