When in Mexico, Don’t Do as North Americans Do! – Case Study – Learning Culturally Appropriate Behavior

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Doing the culturally appropriate thing in our home country doesn’t always work in other cultures.

When we travel (or live) in another culture there are cultural rules that we need to learn and follow. These rules of interaction, when observed, make our communications flow easily and open the possibility of making deeper connections with others.

If these rules are violated, however, awkward moments ensue and the possibility of a successful communication or business transaction can suddenly come to a screeching halt.

 Case Study

We were recently on vacation in a mountain town in Mexico eating lunch in a local restaurant. A North American woman walked into the restaurant with a large vase of flowers. We discovered later that she was setting up for a cocktail event at the restaurant; the restaurant owner (Mexican) was standing behind the bar. The American marched into the restaurant, obviously annoyed, and turned aggressively to the Mexican.

American: “Did you get my email?”

Mexican: Responded with silence and avoided eye contact.

American: “I emailed you on Tuesday [3 days ago] because I wanted you to have the tables set when I arrived.”

Mexican: Does not respond.

American: [voice is getting louder]: “DID you get my email on Tuesday?”

Mexican: [now agitated, avoids eye contact with the American while brushing away imaginary crumbs off the bar counter.] Then, after a few more seconds of silence, he says in a quiet voice, “Yes.”

American: “Then why didn’t you answer? I needed the tables set.”

Mexican: Responds again with silence.

American: “Can you have someone set up the tables now?”

Mexican: “Yes, we’ll set them up in 15 minutes after the birthday party in the room you are using has ended.”

After the interaction, we asked the North American where she was from and how long she had lived in that town. She said she was the United States and had lived there for 10 years. She should have known better.


  • What went wrong in this conversation?
  • How could she have achieved her objective (of having the tables ready) without producing awkwardness and avoidance from the Mexican owner?

She was out of sync with the Mexican culture because she did not modify her behavior so as to,

  1. Show respect for social protocol: The American neglected starting the interaction with a greeting. In the formal Mexican culture, when two people encounter each other, they always begin: “Hola, buenos dias. Como estas?” Following that, each conversant asks some polite questions or comments about family, the weather, how business is going, before launching into the business at hand. The “bottom line” in Mexico is primarily about first establishing good will and relationships.
  1. Work to save face. The Mexican was embarrassed by the public nature of the confrontation. Everyone in the restaurant heard that he had not responded to the email. If the shoe were on the other foot, as a Mexican, he would not blame others like the American woman did. He would diffuse the situation by taking the blame himself.
  1. Communicate indirectly when making requests. The Mexican use of the subjunctive which indicates e.g. “with your permission/if you are able, can you….?” The power goes to the person you are asking, not the person making the demands. As a Mexican one does not make demands or assert power with one’s requests.
  1. Avoid conflict wherever possible. Mexicans have some difficulty in saying “No.” They work hard to please others so they tell you what you want to hear. They feel that their saying no will disappoint you. They would prefer to accommodate but sometimes they know they cannot.

In effective cross-cultural communication we adapt to others. We do not expect them to do things our way. We know that we can never fully behave like Mexicans nor can we perfectly mirror what they consider appropriate behavior.

But we can learn culture-appropriate behavior and do our best to show respect to our hosts.

What are your thoughts on this case study?

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Time – How Not To Drive Yourself and Others Crazy

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We all have issues about time. I tend to be a tad obsessive about being on time to the point that I have earned the name “Big Ben”. So here are some of my strategies for not getting in trouble with others on the issue of time.

Strategy One:“When in Mexico don’t do what North Americans do”

At the Mexican immigration office a few months ago an official told us to wait “Un momento (One moment) for our visa issue to be resolved!” I replied teasingly, “Dos momentos (two moments)” We both smiled because of a common understanding that it would be two hours. And it was.

Another time I was waiting in a bank line in Mexico that seemed to be taking forever. I muttered a few choice words under my breath when a Mexican woman turned to me and said, “Sir, you need to calm down”.

What about when we struggle with people in our own culture over time? It helps to have a plausible explanation for the many reasons people relate to time.

Strategy Two: Don’t be centered on what you want.

