The following is a conversation between Fred Dust, Author of Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: How often do you walk away from a conversation feeling really heard, that it moved the people in it forward in some important way? Dialogue is the oldest tool for change we have, but we seem to be getting worse and worse at it. This dilemma and how to address it is captured in a fascinating new book called Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication. And it’s a pleasure to have with us its author, Fred Dust.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Fred!
Fred: Thanks so much for having me, Denver. I really appreciate it.
Denver: What was the impetus? What was the origin of you writing this book?
Fred: Well, of course, when you write a book, you recognize that the impetus goes back to childhood. So I’m not going to go back that far because that would actually–
Fred: –that would break a principle of the book. But I will say that I think that there was one moment, a unique moment, that actually feels very resonant this minute– I got the luck, the fortunate chance to work with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who then was the Surgeon General of the White House. He served mostly under Obama, but because Trump didn’t quite see that he was there, he also served under Trump for a while.
And Vivek, who had focused a lot on issues of opioid addiction, gun violence, was about to release an epidemic of anxiety and isolation in America to basically say, “This is our big fundamental health crisis.” And I was working with him to help him rethink and redesign town halls so that they could actually feel like “we could hear from people on this topic,” but also so that it could be cathartic and engaging, and people could feel like they rebuilt the community.
And while I was doing that, I was like, “Maybe I’ll write a book on this.” So I wrote a book proposal. And ironically, at the same time, Vivek was writing a book proposal. And so, his book got bought by HarperCollins, my publisher, and my book got bought by HarperCollins at the same time; his came out in the spring;mine came out now.
And so, his was, as you know, it’s called Together. It’s about isolation and loneliness. And mine’s more about, “Hey. What do we do to get through isolation and loneliness?” So I feel like we accidentally work in: call and response.
Denver: Yes. That’s really interesting. And the “Hey!” part of your book, which is: “How do we get through?” didn’t start that way. You actually started it from the place of despair… that we are getting bad at dialogue, and it’s only going to get worse. What flipped, Fred, that allowed you to put this information in a positive and hopeful way?
Fred: To be honest, I sold the book; I sat down with my publisher, and she was like, “Yeah. You’re not writing a book about the decline of conversation.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I am. That’s what this is about.” And she’s like, “Nope. It’s going to be relentlessly optimistic.” And I was like, “You’re kidding me.”
Denver: Oh, wow! No. How cloying!
Fred: I was just, “No way!” And so, I started looking at all these spectacular people who do amazing things with dialogue, like the Krista Tippetts and stuff like that. And that’s amazing. But where I started to find hope again was by going back to normal, everyday people in the world, all around the world, and how it was that they had the hardest conversations of their lives and how they used a creative method… or they used making it as an aspect of that conversation.
And honestly, it was that. It was going to a school for severely addicted kids where the doors are wide open. They can meet anytime they want and understand all it was that they committed to being there. Or talking to a sex positive, late age, very religious group that’s focusing on sex slavery and ending it in America.
So those groups really started giving me hope. And I will say that it took me a lot longer to write because moving from pessimistic to optimistic takes a bit of time. By the end of it, I felt pretty cured and remained pretty cured on this topic, so…
Denver: That is great. Well, let’s talk a little bit about this topic, and I guess the question on everybody’s mind is: How in the world did we get to this point where we are so bad at dialogue and holding conversations?
Fred: There are so many experts who have written about this. And so, for instance, I was writing with Sherry Turkle who wrote this book called Reclaiming Conversation. That’s a really important book. And she and I were like…it feels like we’ve been in spiritual conversation the entire time. We’ve known each other, but we haven’t really been in conversation for a while. And she really focuses on the idea of our devices — our tablets, our phones. I go back a little bit further on this. I actually go back to around the ’50s.
And in the late ’40s, early ’50s, television really made its way into American homes — well, into global homes. And not only that, it made its way into homes and took over the dinner hour. And so, we suddenly gave our dinners, which… there had been family conversation, over to the television. And it’s very interesting. Within like a three- or four-year period, there’s rapid innovation in television. There was like the TV tray, which no one even knows who invented the TV tray but it’s in the Smithsonian, so It’s definitely important. There was the anchorman, Walter Cronkite was our first… whatever. There was the remote-control changer. We really went there.
And just to give you an example. Historically, in England, there was this thing called “The Toddler’s Truce” for a while, which was an hour where all programming on television stops so that the parents could put their kids to bed without missing television.
