How to Have More Meaningful Conversations

In business and in pleasure, conversations are our roadmaps through the day. They are how we share information, feelings, and ideas, and the nature of our conversations dictates the all-important relationships between ourselves and those around us.

It’s no wonder that conversing can be pretty energy-consuming. And we can all be guilty of avoiding eye contact with others for fear of being drawn into a draining conversation from which we think we will take no value. Yet a conversation is never about one person: you get out of it what you put in, and a more important question to ask yourself before getting stuck in is not so much ‘what can I get from this conversation’ as ‘what can I bring?’

Making that conversation worthwhile for all involved begins with committing to it wholeheartedly. Putting your visual attention elsewhere – let’s face it, we’re talking about phones and computer screens here – literally diminishes your brain’s capacity to deal with the words that you hear. And that’s before we even get into the importance of demonstrating your respect for the person you’re talking with (or at least their right to be listened to!). Keep eye contact, repeat difficult concepts back to make sure you understand properly, and you will find the other person remains more engaged with you and your ideas, too.

After all, there is an important distinction between just hearing, and actually listening to someone. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to mute your inner voice while conversing, especially if it’s a heated chat and you have mental rebuttals just queuing up to be voiced. Deliberately process both the logic and the emotion behind what the other person is saying, though, and you should find a greater level of empathy arises between the two of you, improving the chances of a mutually agreeable outcome.

Watch out not just for what you say, but what you don’t say, to engender empathy. Giving unsolicited advice, for example, is likely to cause the other person to shut down on you – whether you’re offering it for their benefit or for your own! A better approach if you intuit that they could do with guidance or fresh ideas is to ask questions and get the situation out in the air, helping them to see the lay of the land more clearly and opening up opportunities to work towards successful resolutions.

Stories are another way to provide guidance or wisdom without coming across like a know-it-all. Folk remember stories far better than they can recall statistics – it’s just the way our brains are wired – and meaningful narrative will engage each of you on both an intellectual and an emotional level. A good story tends to revolve around conflict, and a good connection between the characters involved and the themes of the anecdote. Just remember one thing: always tell the short version.

Social topics can also help to open things up and create a bond between talkers. Too much work talk gets everyone down, while sharing or discovering something unexpected about each other’s outside interests and opinions is an excellent way to broaden a relationship and increase the options for future encounters and solutions. Be wary how much you talk about yourself, but if there’s a topic that you’re passionate about then that passion should come across even if you stray away from your own experiences and ask questions about the other person’s feelings on the subject.

Now you’ve figured out how to have deeper, more impactful conversations, just be wary of overdoing it. Not everyone is up for a deep conversation every time or all the time. People are busy both in their outward tasks and in their inner minds, and there’s nothing like a carefully judged silence to let people relax and process the events of the day. In particular, it’s been shown that an unfavourable balance between lots of small talk and less regular, deeper conversations can impact upon an individual’s reported levels of happiness.

This new infographic lays out the top principles for excellent conversations in a straightforward way, and it’s worth checking in on from time to time to tune-up your chit-chat game – making the experience of spending time with others more fulfilling for yourself and those around you.

John is a digital nomad specialising in leadership, digital media and personal growth topics, his passions include world cinema and biscuits. A native Englishman, he is always on the move, but can most commonly be spotted in the UK, Norway, and the Balkans.

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Passion Versus Profession – Are Management Consulting and Music Production Really That Different?

As an aspiring management consultant who has also been working as a music producer for several years, composing, arranging, and producing songs for multiple artists, I get a lot of questions about this seemingly strange combination of interests. “If you love music so much, why don’t you do it as a full-time job?” “If you are really that passionate about consulting, shouldn’t you spend more of your free time reading about business trends instead of focusing on your hobby?”

Yes, at first glance the two areas seem very different: Management consulting is thought of as a highly rational and logical process while music is perceived to be purely creative and irrational; it should come from the heart. Consulting is about rigid analysis, solutions founded on facts and numbers, while music is founded on individual taste and perception.

