I think it was my aunt who told me “there is no such thing as a neutral conversation”, and the comment really ticked me off.
At the time I was an extremely idealistic college student from a fortunate background who believed that things happened because they were the things that needed to happen, as if by some natural order and mutual accord. I was convinced of some overarching meritocracy in the world and that the recipe for success did not involve pushing, pressuring, selling, expecting or self-promoting because the underlying value of the idea/need alone was enough to ensure that the matter was appropriately addressed.
The comment immediately re-contextualized every prior conversation, meeting and friendship up until that point. Were my actions really that motivated, that pathological? Was I subconsciously expecting something out of every situation and out of everyone I interacted with? The entire notion seemed ridden with guilt and dirt, like not wanting to discuss issues of money with a close friend, and for a long time I wrestled with my core understandings of what made the world tick. In retrospect, however, it is one of the only things I was ever told that had real staying-power and is one of the simplest rules that I carry forward in trying to create new opportunities and accomplish goals.
The topic surfaced last weekend while sitting in a classroom with a number of extremely talented and ambitious college entrepreneurs, and I was very happy to “pay it forward” (whether or not the advice actually resonated). The class this month was a workshop on tailoring your pitch and each student did a fantastic job narrowing in on the product/service/concept and hitting all the necessary buzzwords as they presented to the class. Equally important was the open conversation that ensued about knowing your audience. When I weighed in, my knee-jerk response (that I wasn’t exactly anticipating) was that very same statement about “neutral conversations” that had so infuriated me in the past, and these are a few of the takeaways in thinking more about it:
- As it relates to the project you are currently working on, go into every situation and conversation with a clear idea of what you are hoping for, don’t hesitate to ask for it, and make yourself explicitly clear.
- Knowing what you want and outlining your expectations to someone is nothing to feel guilty or apprehensive about; if you believe so deeply in what you are doing, you are doing them a favor by giving them the opportunity to be involved and help (they can always just say “no”).
- Not knowing what you want and speaking on behalf of your project with someone just to “speak” is a mutual waste of time. When I leave a meeting/conversation in which I either forget to explain my expectations or am too nervous to do so, it plagues me and I kick myself for wasting such a genuine opportunity (recently happened and I just wish I could go back).
- If you wait too long to address your expectations, as in letting too many encounters or too much time go by without bringing them up, you will either loose your audience or genuinely surprise them with something different from what they believed they originally signed up for.
- The above applies to any situation, whether building a relationship with an individual, having a one-off meeting with someone who can further your effort, or giving a presentation to a large audience that can be beneficial to your cause.
- The hidden riddle to the “no neutral conversation” rule is that if you do not know what you want or what to ask for in a given situation, you do not just walk away as though it never happened; it did happen and is a data point that forever exists and may define future outcomes of the relationship (with individuals or an audience), so try your hardest to stay on the positive side. That is why it is never neutral.
Good luck and create your own opportunities.