Denver: Oh my goodness.
Fred: That’s how intense it was. So that’s where I feel like we started. And then think about it. Then, we brought our televisions into our kitchens, and then we brought our televisions into our bedrooms…
Denver: Oh, sure. That permeated every aspect of our life. You know what? When you’re talking about it, and you discuss this… I always think of the Swanson TV dinner. They branded it as such. This is what you should be doing during dinner.
Fred: That’s exactly right. Which, by the way, I loved. And I don’t even think I ever had them in front of TV. I just had them because that was like what my mom had–
Denver: Because you were a “hungry man.” Remember the Hungry Man Dinner?
Fred: I had little ones, like the ones that were especially for kids that had gifts. But the reality is that’s where it began. And then, of course, with that — and I think you’ll resonate with this — there became things like the first televised debate. And as you may know, people who listened to the debate on radio between Nixon and Kennedy thought that Nixon had won. People who watched it on television were sure that Kennedy had won, and that was because Nixon had a cold and he was sweating.
Denver: He was sweating, that’s the thing. He never did another debate again.
Fred: That’s exactly right. And so, it’s interesting to note that the people who heard it had a different response to what was happening than the people who actually watched it. So that and then the development of punditry and online debate, all the way up to now where it’s just non-stop kind of horror.
Denver: Yes. It really is. Well, let’s talk a little bit about that because in dialogue, you’re talking about conversation, you’re talking about words. All the science often says that that’s not all that important. It’s going to be the body gestures, the body language, the appearance, and things of that sort because we are at heart visual creatures, and that has much more impact on us. How do you square all of that in terms of what those people say and the importance of the words and the dialogue that are being exchanged?
Fred: I give credit to all of it. So, I have the whole thing in the book on the chapter on clarity, which, by the way, originally was called “Talk Normal.” Because originally, I wanted things to just be like really straightforward. I was like “If it’s about talking and talking normal, let’s just call it ‘talk normal.'” But people seem to like their Cs so we ended up with seven Cs.
…when you actually use a visual cue, you understand it a little bit better. So it gives you a little bit more clarity around it. And so, it’s this really powerful tool when used right.
Denver: You got nothing but Cs in there. Seven Cs.
Fred: It’s just the way it is. But what’s interesting about that though, is that one of the tenets of “talk normal” I talk about is using visual language. And the reason I talk about using visual language is that often, when you actually use a visual cue, you understand it a little bit better. So it gives you a little bit more clarity around it. And so, it’s this really powerful tool when used right. And then if you do it, you can write even better visual language.
There’s an example in the book about somebody saying, “Hey. If you put ideation and critique together,”… this is Osborn who writes this, “it’s kind of like turning on the hot water faucet and the cold water faucet.” And that’s even better because it’s not just visual, it’s tactile. You can feel that. You know what that feels like.
And so, I actually really believe that words… yes, the body matters, but words also trigger the way that our bodies respond, except when we do things. But — can I do a caveat to that?
Denver: Please do.
Fred: What got cut, because the book is relentlessly apolitical because I want to be clear –I’m not a big fan of the current president. It’s like I understand why people would vote for the president. And so, basically, I really do understand that there are many, many, many nuanced reasons that we might have that we don’t know unless we have conversations with people to understand why they did it.
But I think what’s interesting for me is that if I say, “Let’s talk about the wall,” what does that mean to you, Denver?
Denver: It obviously means the wall between the United States and Mexico. And I would say that it was great imagery because I could picture it, and I know that my wall was different than your wall.
The other thing it means to me, too, is that it was the most impractical, ridiculous idea in the world. And as everybody denounced it, they were talking about it on TV, which is exactly what the intent of it was. They’re saying it’s stupid, but they’ve been talking about it for 45 straight minutes. So maybe it’s not that stupid.
Fred: That’s exactly right. So what you have to be really careful of… I’m all for visual language, but you also have to be careful when visual language is, in essence, essentializing something so it’s just something that is not the real dialogue.
So, if I wanted to talk to you about people who are in real danger for their lives, who might be imprisoned or decapitated or killed for their beliefs in Chechnya or wherever that is, and how we’re going to get them to safety, that’s a conversation you and I should be having on television. That’s the conversation you and I should be having here.