Nevertheless, I don’t think there needs to be a conflict between passion and profession. In fact, most successful consultants I have met throughout the years are really passionate about things that have nothing to do with business – for many good reasons. Not only do hobbies function as a great outlet for work-related stress (and let’s not kid ourselves, a consulting career isn’t exactly stress-free), they also give you a different outlook on many problems you have to solve at work. Let me demonstrate this based on my own experience.

The similarities between consultants and music producers start with the reasons why they are hired in the first place. For consultants, it’s not that companies cannot think of any solutions to their problems themselves. It’s rather that they don’t have the time or personnel to work out solutions, since they have to keep everyday operations running; they don’t always have the necessary experience in the desired area or market; and most of all they need a fresh outside perspective to avoid thinking in familiar patterns.

Likewise, musicians usually know how to play their instruments and have great ideas, but they need producers to guarantee a quick and professional end result. They may not have the necessary equipment to record adequately; they may not have the necessary experience with the mixing process to make a song sound competitive relative to other commercial releases; and most of all they can benefit immensely from a fresh perspective and new ideas regarding arrangement, instrumentation, and effects.

When musicians arrive for a recording session, they usually have a good idea of what they want their song to sound like, but may leave with a very different result. It is also important to involve multiple people in the production process – most songs you hear on the radio have different people responsible for composition, performance, mixing, and mastering, which helps to spot mistakes and prevent what I call “creative bubbles” – when you get so used to thinking about a certain concept that you stop being open to other ideas.

Moreover, the way management consultants interact with their clients is similar to the way music producers interact with artists. Both require a certain degree of empathy and understanding for client-specific issues. At the beginning of each project, it is any consultant’s responsibility to understand the client’s problem, unique background, and boundaries concerning the project. For example, cutting research and development costs when the client’s reputation is based on innovative capabilities wouldn’t make sense in the long run, even if it seems to be the most efficient solution. Likewise, proposing a merger without understanding the two companies’ cultures first may not lead to desired results.

When music producers write or arrange songs for artists, it is just as important to gain a solid understanding of the artist’s musical style, personality, and image. Every sound or word used portrays the artist in a certain way and can make or break a record. The longer you work with someone, the better you get to know them and the better you become at catering to their specific needs. That’s also why many large corporations have been working with the same consulting firm for several years.

Last but not least, good management consultants are just like good musicians because they don’t use standard solutions. Of course, they know what generally works based on experience and data, but they can also tailor successful concepts to the client’s unique situation. While it will be obvious to most readers that consultancies may use statistical tools in order to determine so-called “industry recipes”, similar concepts apply to the music industry. The famous “Four Chord Song” by the Australian comedy group Axis of Awesome, for instance, shows how many popular hits throughout the years have used the same four chords – and while this chord progression seems to be a proven formula, the songs don’t sound the same when listened to as individual tracks. The key is to adjust a successful concept so it fits the singer’s voice, genre, and instrumentation. Similarly, consultants need to adjust business recipes so that they match the client’s core competencies, industry, and organisational structure as well as culture.

It seems as if management consulting and music production aren’t really that different after all and I can guarantee you that a similar logic apply to your passion and profession. You shouldn’t be discouraged to do what you love just because it doesn’t necessarily fit into your job’s stereotype. Actually, spending time on your hobbies can make you better at your job – there’s always much to learn.

Max Kulaga is a finalist reading Economics and Management at the University of Oxford. As a former intern at L.E.K. Consulting in London and President of one of Oxford’s largest business societies, the German-born is keen on sharing his experiences and knowledge about the consulting industry.

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5 Secrets for Improved Productivity

Life comes packaged with only so many minutes, around 40 million of them. Making the most of each one will help you to become more productive and, ultimately, achieve your goals.

There are many different ingredients that combine to determine your productivity including the time of day, physical environment, your level of motivation, as well as your innate ability to stay focused.

You may be a born dreamer with your head in the clouds, or a practical no-nonsense time and motion expert.  You may be a night owl, or an early riser.  Whatever your natural tendencies, there are a number of common sense strategies that can help you be as productive as possible.

This post surveys five factors that affect your productivity, and provides suggestions for managing them to your advantage.

