11/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tear Down the Walls: How to Approach Conversation as a Craft

It is not what we learn in conversation that enriches us. It is the elation that comes of swift contact with tingling currents of thought. -- Agnes Repplier

Approach the conversation as a craft to engage the other person with authenticity.

Conversation is an under-appreciated craft upon which we can all improve. It is a potent tool to disassemble the wall between people. Conversation raises the spirit and saves lives. A heartfelt conversation can feel miraculous. It is a moment in time when two people can operate within a limitless range of thoughts and feelings with each other.

A conversation's possibility is infinite because we convey our greatest successes, failures, dreams and fears in them. Conversation does not require a long apprenticeship or lengthy education. A person can constantly improve one's listening and speaking, as well as one's empathy and assertiveness.

Curiously, conversations are generally conducted poorly. We often go into auto-pilot, sharing superficial observations, exchanging gossip and speaking in clichés. When conversations proceed badly, you abhor seeing the other person. Their voice triggers the reaction of nails scratching the blackboard. Words sting and stick. Listening to the other person is the last thing you want to be doing. A skilled conversationalist views this as an opportunity to practice her craft. An amateur shuts down or speaks mindlessly.

I remember mediating a situation where the chief executive was perceived by many as a difficult person. It was easy for me to see why. He was temperamental and tended to see the world in a polarized fashion -- people were either with him or against him. He was seemingly dictatorial at times, especially when he wanted to get things done.

On a personal level, it would have been easier to not engage him and just work with him in a purely professional manner. However, looking back the best thing I ever did was just talk with him before or after meetings in an open, friendly manner. I remember how I spent an additional thirty minutes after a particularly harsh late night session, and hardly talked about the work at all. We just chatted about our plans for the weekend, our families and our interests. I would attribute some of his changed behavior in later meetings to these conversations.

Approach conversation like an artisan approaches her craft; choose your words with precision, modulate your voice with care and respect. Even the most difficult situation is a chance to be your full self, to walk into the conversation with optimism, hope and courage. A conversation is your chance to make a difference for yourself, for the other person and for the relationship.

Next week I will discuss how to bring curiosity into the mix to bring new possibilities to difficult relationships.

To learn more about the importance of communication skills particularly in negotiation and conflict resolution, read about the solutions, results and publications Grande Lum has created at Accordence, Inc.

For further discussion, contact Grande at