The “wall” basically becomes a disguise to the real conversation. We don’t have the conversation we need to be having. And in the book, I talk about that a lot… about the idea that you need to be asking for the conversation you want to be having, not just say, “Oh, let’s have a long talk about the wall and how stupid it is.”
Denver: And I think though that the thing about the wall is that everybody can participate in that conversation. And I think a lot of these conversations, people don’t feel equipped that they can participate in. For instance, here in New York City, when Bloomberg was going to outlaw the Big Gulp, you don’t have to really follow anything to have a strong opinion as to whether they should allow me to buy the Big Gulp or not the Big Gulp, and everybody did.
So when you went to the, let’s say, the talk shows in New York I would know of, everybody called in because “I didn’t have to be informed; I just had to be assertive that that’s a nanny state or we have to protect us or whatever.” So the wall kind of gets it down to everybody because you don’t even have to understand immigration to have an opinion.
Fred: So that’s the real interesting nuance about visual language is that it both has real benefits, and there are also real risks because it can distract at the same time. So because by having the conversation centered around the wall, it’s not focusing on the real important issues that are behind that.
Denver: You’re absolutely correct. You’re absolutely right.
Fred, do you think that — sticking with clarity for a moment — that some of this language is made obscure on purpose by people in industries to raise a barrier to entry? I had somebody on the other day who’s helping poor people get through bankruptcy because you can’t declare for bankruptcy unless you have money. You need $1,500. He says the law is written in a way that you have to be a lawyer to understand it when he said it could easily be written in a way where somebody who wants to file for bankruptcy could understand it. But they make it almost inaccessible to the common person to keep the industry going. How much of that do you think is going on?
Fred: It’s a lot. So, first of all, I have friends who are lawyers who are like — they’ve read the book and they’re like, “You would put us out of business.”
Denver: There you go.
Fred: They’re like, “Hopefully nobody buys this book because we’ll lose our livelihood.”
Denver: And they like you, too!
Fred: Exactly. I chair the governance committee for a board I’m on, and the other day, one of my people… who I love… wrote an email back to me. I basically was like, “I’m not sure I understand any word that’s in this email, so we have to just get on a call, and you have to kind of walk me through this bit by bit.” There’s a couple of things that happen there, and I want to be really clear around it, which is that I’m actually not against specialized language.
So, let’s go to the world of healthcare. I think I write about this in the book… one of the big issues that comes up in the book is this idea of triage. It’s a word that about 50% of the people who are in the emergency room know what the word triage means. And triage comes from…I think that’s French for sowing, like pulling the wheat from the chaff. It’s basically a sorting process, and it kind of really emerged during World War I. What’s interesting about triage is that there’s no reason that you need to have a triage desk. You can just have a go-here-first desk. That’s actually what needs to happen.
And so, when I’ve worked in the world of health care, I’ve really encouraged doctors and physicians and health care professionals to really speak in common language when they’re talking to a patient, to get as basic as they can. However, what you don’t want is doctors talking to doctors in common language. You want them to use their special language when they’re talking to each other because when speed and efficiency matters, then you say what you need to say to make sure that that patient survives. So, don’t go to a doctor if they’re talking to other doctors and they’re just like, “Get the ear thing that lets me listen to the heart, the bloodline pumping.” You just don’t want that. You say “stethoscope” and expect that some people are going to get it, some people aren’t. But it’s like—
Denver: The person who’s going to try to get it for you understands it, and that’s what counts.
Fred: Exactly. So, I would say that specialized languages matter in some places. I think it’s really when you’re dealing with multi-sectoral conversations… as I’m sure many of the people on your show are — they’re dealing with private sector talking to social sector… private sector talking to government — then you have to break down language really quickly around that. Otherwise, you will go nowhere fast. I’ve seen us lose years to a word that people didn’t understand, and so you have to be really careful around that.
I find that often in organizations where they name something together, and they give it a good visual name or a good tactile name, that you actually get better results.
Denver: Before we go onto a couple of the other Cs, let me ask you one more thing about clarity. And that is you talk about the importance of naming things. Discuss that a little bit.
Fred: So there’s a couple of reasons. By the way, that’s not acronyms. An acronym isn’t a name. An acronym is just like another obscure word. So let’s be clear. If you’re using an acronym as a name, it’s like you don’t want to do that. But I find that often in organizations where they name something together, and they give it a good visual name or a good tactile name, that you actually get better results.
