The value of ad-hoc, unexpected learning conversations

One of my fondest memories of my late colleague David Megginson was a day in Kathmandu, where a group of coaches and academics had gathered for a Himalayan trek. The tourists around us tried not to lock eyes with the colourful characters around us, sometimes appearing quite comical in their desire not to engage. David, however, was quite the opposite. He was immediately curious about them, their lives and their ideas. He saw the conversation not as an embarrassment but as an opportunity.

I reflected at that time on the many encounters that I and my sons had had trekking remote parts of the world. When we had been relaxed and open to experiencing everything going on around us, characters frequently appeared, sensing an audience. When we listened to their tales – often in halting English or through an interpreter – we always gained fascinating insights into their culture and history.

A recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology[1], to which I was alerted by the always useful British Psychological society newsletter, sheds light on these random encounters. Michael Kardas and his colleagues explored how people expected deep conversations with strangers to be and what they actually experienced. They found that people tend to overestimate how awkward such conversations would be and to underestimate how positive they would feel about these conversations, in terms of connectedness and happiness. The deeper the conversation, the more rewarding it proved to be.

The researchers theorise that we default to shallow conversations with strangers, when deeper conversations might be much more useful.

In coaching and mentoring and in leadership generally, this raises some interesting questions. For example:

  • When do we consciously or unconsciously avoid deep conversations with others?
  • To what extent does a relationship have to “warm up” before we can have deeper conversations?
  • What’s the difference for you between a deep and shallow conversation? (The person sitting next to you on the plane telling you their life story in detail isn’t necessarily having a deep conversation; just having a shallow off-load!)
  • How can we develop that deep curiosity that David Megginson so richly demonstrated?
  • What valuable learning could we acquire by putting ourselves in the way of more, deeper conversations with strangers?

 © David Clutterbuck 2022

[1] Kardas, M, Kumar, A, and Epley, N (2021) Overly shallow?: Miscalibrated expectations create a barrier to deeper conversation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication

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