Does a conversation need to have an agenda?

Someone I’m connected to on Linked In posed the following question about conversations.

My response seemed a little long for a LinkedIn comment. So I’ve posted it here instead.

Is there merit in having open and agenda-less chats with people?
Or is it just a waste of everyone’s time if you don’t have something specific you want from that individual?

Having an agenda or not having an agenda isn’t what’s important (or at least it’s not important for me).

I embark on a conversation with someone addressing my bottom line: being attentive. If I have a specific question to ask then I’ll make sure I ask it.

But, if I don’t have a specific question, I’ll ask something borne out of my own interest in that person in the moment. That may only arise in the moment. Some things just can’t be planned for.

I’ll listen to their response, reflect it back and see where the conversation goes next.

In the process of following that path, I may end up discovering something I didn’t know I didn’t know. Or maybe I’ll stumble on something I didn’t know I wanted or needed to know. That discovery is in itself a rather thrilling thing.

Is it a lecture or a conversation?

There’s another way of looking at it. If I go into a conversation with someone with an agenda – then it’s not really a conversation, is it? It’s more of a lecture.

Don’t be a journalist

Years ago, I remember reeling when a fusty journo told me I had to plan out every single question I wanted to ask an interviewee before I sat down with a cameraman.

He told me that I needed to anticipate how the interviewee might answer, and come up with a variety of different questions to navigate around them. His strategy – detailed, contrived, and inauthentic – seemed like stupidly hard work.

Try linear probing instead

My preference was to have a starting question, to ask it, and then see where the resulting answer took me (and the interviewee next).

That strategy fulfilled two important criteria. First, it meant I was conversing with someone I wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to meet up with, striving to cover the topics we were contractually obliged to. But secondly (and more importantly), the resulting conversation had – if the rapport was strong – a richness that made it authentic.

My preference is to go on instinct. Have an open question to kick things off with, monitor how you feel in the moment, and see what follows. If it flounders, who really cares. If the conversation continues, then you may well have stumbled on an invigorating new relationship.

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