One of my favorite examples that isn’t from the business context is the way people use names in wine, in the wine industry. So, most people in America are terrified, most people in the world are terrified of sommeliers because they know how much wine costs and they also have a set of terms that nobody understands. It’s like “malolactic” or I don’t know, “tannic,” whatever. And so, you’ll see sommeliers trying to translate that into more visual language. So there’ll be like “earthy” or “buttery” or whatever. But the reality is even that is a little bit … that’s better, but I’m like, “Yeah. I don’t think it tastes like earth.” I actually do think things taste buttery. I do get that, but sometimes even that can be distracting.
So in the book — I think it’s in the book, or maybe it’s just in my life — I often talk about a wine store in Chicago that uses names of celebrities.
Fred: So, that was perfect. The place, the store is out of business. But basically, if you were to update it, it would be like if you went into a wine store and you picked out a card and it said, “This wine is like Taylor Swift’s new album Folklore. It’s beautiful poetry and is endlessly drinkable, and you’ll drink bottle after bottle.” Something as simple as that. Or “This wine is like ‘9 to 5’ by Dolly Parton. It’s just going to wake you up and get you going. “
Denver: Or this wine is trashy, and then you can fill in the blank of who you want that to be.
Fred: I can assure you there’s plenty of that.
Denver: Plenty to go around. That’s our largest section, as a matter of fact.
Fred: Exactly. You’re lucky there’s a lot of trashy wines, and there’s a lot of trashy others of the famous people.
Denver: That’s for sure. It’s funny. I’m an executive coach. And what you do often when you’re coaching people is that they have their inner critic. That is that little voice of them saying “You can’t do this” or “You can’t do that,” and holds them back or something. But I find that when you ask somebody to name their inner critic, whether they name their inner critic a naysayer or whether they name their inner critic Charlie, all of a sudden it becomes an anchor for all future conversations. And they’ll say, “Charlie was getting in the way at my last meeting. He was telling me I couldn’t do this.” So, it really resonated what you put in the book about when you label something, it becomes a touchstone that you end up referring back to in a way, and it kind of personifies whatever it does.
Fred: I think that’s so interesting. I’m sorry. There’s a notion in the world that’s called “frequency illusion,” which is that once you start to notice something, you notice it over and over again.
So, for instance, today is November 11 and at 11:11, it’s going to be 11-11, 11:11. So that’s something that, for some reason, I noticed, and there’s a psychology around that. People very often will say things like, “Oh. That’s because there are 1,111 angels trying to talk to you.” That’s actually not what’s happening. It’s just that once you start to notice it, you notice it more and more.
So what you’re doing, that’s a great example. If you’re naming Charlie or you’re naming imposter syndrome, or you’re naming whatever, then you start to notice it in your thinking. And I think that’s really genius, actually.
Denver: Yes. That is very true. Sort of like when you buy a red Volkswagen and you’ve got the only red Volkswagen in existence, and then you get on the street, and every third car is a red Volkswagen.
Fred: Like I have a gray Mini on an island of 250 people. And I’m just like, “Wait a second. How can there be this many gray Minis?”
Denver: Let’s talk about another C, and that’s context. And I think that when people want to have a conversation, they’re really determined to have that conversation. They have a clear idea, and they’re going to force it through. And the space they have it in, the environment they have it…That’s not going to make any difference. I know what I want to do.” But you tell us, it does make a difference. Explain.
Fred: So, describe to me board meeting, if I say that to you.
Denver: It’s a long, rectangular, brown mahogany-something-like table, maybe 12 to 16 chairs, leather if it’s a nice boardroom. Maybe one or two people sitting on the side taking notes, but not at the actual table themselves. That’s what it is.
Fred: Right. Well, what I love is what you just did is that you described mostly the space. So, you got the two people on the side, but you forgot the person at the head of the table—
Denver: Right. A guy in a suit.
Fred: Yes. Because you sort of assumed that, and that’s what often happens. If I ask somebody to describe an AA meeting, they describe a basement with chairs around it. If I ask to describe the courtroom, they describe what that is.
And so, what happens is spaces… and this I have to say is like… I’m an architect, so I’m attuned to it. But the reality is… we should all be because space is our natural environment. That’s where we live. So we should all be well-attuned to what a space means. And it’s like when you put a conversation in a boardroom, or you put a conversation in a church basement, or you put a conversation in a courtroom, the rules and the script of that conversation are already set for you. You cannot break out of that script. Or you can, but it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot more effort.