There are basically two views of time. The one, a liner view, believes that time is scarce and needs to be managed carefully. Here terms like “A waste of time”, “Time is money”, and “Time is passing too quickly” are frequently heard. This is the dominant view in the USA.

The other view is that time is plentiful and abundant. People who believe this often tell us, “Chill out” or “There are more important things than time”.

Most people can shift from one value to the other depending on the context. But others rigidly adhere to their view of time. I know a man who would not see a person if they came 5 minutes late for a business appointment.  I once taught in an academic institution where the head of the department routinely came 15-20 minutes late for meetings. With ten people waiting that was a waste of 200 minutes (my values are showing here). Why did he behave this way? My theory was that he thought that we should adapt to his needs and not necessarily him to ours. We managed him by extinguishing his behavior by leaving the conference room if he had not arrived in the first ten minutes.

Strategy Three: Don’t confuse  doing with being.

Time conscious people believe “I do therefore I am”. From day one it seems that the clock and a schedule ran their lives. Anything out of sync with this is considered either a waste of time or extremely annoying. They become anxious, antsy, or bored when they are not busy. They find slow vacations very difficult to tolerate and cannot wait to get back to work. The idea of being fully in the present and aimlessly dreaming or wandering through a day is quite foreign to them.

 How To Keep From Going Crazy Over Time

The key to this whole discussion is for us to find ways not to drive each other crazy over the clock. Not that one time perspective is superior to the other but when perspectives clash we need attitude adjusters like,

  1. A belief that my time is no more important than yours.
  2. The practice of staying wholly in the present.
  3. Seeking to adapt to cultural/personality differences.
  4. Don’t try to change the other person.
  5. The use of a good dose of humor (especially laughing at ourselves) about our quirks over time.
  6. Avoiding binary thinking like choosing one-way of thinking over another.
  7. Stop trying to control others with your needs around time.
  8. Live by two key words. Flexibility and adaptability.


So how do you manage the cultural differences or personality quirks over time?

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The Drivers of Change – Emotional More Than Rational

People are more likely to change their position for emotional rather than rational reasons.

In the political arena try convincing a person from the “other” side with “facts” and your argument drops like a lead brick. And when someone tells you that you need to change think about your resistance.

But there are times that change we must especially if our behavior derails our work and relationships.

However, have you thought that the person telling you to change may be giving you an important gift?

That is especially true if they are keenly attuned to your situation and care for you deeply. What if it were,

  • A customer telling you that the quality of your service is slipping and you needed a new approach?
  • A doctor informing you that you should change your diet or you will die?
  • A boss telling you that you need to learn delegation skills or you would not be promoted?
  • A close friend telling you that your abrasive speech was alienating others?
  • A spouse telling an alcohol abusing partner to get help or he/she would leave?

Few would deny that each of the above would not indicate a need for change. What then are the factors that cause us to change? That reminds me of a joke. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Only one, but the light bulb must want to change. We change because we want to. What drives that want?

 The Drivers of Change

 There is strong evidence that change is generated by two emotionally based factors.

  1. The consequences of changing

A case that comes to mind is that of an executive who was told that he would not be promoted unless he learned better collaboration skills. He was one of the smartest people in his organization. He was quite capable of making great business decisions on his own. However, his team needed to be included in the decision-making process in order to feel that they had skin in the game. The message – change and get promoted.

  1. The emotional drive to influence others.

Here the question is whether the drive to change is rational or emotional. Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions.” Reason defends the underlying emotions. And these emotions are driven by the underlying motivation to influence others. We change because we are keenly interested in what others think/feel. Now for people who don’t care what others think or are oblivious of the opinion of others these social factors don’t even factor into the change process.

Finally, the proposed change needs to be linked to the biggest emotional driver of all,  what you want and how that impacts others.

 Now Change

 So you want to change? What next?

  • Seek honest and direct feedback from those who matter to you.
  • Regard feedback as a gift and not a judgment.
  • Look for the emotional reasons for your resistance e.g. your deeply held cultural beliefs.
  • Decide that not changing can derail our job or relationships.
  • Recognize that we don’t often have a good 360-degree perspective on the impact of our own behavior.
  • Link the change to something you or the other person really wants.
  • Find evidence-based ways to change our behavior.

So now go ahead and make the change happen.