1. Embrace Your Chronotype

People are predisposed to be more or less productive at different times of day. The terms early bird and night owl don’t just describe behavior, but innate biological differences in preferences that people have for mornings versus nighttime. This preference is also referred to as a chronotype, which means an inclination toward periods of activity and rest at certain times of the day.

This can be a confusing concept. You might logically assume that energy reserves are cultivated with sleep at night, in the same way that you charge a cell phone battery. If this were true, your energy would gradually diminish over the course of a day as it was used up. However, some people find their spark at night. Understanding your particular productivity schedule is critical to maximizing your potential each day. Instead of forcing yourself to write a paper at three in the afternoon when you might have the urge to nap, let your brain do the same task at ten in the morning or ten at night, or whenever you find yourself routinely awake and ready to work.

2. Drown Out Distracting Sounds

Are you the one in the office plugged into headphones listening to Pandora hour after hour? You may want to stop and reconsider. Silence can be productivity’s best friend.

There are two main types of background noise that often occur in the workplace: white noise and intermittent talking. The first is similar to the hustle and bustle of a city with its traffic, pedestrians, and the murmur of strangers that all blend together. This type of noise can be easy to ignore and does not seem to negatively impact performance. In fact, research suggests that a moderate level of white noise actually boosts creativity for most people. In contrast, intermittent talking occurs when conversations between colleagues stop and start, diverting our attention from the task at hand. Many people become severely distracted by this pattern of interruption.

Sound affects different personalities differently.  Introverts, people who tend to be more sensitive and easily over stimulated, are more susceptible [pdf] to distractions from sound. Extroverts are slightly better at tuning out the noise around them, as are people with skilled working memories.

Cultivate a space free from distracting noise, and see how much you can accomplish.  You may benefit from downloading a free white noise app like Rain Rain or White Noise, which provide the right kind of background noise that won’t break your flow of concentration.  Alternatively, you can try drowning out distracting noise with the soothing sounds of Ludovico Einaudi.

3. Paint It … Blue?

Being surrounded by appropriate colors is a severely underutilized strategy for increasing productivity. Red, yellow, blue, and green have profoundly different effects on our emotions and can affect your level of productivity.

Red is a stimulating colour that can energise you to take action, which is why stop signs are red, and why the Email Sign Up Form for Tom’s blog has a red subscribe button.

In contrast, blue is a more soothing colour. The calming effect of having your office walls painted light blue may be just what you need to create a more relaxed atmosphere, helping you to concentrate and think more clearly.

Understanding your personality and what you need in order to stay productive is central to choosing suitable colors for your workplace.

4. Stay Organised

Research conducted by Princeton University has found that a chaotic environment has a negative impact on productivity. Keeping your computer files digitally organized can have an enormously positive effect as digital clutter can simultaneously consume time and produce stress.

At the office, utilizing the right tools can help to streamline routine tasks. Take time to figure out which tasks eat up your hours at work, and then figure out ways to automate, expedite, outsource, or eliminate them. This may mean changing your schedule, adopting a new technology, or even engaging outside consultants.

5. Take Responsibility

Motivation is often driven by a sense of responsibility. The pace at which you work, the amount of material you get through, and the quality of the work that you complete are all affected by your sense of responsibility for the work.

Taking responsibility can lead you to claim ownership of the work. When you are emotionally attached to a task, you tend to make a bigger effort. Unsurprisingly, research found that almost 80% of people feel that a sense of responsibility stimulates productivity. Deadlines are a great way to increase productivity by creating a sense of responsibility to plan, prioritise, and work efficiently.

Final Thoughts

Chronotypes, the work environment, technology, and a sense of responsibility all play a role in determining how productive you can be. Understanding what time of day suits you best, what distracts you, which technologies can streamline your work, and how to take responsibility will help you to reach your potential.

Stay focused, utilize your resources, and enjoy the results!

Ashley Wilson is a freelance writer interested in business, marketing, and tech topics. She has been known to reference Harry Potter quotes in casual conversation and enjoys baking homemade treats for her husband and their two felines, Lady and Gaga. You can reach Ashley on Twitter @ashleygwilson.

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