And so, one of the things I really try to get people to do is reset their scripts by resetting spaces. So it’s like what if you had — I’m trying to think if I’ve done this before — what if you had a board meeting in recline? Or what if you had an important strategy meeting, which I did do — this happened once working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because when they opened, they had all kinds of desks and tables, but they had no chairs. And so, we’d have our most important strategy meetings sitting cross-legged on the floor. And it actually changed the culture, and it changed the conversation. And so–
Denver: I can imagine.
Fred: Yes, and in really profound ways.
And so, I would just say that we should not take space for granted. I got one more thought on that, which has a little bit of the science behind it. Mnemonics are based on a shorthand device that allows us to brain-build memories. That’s the same thing. And we often use spaces to build a memory. So it’s why I can say to you, “Where were you on 9/11?” And I’m sure you have a — can you remember where you were?
Denver: Oh, sure. Yes.
Fred: And so, I can say that to you, and you know exactly where you were because that space–
Denver: I think I can remember where I was on the 11/65 at 5:38 PM because that was the time we had the blackout on the big East Coast. I remember exactly where I was at the moment, who I was with, and what I was doing. It was just the other day.
Fred: Yes. It’s like so funny and it’s like the same. I can remember exactly where I was when the power went out during Hurricane Sandy. And so, by the way, it was on the roof of my building. Not so smart. I was like, “I want to see the storm,” and then we were like, “Oh, wait a second. This is not the best place to be.” We were from California. We were new to the idea of hurricanes. We didn’t quite understand.
Denver: No. If you’re some beach boys, we understand.
Fred: This is not an earthquake, so we have no idea.
Denver: Yes, surfer boy. Come on, let’s go. Let’s go to the roof.
Fred: So basically. That’s a really important thing because one of the things that happens is, let’s say you were in bed just waking up when you heard that a beloved relative died. Then it’s easy to imagine that waking up in the morning in that bed and having a conversation with your loved one or partner may not be the best place, because that bed maybe, in fact, haunted by bad memories. And that makes for like literally, like mnemonically, your brain makes that association.
And so, I’ve seen a lot of… one family that couldn’t talk around the dining room table because it was so associated with the eating disorder of one of their daughters. And when I talked to them, this isn’t in the book, but I was like, “What if you guys just sat on the floor? Or what if you just got rid of the dining room table altogether? Or what if you just don’t eat together?” It’s like: have conversations, but just don’t ever eat together, which by the way, I’m writing a piece right now on: why we should have an “All Silent Thanksgiving,” and it’s related to a bunch of those kinds of issues, actually, to be honest…
We assume our rules are fixed; we can’t change the rules. We can, and we should relentlessly change the rules. By changing the rules, we set and reset the safety of a conversation.
Denver: Let me ask you about one more C, and I know this is one of your favorites, and that’s constraints. The rules, the roles, et cetera.
Fred: Yes. And it’s funny because, again, it’s a C because publishers like C, but I just like telling people… It was either “Set and Reset the Rules” or it was “Rules for Rules.” That was one of the two things that we were going to deal with.
So, first of all, not all constraints are rules. So I love that you started with context before you got to constraints. That’s very well-read. Thank you.
And so, what you’re implying is context itself is a kind of constraint. So, it’s like by having the meeting in the boardroom, you’re already establishing a constraint on the conversation.
Denver: Oh, absolutely.
Fred: So, I think that’s right. Rules are just like another version of that kind of constraint. And there’s a couple of things here. We assume our rules are fixed; we can’t change the rules. We can, and we should relentlessly change the rules. By changing the rules, we set and reset the safety of a conversation.
So, I think the best example of that is the ending of duels around the world. Are you interested at all in hearing about how rules reset the duels in America or how it stopped the duels?
Denver: Let me have it. Shoot, as they say.
Fred: Exactly. Duels were governed by a concept called “Code Duello,” which was in essence rules for duels. And the most famous thing we might know that kind of comes to mind is Hamilton, “The 10 rules for duels.” But the reality is Hamilton dying in a duel was a bit of an anomaly because, by the 1840s, people were like, “Yes, I’ll challenge you to a duel, but not if you want to die. That’s not really what we want to do.”
So basically, the point was that people did not want to die in a duel. If I challenged you to a duel, Denver, like I basically would say, “OK, I disagree with you. Let’s have a duel. But I’m going to give you the rules, and you get to write the rules.” And what would happen is you would write the rules so that it would be safer for you.