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How to Select the Best Senior Executives

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For several years now I have worked with global organizations to assess and select their senior executives.

Here are ten questions that need to be answered affirmatively before the person qualifies for a senior executive position. Each one relates to concrete behaviors and not vague personality tendencies.

  1. Does the person have energy and enthusiasm for the position?
  2. Are they compatible with the corporate culture as well as having the capability to take it in new directions?
  3. Can they energize and inspire everyone with the example they set?
  4. Do they have proven competencies for tomorrow’s position?
  5. Can they design and execute on a strategy? Do they have a clear picture where they want to take the organization?
  6. Do they have the capability to get the job done through others?
  7. Do they have the ability and passion to fill the leadership pipeline with leaders for the future?
  8. Do they hold people accountable for deliverables without micromanaging them?
  9. Do they meet the organization’s “gold standard” leadership requirements for the executive position?
  10. Do they have the knowledge, skills, and track record to deliver on major business goals?

If you are seeking an executive position with expanded scope how do you rate yourself?

How would your peers and bosses rate you for that position?

What other questions would you ask when interviewing a candidate for a senior executive position in your organization?

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Teaching A “One-Trick Pony” New Ways – Beyond Simplistic Thinking

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We often try to manage our fast moving highly complex world by breaking down problems and solutions to one simple formula or solution. This happens in every domain from politics to medicine to health and to religion. For example,

Politics – The problem of the unemployed – The single solution to some conservatives has to do with character (The unemployed do not want to work). To some liberals the solution has to do with circumstances (The unemployed need someone to help them get a leg up).

Health and well-being – The problem of heart disease/cancer. The single solution to some is a vegetarian diet or controlling the toxins in the environment. The single solution to others is surgery or chemotherapy.

As a result we live in a world where many claim to have the quick and sometimes the only solution to everything from cancer to heartbreak. We hear advice like,

“Just use ‘natural’ medicine”

“Give me the quickest plausible solution”

“Just do it”

“Just say no”

Many times such mandates make the problem worse. For instance, a person addicted to drugs cannot “just say no”. They take the drug that eventually takes them. You cannot “will” your way out of an addiction.

In all instances a pony with one trick, practitioner with one solution or researcher with one pet theory, may have part of the solution to the problem for some people some of the time.

Ultimately a one solution approach can be dangerous to our health, reduce us to simplistic thinking, and ultimately does not comprehensively solve the challenge we face in our lives or business.

So beware of people who tell you “all you need is!”

 Breaking Free 

Learning a more comprehensive approach to our solutions implies that we,

  1. Recognize the depth of our addiction to quick answers in every realm of our lives. I call this the “bumper sticker” syndrome. Just examine any of the social media outlets that are filled with such slogans.
  2. Realize that there are evidence-based solutions to many of life’s thorniest problems. For instance research on the science of happiness indicates that making a meaningful contribution to the common good and having healthy social networks are the chief contributors to human happiness.
  3. Acknowledge the complexity of most of the challenges we face. For example, healthy living comes from more than just jogging and eating well. Nor is health just based on case studies from the lives of a few outliers like Jack LaLanne.
  4. Learn to tolerate ambiguity that comes with living the questions rather than having the answers. A sign of maturity is the capacity to live gracefully in the face of ambiguity. Let’s face it. Most of life falls into the gray zone.
  5. Pay the price of bucking the “one solution” system. One does not win popularity contests or enhance one’s marketing campaign by subscribing to points 1-4. Imagine telling your boss that the quick answer she wants is not immediately available but you need time for a deeper root cause analysis.
  6. Balance your rapid analytic thinking with slower more deliberate thought that includes unconscious processes as sometimes revealed in dreams. Note also how many problems find solutions when you are not working on them or while you are jogging. So slow down to move ahead.
  7. Adopt a multi-modal diverse approach to dealing with challengesBroadening your horizons in your search for knowledge must include philosophy, theology, literature, the arts, the quiet of nature, exposure to other cultures, and other disciplines/positions outside of your own. Be willing to change your position in the light of new and more compelling data.

David Brooks in the NY Times points out that unless we have diversity of thought we have “ a shallow, amputated worldview”.

Instead of having a pony that only manages to pull off one trick, expand the range of capabilities that go outside of your as well as the pony’s comfort zone.

