The Tao of creative conversations: tapping into better business talk
If Confucius or Lao Tzu had strolled back through the portals of time, after paying the relevant toll of course, and found themselves in a new age startup conference room with people in the midst of an animated discussion, two things would have happened. Firstly, after their initial astonishment, the gathered team members would have complimented the two wise sages on their ultra-hip look (flowing robes, facial hair and all). Secondly the erudite duo smiling back kindly would have gently inquired, ‘Do you know what you are talking about?’
This often captures the state of most group conversations conducted in business environments these days. They tend to be cut and dry. They render any kind of inspiration impotent. They lean on PowerPoint presentations, even when there is no power in the points being made. They drag on becoming so dull that watching one’s smartphone battery life status drop a few percentage points becomes all the more interesting.
And yet conversations are such a great resource! They equalise any deficits in infrastructural and financial advantages that established conglomerates might have over startups, essentially because of the limitless potential of the human mind. All it sometimes takes is one great idea to emerge from a conversation. But that is not as easy as it sounds. It has to be nurtured and coaxed to make an appearance. The right climate has to be engineered for creativity to blossom.
What might be the wisdom these two goliaths of the eastern intellectual tradition have to offer on this subject? Let us take an insightful and irreverent look at some of the cryptic clues their legacies might offer.
Things are better ‘once upon a time’
Usually conversations around solving a challenge or planning for the future are very data-driven. While that is necessary and provides a foundation for contexts to be set and competitive arenas to be established, numbers tend to become an obsession with the participants, and not in a good way. This is why tales need to be told, both tall and short. Narratives have always helped add rich perspective to numbers. Stories have the knack of transporting us into a different, more imaginative and empathetic realm. They offer great metaphors for our own problems and challenges. Citing how someone in another context looked at the same situation differently sparks thought starters. Dwelling constantly on how things add to the story of one’s own startup has the ability to make it an epic one.
It is one thing to cite millions are now sampling your offering. But sharing a video clip of an enthusiastic user waxing eloquent on her experience has an altogether different and more exhilarating effect on the room. Stories are the cerebral fodder of the human race. Welcoming them, in different forms, in board rooms can only serve to whet the appetite for groundbreaking ideas to emerge.
Seek better questions, before answers are embarked upon
Closely following on the heels of data making an entry, is the human disposition of jumping instantly into the act of emerging with solutions. Perhaps it is a corollary of our education system, call it the ‘examination paper mentality’; that we feel the need to come up with answers, and very quickly at that. But first asking questions, especially beyond the obvious ones already stated in the agenda, can always take the conversation far.
Questions can redefine the problem, and help us see the same situation with completely new eyes or from an entirely different angle. The story of many important inventions can be traced back to the point in time where someone, even a random person not directly associated with the project, asked an interesting question. In fact, leaving the session with more questions in mind than answers is not necessarily such a bad thing. From the Upanishads to the didactic method of Socrates, great minds have always known that in great questions lie all the answers.
When a detour presents itself, take it
One of the most debilitating assumptions associated with such sessions is that they have to be focused along the straight and narrow. Almost comically, every team also seems to have its own set of ‘conversational police’ that take it upon themselves to ensure a strict adherence to this rather constricting path. But inspiration has a more meandering mindset. Talking about something else altogether often provides not just relief from the building tension and anxiety, but also has the impressive side effect of allowing the mind the luxury of making some truly lateral connections.
Along those lines, having physical props that people can play around with also helps. By engaging other senses and triggering touch you can design great leaps in thinking. Rituals that take the group out of the room can also work wonders. Think ‘sporting timeouts’. A moment of disconnect from the problem allows the subconscious mind to work up some magic. After all it’s worth remembering that Archimedes had his moment of epiphany in a bathtub. Taking a detour hence frequently results in a shower of ideas.
It is not a necessary clause to fill up a pause
Human beings, especially those in the business world, are uncomfortable with silences. Some of them even take it personally. It is not always necessary to fill up the pauses that naturally occur in a brainstorming session. These are actually vital moments, when the crescendo of communication has abated, for the mind to string together some melodious cerebral symphonies.
A period of quiet has profoundly deep spiritual effects, as any ascetic would readily testify. It allows the mind to hear its own thoughts, a rarity these days in itself. It is a pit stop of mental rejuvenation. It is a time to consider all that has gone before and reflect on it. It is an avenue to give one’s own inner voice priority. There is ancient wisdom embedded in that quote ‘Silence is Golden’; because it harkens to the fact that after silence emerge ideas that deserve resounding cheers.
Laugh at your serious problems
Finally, it is essential to draw inspiration from the Laughing Buddha. One way to interpret this iconic symbol is to conclude that in laugher lies true enlightenment. It should also inspire behaviour in modern-day thinking forums in business as well. Humour is very strongly correlated to creativity. It works on making lateral connections; as does creativity. Ushering in humour not only helps in diffusing the tension in the room, but also builds connections between people by breaking down barriers. In that climate people become just that much more open to build upon each other’s ideas. It also makes the session far more interesting. It adds an energy, sparkle and vitality to the entire process. This ensures people stay engaged all the way through and that can only ensure better results. The challenge of startups chasing innovation today might actually boil down to a laughing matter.
In the end Confucius and Lao Tzu might not be easily available as brainstorming consultants these days, but there is a lot of scope for ancient wisdom to be applied in this vital modern-day process. Conversations are our super power to solve the problems that we face. But that power can only be kindled when all the participants are truly activated. Conversations don’t need to be endured; they have to be enjoyed. Surely the way we conduct business conversations these days is something to talk about.
(Edited by Evelyn Ratnakumar)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)