So the most famous duel that was never fought was… Abraham Lincoln was challenged to a duel and he said, “Sure. Let’s have a duel, but the rules are we’re going to fight with revolutionary war broadswords, and we’re not going to get within 12 feet of each other.” So it’s like rules, it’s like COVID-edition duel.
Denver: Yes. Social distancing rules. I like that.
Fred: Exactly. And so basically, they got to the dueling field and they were like, “This is so ridiculous” that they burst into laughter, and they became friends.
So really, that’s why across the globe, because there’ve been duels as a way of resolving issues for thousands of years; suddenly it just died away. You could argue that gun violence is a form of dueling that still continues, and even those sometimes have rules around them. So it’s an interesting, interesting thing to think of.
But the same applies to things like debate, like the rise of debate in politics to replace duel… was basically a replacement for duels. So we deal with values, but instead, we do it by debate as opposed to killing each other.
Denver: And no better way for society to emphasize their differences than through a debate and not anything in which we agree upon, no common ground. Well, let me segue from what you just talked about, and that’s gun control. That’s a perfect one, where we had a gun control debate. Now, how can that be reframed in a way that we can move this issue forward as a result of a constructive conversation?
Fred: That is so interesting that you ask that because you asked how it started me thinking about this book. In reality, one of the things that started me thinking about it was waking up one morning; there had been a shooting in Las Vegas. I was like, “Oh, there’s a shooting in Las Vegas,” and go to work, do all the things I’m doing. And then later in the afternoon, hearing that colleagues, not somebody I was very close with, but somebody who I did know, had been shot and killed in the Las Vegas shooting. And what I realized is that I had so internalized this news hook of gun violence daily that I no longer stopped to think about it.
And I will say, whatever you think of who was just elected, one of the last politicians who I think did the right thing in the wake of a shooting was actually Biden. Do you remember after the shooting… I get them confused, but it was Newtown, right? So it was after the…
Denver: In Connecticut.
Fred: In Connecticut, the first shooting… He basically like paused America for a month and was like, “We’re going to have hearings. We’re going to talk about this. We’re going to investigate this issue.” I got called to the White House to be in a conversation where ironically, the people in the room couldn’t agree on what gun violence was. And so, we could never even get through the conversation. But what he did was, he let us pause, and he let us mourn, and then he did some investigation into the process.
And so, what I really like about that is that it was a slow processing of something, and it did a lot of things for us societally. And what’s happened is increasingly, we don’t do that anymore, right?
Denver: Oh, we never pause. Yes.
Fred: We never pause.
Denver: I think we celebrate busy-ness. My schedule is full. I am logging in hundreds of thousands of miles. So, the idea of pausing is almost looked upon as a weakness.
Fred: Right. But recognize also that with the death of George Floyd and with others through not even gun violence, through worse or arguably worse means, protest is a form of pause, and protest is a form of mourning. So there are ways that we do it. We just have to acknowledge that that’s what it is. That we are actually—
Denver: Do you think, though, Fred, we would have had that pause the way we had that pause if there had not been the lockdown and COVID and everybody having that collective moment on TV? If we were all going around our busy lives, I wonder what would have happened. I don’t know.
Fred: I entirely agree with you. And it’s one of those things that is, I think, in essence, a positive outcome of this. It’s like it’s something where we’re all communally witnessing certain things at a moment. And we’ve seen collective mourning. And remember, collective mourning can be drinking a lot. It can be laughter. It can be celebrating. It can be crying. It can be screaming. It can be wailing. It can be anger. That’s part of the mourning process, but I think that we’ve actually been able to do that more collectively because we’ve all seen the same moments over and over and over and over again.
So I’m working on a piece right now that’s on the 10 most important conversations of the year, and one of them is just any time we did collective mourning. So whether it was RGB, George Floyd, you name it, whoever we were mourning, and Chadwick Boseman, the guy who played Black Panther…those moments of mourning were actually pretty important and universal and significant for us. And so, that’s a good thing.
Denver: I do, too. I think they’ve always said: you cannot have any learning unless you have a moment of reflection. And we don’t have a moment of reflection. That’s not the way our society is built at the moment, and we’re paying the price dearly for not taking those moments of reflection.