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Use Your Imagination – Increase Your Influence

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It is amazing how influential you can be in selling your ideas if you can capture the imagination of your audience. People will think differently, overcome their internal resistance, and commit themselves to new and more effective ways of doing business. One path to the imagination is to ask questions that begin with, “What if?” and “why not?” What if everyone used credit/debit cards and we eventually had a cashless society?” What if we could find a way to distribute food resources and in so doing ended world hunger? What if we could create applications that make our customers wildly successful? Why not create an education system that gives every qualified student a shot at graduating from college?

Example from History

Robert Kennedy once inspired a nation by asking a powerful question, “Some people see things the way they are and ask why? I see things the way they could be and ask “why not?”  By challenging his audience to imagine a better world (the ways things could be…), Kennedy invited them to think differently, to not accept the status quo. By then asking the simple question, “Why not?” Kennedy removed the constraints that hold us back from pursuing dreams by reminding us that we all have the power to overcome obstacles to achieve our goals. The result? As a nation we were inspired to set higher goals and persevere in reaching them. Asking powerful questions that challenge our conventional way of thinking can give us hope and awaken the latent possibilities within us. Moreover, posing questions that challenge us to become personal agents of change empower us to act.

The Executive’s Dilemma

As a highly gifted IT executive Jane was familiar with the challenge of selling her original ideas to more senior stakeholders many of whom had little understanding of the technology involved. In her early years she strongly believed that the facts alone of her argument would speak for themselves. Her batting average for getting ideas adopted using analytical arguments was about average. But then a colleague encouraged her to paint verbal pictures as well by ask pointed questions beginning with the words, “Imagine if….? “Imagine if our customers could go to our company website and apply for a mortgage and get an immediate answer to their request?” The asking of the question touched several issues in her audience. There was no mention of the needed technology or turf battles over the allocation of the budget for key projects. Her question would,

  1. Meet a primary corporate goal of customer satisfaction.
  2. Break the gridlock in the budget allocation debate and refocus on business priorities.
  3. Focus on a “can do” approach
  4. Provoke curiosity in the audience around a challenge they themselves had faced personally.
  5. View the problem they faced in a whole new way.
  6. Pull them in as architects of highly desired solutions.

Your Challenge

  1. What innovative ideas do you have that potentially solve major technical, business, or people challenges in your organization?
  1. What sort of resistance have you run into from major stakeholders that keeps your idea from getting off the ground?
  1. What burning question, (What if? Or Imagine when?), could you ask that will bypass the resistance and actually turn your opponents into supporters?
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Managing A Difficult Boss

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Most of my professional life has been devoted to studying/working with inspiring leaders. However, once in a while I hear about difficult bosses that cause personal pain.

Some changes are almost impossible to make, like where the boss,

Uses the ideas of others to forward his/her own career

Steps on people on the way to the top

Frequently breaks promises

Engages in downright emotionally abusive behavior.

However, there is a category of difficult boss that you think you can’t manage but you can change. These include where the boss

Has a communication style different to yours

Is an introvert and you are an extravert

Comes from a different generation

Sees more of the bigger picture than you do

In both instances, where the change seems out of your hands, remember, you are in control of your response to the difficult situation.

Here’s how.

This article is not intended to reinforce a “victim” mentality that leaves people feeling helpless. Nor is it about putting the entire blame on a boss. It’s about learning skills to manage difficult relationships up the leadership chain.

What You Cannot Change

Better ways to respond to difficult situations from our leaders without stepping on land mines is to start telling ourselves,

  1. “I am worth more than this”

There comes a moment when we wake up to the fact that we can do without highly negative interactions. This awareness may lead to a change of job, new assignment in another department, or learning ways to set limits on how much we allow others to use us.

  1. “I will update my resume”

A history of abuse in the workplace leads people to believe that they are worth  very little in the eyes of others. This is especially true if the workplace situation is  a reenactment of childhood trauma. But not every workplace is toxic. There are places where we can express our talents that have deeply engrained humanistic values and genuinely seek to make a positive contribution in their world. Find  these places, network with the leaders, and start looking for new pastures for yourself.

