Have you ever suffered from the curse of the “writer’s block” – when you’re supposed to be writing about something specific, but your mind is trying so hard to focus on it that you struggle to write anything at all?
When this happens, a well-known “cure” is free association – when you write down anything and everything that comes into your head. The idea is that, by allowing your thoughts to run free, you can temporarily distract yourself from your block and regain focus. By removing the subconscious boundaries that surround and restrict your thoughts, they’re able to flow more organically.
Conversations can work in the same way. Have you ever had something really important to tell someone but, when it came to speaking to him or her, you couldn’t for the life of you remember what it was? What normally happens is that, after chatting to him for a while and switching from one topic to the next, going completely off piste and talking about a million and one things that are totally unrelated to what you need to say, you find that you come round to it again, quite naturally.
The great thing about “free-flow” thinking is that you aren’t forcing an idea. You’re not writing or speaking about something just for the sake of it. You’re presenting your thoughts and feelings about something as they occur to you, instead of when you’re prompted to. Discussions led in this way can be most productive because you can say what you want, about what you want, and, most importantly, you can say what you mean.
I recently attended a parent-teacher consultation at my son’s school. I hoped to learn about his achievements, get to know his teacher, and find out what he was like in his classroom environment. The discussion went slightly differently to how I’d imagined, however. The teacher came equipped with a long list of topics laid out in a table format. She seemed to race through each one, tossing out targets, spouting out scores, and ticking off each box as she went. Although she technically answered my questions, with either a “yes” or a “no,” she gave me little information and seemed very reluctant to deviate from the rigid structure of the meeting.
This was certainly not the kind of “consultation” that I had expected. Yes – I realize that there’s probably a long list of things that have to be mentioned during these discussions. But with so many to get through, I didn’t feel like I had chance to focus properly on any of them. I’d seen a few grades and heard about some of the topics that my son’s class would be studying in the coming term. But I didn’t have any of the information I wanted. I hadn’t come away with a feel for how my son was getting on at school. I hadn’t got a real sense of his relationship with his teacher, what he was like in class, and the areas that he’d be focusing on. I hadn’t had… a conversation.
The framework of the consultation had overshadowed its purpose. Its restrictions had prevented me from being able to talk about what I believed to be important. Being able to break away from them and, instead, focusing on fewer items and having a more natural and free-flowing dialogue would have allowed me to get what I really wanted out of it, and made it a lot more valuable to me.
In today’s article, we look at how having focused but free-flowing conversations can help improve your performance reviews at work.
How do you get the most from formal conversations? Do you prefer to read from a script or speak “off the cuff?” Join in our discussion below!