A "Conversation Night"... an Innovative Way to Collaborate and Connect
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
Don’t you find networking events hard work? I usually find myself scanning the room for someone who looks amiable enough to chat to, just so I feel I’m doing my job. Inevitably we talk about what we do, why we’re here and, finding no real reason to continue talking, we both wander on to the next conversation. Business cards are exchanged and when I find them, days sometimes weeks later, scuffed at the bottom of my bag, bearing the marks of a stray lip liner, since I can’t remember who they belonged to, out they go. That’s networking… a little bit awkward and fairly superficial.
Much to my surprise, the “Conversation Night” with Hargraves Institute wasn’t like that at all. I left feeling energised and inspired. I really talked to people, learned a thing or two about myself as well as lots about others. Given that it was a Friday evening (usually the worst time for a work event), you had to buy your own wine and there were around 50 people there, mostly strangers, I was genuinely surprised that I enjoyed it so much.
Juliet Chandler has been working with Hargraves Institute to develop a more meaningful format for professional conversations. She has drawn from the work of Roman Krznaric who’s made his life work as a cultural thinker and writer on the art of living and social change. His book, Empathy, has been published in over 20 languages and he has been the Project Director at the Oxford Muse, the avant-garde foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life.
In an article for The Guardian (“My children became my greatest teachers”), Krznaric says that he learned about the power of empathy, when interviewing his father, who for the whole of his life had been fairly withdrawn. It took seven years of conversation to understand his father’s experiences in Poland during the Second World War. He says he was astonished to learn that you can know people for years and not really know them. He also learned that:
“ …conversation is one of the best ways of creating empathic bonds. Getting beyond superficial talk and discussing what really matters in our lives, and making ourselves emotionally vulnerable to others in the process, helps to spin invisible threads that bind people together.”
(Empathy is the imaginative act of stepping into the shoes of another person and viewing the world from their perspective. You can find out more here.)
The Hargraves Institute event was all about having deep conversations. Guests were invited to pair up, choosing someone they hadn’t met previously. The evening was divided into three “courses”: entrée, main and dessert. With each course a menu of questions was provided, from which the pairs could choose. They included questions about:
- Regret and how it impacts on society.
- How fear prevents us from progressing.
- Changing how we talk about innovation.
At the end of each course, after about 15 or 20 minutes, pairs could continue to talk or break up and find another to chat to.
I met and had unexpected conversations with three people. We barely got through one question, let alone the eight that were suggested. Not only that, as the evening wound up and we all milled around, there was a palpable sense of intimacy. Nobody was in a hurry to leave so we all continued to socialise and talk about a whole range of things.
As much as I love my work, it was a relief not to have to do the elevator pitch. Instead, it felt like the conversation was helping us to find common interests and if there was some reason to talk about work it would emerge organically, as part of the natural flow in conversation. If not, it didn’t matter, the conversation sparked other ideas and a sense of well-being that made it all worthwhile.
It made me think about how we operate in the world of business. So much of our interaction is online, through social media or email. There’s always a time pressure to get our message across or find solutions—we focus on what we do and how to say it before the listener zones out. Chatting about issues or feelings is characterised as wasting time.
Yet time and again we are told that we need to make real connections and build good relationships to enjoy business success. How can you do that in 140 characters? Or, if you only talk about work and ignore the rest of your being?
This conversation night provides a way to change the way we are in our professional lives and opens up opportunities to build relationships and explore ideas in an authentic way. Hargraves Institute specialises in innovating the way we collaborate and connect, so it is no surprise that they are the first to try out these ideas in Australia.