Fred: So honestly, when we were doing the work with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Elizabeth Warren, we were like: So, when someone’s bankrupt and they’re calling you, they’re not going to be able to learn anything. It’s like at that moment, you just have to give them some money and a hug. But as you come out of it, that’s the moment where people can relearn, like what needs to happen? So I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s exactly right.
Denver: Speaking about the lockdown, what is it about COVID, the impact of that on dialogue? — with individuals and between teams and in the workplace and on Zoom and all that? What’s your take on that? You do write about it.
Fred: I do write about it. And just the irony of that is that I had half a day that they were like, “You have to write a quick, short chapter on how to have a conversation during a pandemic, locked down, on Zoom.” And I might sound different than others, or I wonder how you feel about it, but I actually find that it has been as powerful having the conversations that we have had on lockdown. However, I will say that there’s a — I wrote a set of principles, which is in the book, on March 1, because I knew we were going to go on lockdown. I could see it. And anyone who was reading below the Trump headlines could see the evidence that we were going to see a pandemic going forward. It was just like you couldn’t get past those things.
Nowadays, if you’re a voice of difference…do not commit blithely. We need voices of difference in our conversations.
Denver: All you had to do was look across the Atlantic and say,” Here it comes.” It wasn’t–
Fred: That’s exactly right. And so, I basically rewrote the entire book, but not really for these four or five principles for how to have conversations during a pandemic.
And one is commit or don’t. Sounds familiar. We talked about that. It’s like it’s the same principles apply, and the only thing I would say is that nowadays if you’re a voice of difference, which I’ve always agreed with, do not commit blithely. We need voices of difference in our conversations.
Break the rules, all of them, which I already was arguing for in the chapter on constraints, but I’m just like: all new rules, whatever words. And my teams have been doing all new words. Don’t assume Zoom is another way to think about things, which is that I do some of my most important conversations one-on-one on a phone, which is a kind of intimacy that you don’t get on Zoom. So, when you can basically just talk to somebody and not see them, that’s it. People fall in love over the phone.
Denver: They do!
Fred: Yes. Exactly. When I was talking to somebody interviewing for the book, which didn’t make it in the book was… he was saying, “Gosh, I really worry that my son’s never going to fall in love because he doesn’t have a phone call. Like you can’t just have only voice-only conversation.” And I thought that was really interesting because he was basically saying there’s a level of intimacy that happens when you can just hear somebody and not have to see them or think about them in that way.
Denver: Well, if you would look at the stories that I consume and you asked me to recite them from memory, if I see it on the TV, I’ll do pretty well. But if I have listened to it in the car, on the radio with just the audio, just between that sound and me, I will memorize it almost entirely. It just has such an impact. And I’m saying well, wouldn’t the visual cues with that same story reinforce it? And for me, at least, no. It detracts. It’s just me and that voice as I’m driving along. And so, I do know the power of voice and just voice.
Fred: That’s right. First of all, you’ve got a podcast, so you would. But the reality is that just voice, it allows for a level of confessionality. The confession itself is, like in churches is done often in a confessional, so you can’t see the other person. So you open up in ways that you wouldn’t open up otherwise.
Denver: Yes. You feel protected. You’re buffered almost that you can be more open.
Fred: That’s exactly right. So I think you can do it, but you just have to shift the rules.
One more that I’ve actually been really into recently is really great dialogue on Zoom. Let’s say you’re on Zoom, think about how to add some suspense in. So I’ll do some wild things where I’m just suddenly like, “Hey guys, you didn’t know this, but we’re going to go into a democratized coffee chat, and it’s going to be the president of such and such country and like a Nigerian entrepreneur. And I’m like, you’re like in there. Just talk for five minutes.” And everyone was just like, “What just happened?” And so, people are getting riveted because it’s like reality TV. They’re like, “Oh my God. What’s going to happen next?” And so I think there’s a bunch of things we can do that can keep the kind of dynamism and amazingness of the conversation.
Denver: Well, we only have a few minutes left here, but I got to tell you I’m bracing myself. I’m prepared for anything that may come my way in the next few minutes. Thanks for the heads-up.
Fred: I didn’t do anything for you because it’s like… sometimes when I do a lecture because one of my friends was designing ……, my husband will walk into the room and he’ll be like, “Hi, Berlin. I love you,” and then walk out. And they’re like, “What?” And I’m like, “I did that on purpose.” But I thought I’d spare you any theatrics at this moment. So if you hadn’t asked…
…if you feel yourself getting angry, take a deep breath before you do anything, and that will give you just the pause you need to be like, “What’s triggering me? What’s the trigger here?” And then instead,ask for the conversation you want to have.