 What You Can Change

A tweak in our communication style and/or an attitude adjustment can turn a negative situation around. We can accomplish this by saying to ourselves,

1. “I will turn this adversity into a positive outcome”

She was a senior executive in a government agency. Her history of abuse at the hands of her boss was as long as her arm. However the economic environment was rough and she could not afford to change jobs. So she made a decision to empower other women in her organization by mentoring them, organizing  conferences on inspirational leadership, and joining community organizations where she could exercise positive leadership.

  1. “I will to push back”

Power-hungry thugs aren’t appeased if you try to show them how nonthreatening           and reasonable you are.” - David Brooks-NY Times

There are wise and effective ways that one can set limits with the bullies of life.     Learning to say, “Back off” or “Your behavior is unacceptable” may seem awfully risky to some people especially if you have not tried this direct approach before. But fighting fire with fire is often the only language that some leaders  understand. Talk to some of your peers and see how drawing a line in the sand  with this tough character has worked in the past. Then try it for yourself but first get a few powerful sponsors to cover your back.

  1. “I will adapt my style”

He was a very effective senior manager adept at telling colorful stories when he made reports to his boss. However his manager was very much a bottom line leader   that wanted a summary report in 1-2 minutes. The boss also needed a daily update  on the status of various projects. The manager tried to leave long voice messages. However, he soon found that when he adapted to his boss’ style that he found his responses more accommodating and supportive.

We do not have to throw up our hands in desperation when we run into difficulties with leaders. In the end, it is not a matter of how they respond but the healthier choices we make.





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Coming Home

Written by our friend, journalist Carolyn Patten. You can read about Carolyn at http://carolynpatten.biz

This article was inspired by Cedric’s blog: Treating yourself as an unfolding mystery where you are in the process of writing the ongoing  scenes.

Sometime this May, after a year’s worth of sneaking around the edges of commitment and trying to read omens in the apartment listings on Craigslist, I met with a moving company fellow and said those words I never expected to say:

I’m going home. To Santa Fe.

It was a family thing to move constantly — roughly eight states and twice that many houses until we fetched up in Farmington, New Mexico the year I turned 10. Add another dozen-ish countries and states, and dwellings since I left high school. Over those years, I lived in Santa Fe twice — once as a toddler and once again after college. My daughter was born there.

After I left for a better job, I visited several times, and for many years I dreamed of being back. In the dreams I was looking for a place to live, but on a deadline, and time ran out before I found that place.

In each place I lived after Santa Fe, friends would sooner or later ask, “so, do you think you’ll stay?” I could only reply that it sure didn’t feel like I could stay there forever. Sometimes I’d say I thought I’d “end up” in Santa Fe, but that was as clear as I could get.

It took a few years and a conversation with my very wise daughter to realize that I felt that I “didn’t deserve Santa Fe.”

I actually felt that I didn’t deserve to live in a place that I had longed for all my life.

Recently I read an interview in the New York Times with Viola Davis. The interviewer wrote that she told him she never asked for what she wanted because she knew from experience that she wouldn’t get it. That’s how she grew up. The message was “you don’t deserve good things, a good life, feeling good.” For me that message was the same, and it extended to where I lived

I didn’t deserve a home. I lived in places and in circumstances that needed to be overcome, in a sense, taking to heart that platitude of “bloom where you’re planted.” I didn’t realize that planting is a deliberate act, one that requires more than throwing out random seeds and hoping for the best.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be in Santa Fe, in a deliberate act that is both a return to home and an adventure centered around finding my place there. It’s as well-thought-out as I am capable of, being a bit of a control freak; and as open to unplanned serendipity as I am capable of, being a bit of a risk-taker.

I’m going home. I deserve it.


 What does the phrase “coming home” mean to you?


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Realizing Your Desires

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Antoine de-Saint Exupery
French writer and aviator

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We dare not deny the presence or the validity of our desires especially those generated by our soul or core essence. Any attempt to suppress a soul-based wish leaves us frustrated and unfulfilled. In contrast, setting the compass of our hopes to our soul-promptings puts us on the journey to our personal true north.

Granted, some desires are based on ego needs (e.g. wanting recognition as an important person as determined by our rank or financial status). Working towards the fulfillment of these hopes leads to short-lived and mostly empty fulfillment.

