Real Leaders

Talking with Queen Elizabeth II Taught Me a Powerful Lesson About the Art of Conversation

Here are three ways to improve the circulation of ideas through useful conversation — and increase the likelihood of successful negotiations at the same time.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of conversing with a number of the world’s great leaders. These conversations have not only yielded substantial information, but have been instructive on how to have a productive, enjoyable, and memorable conversation.

Through these talks, I began to see that the delivery of the conversation is as important as the content itself, and that natural curiosity in others is one of the most valuable traits a person can have.

 The good news is that this skill can be acquired.

I remember one of my first bosses, a senior corporate executive. I was incredibly frustrated because he had the habit of starting every meeting with at least 10 minutes of small talk before getting down to business. In my inexperience, I thought this was a useless waste of time.

I finally caught the strategy. During the introductory banter, he was building bridges that he could cross when the talk became more specific and detailed — maybe even heated. He was creating mutual trust through his natural curiosity in others.

The Queen of England, clocking in as the world’s longest reigning head of state, was to me by far the best purveyor of the art of conversation. Having had the opportunity to talk with her on many occasions over several years, I was flabbergasted at how she had honed the skill to perfection.

“Jim,” she would say, “what do you think about the increasing use of computers today?” (After I had arranged for one to be given to her from the American people for her personal use.) “What’s in that drink you’re having tonight? Tell me about it…” commenting on what I had ordered when she took us to dinner at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco.

It could be anything. Trivial or significant. It was, however, always focused on me — as if I were the important one. She never, ever talked about herself or complained about anything. The focus was always on the other person and delivered as if she were really interested in my answers.

George and Barbara Bush had similar skills. They were expert at deflecting attention from themselves. I remember telling her she was doing a great job as First Lady — which was true. I wanted to tell her why I thought so. 

She would have nothing of it. She immediately started asking me about my daughters and how they were doing in school. In this case, I had started the conversation about her and she miraculously turned it back to me!

George Bush had these skills as well, and is famous for his prolific letter writing and verbal communicating. Have a look at these letters and you see a person intent on showing interest in his subjects rather than himself.

Have you ever had a conversation and later realized that during the talk no one asked any questions about each other? There is a serious cost when leaders pay little attention to others. If you lack the ability to define the person, it is much harder to negotiate with him or her and conclude with a positive outcome. Here are three ways to improve the circulation of ideas through useful conversation:

1. Extreme self-centeredness is crippling and can result in the failure of effective communication

People don’t change their personalities and narcissistic tendencies all that easily. The first step though, is to recognize the price we pay for insufficient interest in others. Lost business deals, failed governmental negotiations, poor personal relationships, and doomed marriages can be costly if we do not at least attempt a sincere level of interest in other people. 

Admit the problem is the beginning of the solution. Becoming an outward-facing person with genuine interest in others does not happen overnight, but there are a few key skills that will help move you in the right direction. Becoming more interested in the views of others than in your own opinions makes life more interesting at the most personal level — and more successful when the stakes are bigger.

2. Conduct thorough due diligence on the other person

Prepare yourself for any discussion, meeting, or negotiation by researching the background and life details of the person with whom you are meeting. If you do not do this, you may be walking in blind to a situation that could waste time for everyone because you are ignorant of what the other person is bringing to the table.

This research is easy to conduct online. Once the meeting starts, you can deploy the information strategically to show that you took the time to learn more about the individual prior to the meeting. When I worked in the White House, we prepared President Ronald Reagan with extensive briefing books about the people with whom he was meeting. We also produced videos illustrating how the other leaders walked, talked, and conducted themselves in various situations.

This brought a high degree of texture to the person being profiled and contributed to the success of many bi-lateral meetings. You may not be the President, but you can utilize the same principles and access a good deal of data about the individuals in your meeting.

3. Let the questions roll

When I am meeting someone for the first time, I put my curiosity to work. I usually ask them where they were born and brought up. Do they have siblings? How long have they worked in their current capacity and how
did they get into it? People are usually flattered by you asking these questions — if they are sincere.

Ask these questions because you’re genuinely interested in hearing the answers. If you are listening carefully, you can suggest a follow up, and soon you’ll gain their confidence. Most people like to talk about themselves and will not find it difficult to tell you helpful personal stories, if you ask the right way. These insights are indispensable in negotiation.

Have a question you’ve always wanted to ask about speechmaking? Email James Rosebush your questions and he’ll publish them each week:

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