Denver: Let me ask you about this. Many people are going to be getting together for the holidays, not nearly as many as normally do, but there will still be some. And as you know, so many of the conversations that used to occur there about anything controversial, particularly politics, are completely off the table now in fear of just having a major food fight break out. Is there any way that families can get past that in order to have a thoughtful conversation about the issues of the day? Or is this really going to be our fate for the foreseeable future?
Fred: Well, I’m of multiple minds on this, which is that I’m going to not talk about politics, but I’ll talk about things like money. We know for instance that people who talked to more than one person about money make better financial decisions. If you could talk to three people about money, do that. I have talked about politics all the way through this whole cycle.
And I’ve talked with people who are Trump-voting about politics because I feel like it’s important. I talked with one waitress of mine. First time she’s going to vote, and she was voting Trump. And I was like, “Go for it. Just vote.” It’s the most important thing. You realize we’re not going to vote for that because we’re worried about…we want to make sure a candidate is there who’s going to make sure they’re protecting your rights to have a child or not have a child or whatever. And that’s all been fine because we really do it in this kind of very thoughtful and designed way.
If you can’t, and there’s a lot of people who can’t, that’s where I suggest: Just make silent. Just cook quietly. Or like play a game like play charades, which is a silent game. And it’s a good game because the constraints actually put power dynamics into different people’s voices.
I’m working on a piece right now that hopefully will go out today, which I’ll send you, which is on triggering. And it’s literally how to recognize when you’re being triggered, what to do to keep from being triggered, and then what to do in response. So basically, it’s quite simply: if you feel yourself getting angry, take a deep breath before you do anything, and that will give you just the pause you need to be like, “What’s triggering me? What’s the trigger here?” And then instead, ask for the conversation you want to have.
So, Denver, I’ll give you a really personal example, and I know we probably have to wrap up. But I have a friend who through the pandemic has been basically going out to me and saying, “You’re the scardiest person I know. I can’t believe you won’t just let me in, let me just talk.” And I find myself triggered. And so, I take a breath and I reflect on it and I’m like, “Hey,” in my mind, I’m like, “I’m a gay man. Raised in the ’80s. If I’d had sex with everybody who said ‘Trust me,’ I’d be dead.” That’s the reality. I spent my whole life being tested. That’s the way things were. And so that’s what was triggering me. And so, I was like, “Let’s just have a nice conversation about our days outside, socially distanced,” and he’d be like, “That’s fine.” And so, you can do that. You can stop and be like, “No, I don’t want to have that conversation, but I want to have this conversation.”
Denver: That makes an awful lot of sense. You know, such a big part of what you say there gets back to what you said earlier about taking the pause. So when something triggers you, if you can take that pause and recognize it, and then say to yourself, “Well, when this has happened to me in the past, how have I responded?” And then just think, “Is that serving me well or not?” And normally it’s like, “No. This is no longer serving me well,” and you think of an alternative way in which to respond that does serve you well. But it all starts with that awareness and that recognition and that pause.
Fred: That’s exactly right. Really well said. I appreciate it.
Denver: Let me close with this. Fred, what was the last great conversation you had, and what were the elements that made it so?
Fred: Well, I liked this one, so this was the last one. But I’ll throw a wildcard one. My dog and I are having pretty good conversations right now. I’m pretty big on inter-species conversations. But this morning as I was going back from my hike, my dog was just sitting in the middle of the field, like just sitting. And I was like, “Suki, what’s up? What are you sitting for?” And she goes like this. She just like gestures above her head, like up the hill. And I’m like, “Oh, she’s waiting for my husband who’s up the hill.” And so, it was just like, so–
Denver: Like Rin Tin Tin or somebody, or Lassie.
Fred: So, I have to be honest. I’ve been really surprised by how well we’re communicating right now. It’s kind of amazing. So I want to go inter-species conversations…
Denver: The book is titled Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication. If you’re looking to design conversations that can help bridge differences and achieve a common goal, then by all means, pick up this book. Hey, thanks for being here today, Fred. It was just a delight to have you on the program.
Fred: Thanks, Denver. It was a joy. I really liked it, too.
Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes for free here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.