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Best Practices Ethics & Culture

How To Have Better Relationships Through Better Conversations

Career coach and etiquette consultant Toni Purvis conducts a master class on rediscovering the lost art of face-to-face-conversation and avoiding the illusion of communication.

“Your goal, whenever you communicate face-to-face, is to build trust. To build trust, you need to listen. That’s it. It’s very simple. Or rather, it should be.” So offered Toni Purvis at the start of her recent Star US Conference workshop: “The Art Of Conversation & Communication.” Purvis is the CEO and founder of Paradigm One, a consulting firm that provides customized coaching and curricula for individuals, groups, and organizations. Having worked in equities at Goldman Sachs and in diversity recruiting at Booz Allen Hamilton, Purvis knows business and she knows people.

The illusion of communication. What is it and why is it a problem? According to Purvis, it’s exactly what it sounds like. By all outward appearances communication has taken place—two people face-to-face have had a conversation—but authentic communication hasn’t taken place. Messages sent haven’t been received by either party. “I’m sure you can think of times where the illusion of communication has taken place,” says Purvis. “What this results in is everyone thinking everything’s okay, when in reality it’s not. This is a problem for obvious reasons.”



So how can we make  sure our communications are authentic, in particular our face-to-face conversations? In Purvis’ opinion, while technology has created efficiencies, conversation has taken the back burner and been all but lost. Think for a moment: is it easier for you to have a ‘tough’ conversation via email, or face-to-face in the same room? How often do we IM or text each other ad nauseam instead of just getting together in a conference room to work through a project? For compliance teams, it’s no longer enough to sit in the back office sending emails. You and your team are increasingly required to engage with front office employees to ensure a complete understanding of the company code of ethics and the processes for complying. So how can we improve our face-to-face skills? Here’s a framework to get you started.

Can you think of someone who’s great at connecting with people? Perhaps a figure of some renown or someone from your own life? What makes this person such a great communicator? Chances are, this person makes a point of being completely present in the conversation. “The first key to effective communication is to simply listen,” says Purvis. “A lot of people think they’re listening when in actuality they’re not. Listening is a skill, and like any other skill it takes practice and effort.” It’s terribly hard for the mind not to wander. By one account it’s because the brain—being such a capable computing device—gets easily bored. It continually needs something to do. And sometimes that something is jumping ahead in the conversation to craft a response to a conversational partner before that partner has even finished his or her thought.

This brain boredom can also manifest itself as that itchy feeling to jump in and solve the person’s dilemma. “Can you listen without taking action?” asks Purvis. “Can you listen without judging? It’s hard. You need to make an active choice not to act, but to simply be present. Your goal, when you’re talking with someone, is to make them feel safe, to make them feel heard. When you do that you’re building trust. When you build trust, the walls come down and people become receptive. A simple thing is to learn someone’s name. That’s a way to build trust. Take the time to learn the name of the person you’re speaking with. So simple yet so powerful.”

“Your goal here is to travel,” says Purvis. “Imagine a circle. 360 degrees. When you communicate you need to travel that full 360 degrees to completely encompass that person. To understand where she’s coming from. To make sure you’re thinking about the topic from her perspective and considering how she receives information. When you’ve traveled that full 360 degrees, and you’re back where you started, now you’re able to communicate truly and authentically.”

By encompassing other people you’re learning their language. It’s akin to making the effort to learn Japanese if that’s the only language your conversational partner speaks, rather than bulldozing ahead in increasingly slower and louder English. Most people communicate from the perspective of how they themselves communicate—how they receive information and perceive things. They don’t take the time to make the full loop and complete the circle.

Purvis ends this portion of the workshop with the following plea: “Encompassing the other person—learning their language in order to authentically communicate—may entail getting over yourself just a little bit. Again, often times people are so hooked on what they have to say that they’re just waiting for the other person to finish so they can start in with their own thoughts. Master how others speak and you’ll capture their attention. Learn what people value—strive to empathize with them—and you’ll communicate with them more effectively.”

It’s not inevitable, but highly likely, that in the course of your communications with someone—whether a single instance of conversation or a series of conversations conducted over a period of time—that you will make some sort of negative impression. That you will either accidentally utter something you shouldn’t have or perhaps be required to deliver some unwelcome truth. At these times, you’ll be happy if you’ve kept your conversational balance in positive territory.

Purvis: “Your goal is to have more positive interactions than negative ones. The more positive interactions you have with a person the better any negative interactions will land. Think of it like a bank account. Keep far enough in the black, and when the time comes to make a withdrawal you won’t overdraw.” Stretching the financial analogy even further—and maybe getting at the core of her directive to “be positive”—she adds: “When you’re talking with someone, don’t think of that person as part of a transaction, a means to an end. Be thoughtful.”

The beauty of being positive, of being truly thoughtful in your interactions with others, is that it will be of genuine economic benefit to you. “It’s a circle,” says Purvis, “an impressions and interactions circle. The more positive impressions you make, the more interactions you’re likely to have. The more interactions you have, the more chances you’ll have to make a positive impression.” It goes without saying this process works in the opposite direction, as well.

Think about where you could apply these principles, at home or at work. Can you identify situations just this week that may have deserved more listening than reacting? What can you do to ensure you’re fully present in a work interaction? Closing your laptop during meetings?




Putting your phone in your desk? Shutting down your email when on webinars or during chats? Then think about how you can rediscover the lost art of conversation within your compliance program. What area is causing a pain point? And could better communication be the solution? 

“I want to be a facilitator more than a lecturer today,” Purvis said early on in the workshop. As good a summation as any of her theory on how people can better communicate and converse.

tonipurvisToni Purvis began her career on Wall Street in equities at Goldman Sachs. Working with Booz Allen Hamilton landed her in the Washington, DC area, where she planned and executed graduate student programming at George Washington University. Toni is the owner of Paradigm One LLC, which specializes in career coaching, etiquette consulting, and executive presence training for professionals.