Other wishes are based on the dictates of the soul (e.g. wanting to make a contribution to one’s world without the focus being on us). These are the desires that we need to validate and act on because they contribute to a life well lived and the shaping of a better world.

(You may want to read our blog “Moving Towards A Soul-Based Life”)


Our struggle with fondly held hopes is often quite forceful. And as in the martial arts, there are two basic ways to manage this resistance

  1. The first is go “against” the force with a stronger force (strong push back). People try all manner of such strategies to ensure change and compliance. These include demanding that the person “shape up or ship out”, begging, hinting, ignoring, appeasing, denial, bribing, or bargaining. Mostly these tactics are ineffective and can make the problem worse.
  1. The second is to go “with” the flow of the force. In order to go “with” the force of the resistance (e.g. the message: you cannot fulfill this want), we have to acknowledge the validity want.

We resist or deny our desires by telling ourselves,

“I don’t deserve to fulfill my aspirations.”

“If I want something I am being selfish”

“I have failed too many times in the past”

“What will others think if I pursue my goals?”

These “bad mind” messages that are not aligned with our true selves can be challenged and changed.

We embrace and go with the force of our wants when we,

  • Align them with the promptings of the soul
  • Set our intentions to their compass direction
  • Find ways to act on these yearnings


What soul-based wishes of yours are being frustrated?

What steps do you need to take to get on that path?

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Beyond Blah, Blah, Blah – Towards A Satisfying Conversation

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Why do some conversations leave us feeling empty and lonely? What happened?

We all long sometimes for satisfying dialogue, where:

No matter what the topic, we all experience an intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying dialogue in the context of mutual trust and respect.

This article is about why conversations fail and how they can  succeed.

Let’s take a look at conversational styles that satisfy everyone engaged and those that leave us wishing we’d stayed at home with a good book!

Conversation Killers

Certain interactions smother reciprocal conversation; for example, people who:

  1. …. just want you to be their audience. The rule “listen to me but I’m not really interested in you” is their idea of a conversation. It is almost as if they did not get enough “show and tell” time in childhood and are now trying to make up that deficit by talking “at” you. Although it’s interesting initially to hear people’s stories and get to know about them, a balance of talking and listening with genuine interest in each other is essential for a satisfying conversation and real friendship to develop.
  2. …..rely solely on small talk and other superficial interactions. This can serve an important function; for example, to open a conversation or acknowledge each other in a public place such as waiting in line at the bank. However, when small talk becomes the only currency and small talk is mistaken for genuine connection, we can be left wanting. Once we scratch below the surface and go beyond the façade of friendliness and small talk, we may find little substance to the person or their ability to carry on a more authentic and satisfying interaction. We are reminded of people who only talk sports: “How about those Dodgers?” That may be good for an opener, but when the topic never changes, even after the listener has expressed their ignorance or lack of interest in sports, the speaker is not respecting the needs of the listener and the conversation fizzles.
  1. ….takes over the conversation, speaking at length as an authority on whatever topic comes up in conversation. This can be an important educational experience for the listener but when it morphs into the speaker asserting their authority on each new topic, and expecting the listener to be an admiring and appreciative audience, the only sound we hear is that of the authority.
  1. .whose body language cancels out any words that they are using. There is nothing like a person yawning, breaking eye contact, or changing the subject to let you know you are not being listened to, appreciated, or valued.

Now contrast these ultimate conversation killers with

The Real Thing

Genuine conversation is characterized by

  1. A dialogue where both parties contribute equally and listen intently. No one person dominates the conversation. He/she patiently listens to the other without interrupting or restlessly wanting to inject their point of view.
  1. A person with a generous spirit, open mind, and loving heart. These people are continually searching for the good in others and ways to validate the other person’s point of view. They are able to put their own needs aside when they sense the other person needs a listening ear. In the end with such a conversation there is a climate of safety, mutual respect and acceptance.
  1. A flow of dialogue that includes both point and counterpoint. A good conversationalist is not just a “yes” person but can freely offer contrary opinions without retreating into hostility or hardened personal or political opinions. At the core they have a teachable spirit and are willing to change their point of view as new facts emerge in the conversation.
  1. People who have widely embraced different cultures where they see themselves as perpetual students and can celebrate differences and recognize similarities.

What are some of the conversation killers and enhancers you have had in your experience?


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