I was thinking a little bit about the popular David Whyte quote “the conversation is the work” as I tend to disagree with the statement. In contrast, I claim that “no, the work is the work”. Conversation can be work, it can even be *the* and only work for a few people who do nothing else than working on conversation/conversations, but that’s an exception rather than the rule. Conversations rarely are and do all the work there is. If it is called “work”, the messages probably serve a purpose and aren’t just meaningless random noise. This makes it highly unlikely that the receiving end is exclusively concerned with no other activity than improving the very conversation that’s going on in a self-referential, circular, endless loop. Why work on it as an end in itself if there’s no anticipation of a separate, later realm of application? Working on conversation towards its hypothetical perfection: once reached, no more work would be left, ever, anywhere. If it can never be reached, why keep working hard on it in the first place and continue wasting scarce resources forever?

Now, if the goal is the improvement of conversation skills for fun and entertainment with no interest in other outcomes whatsoever, it may or may not be or involve work. Most people however carry out many other types of work as well, with conversations being only a minor portion of what they do. Whyte might want to increase the amount of good conversation so workers become more effective with their main occupations, but conversation alone can never replace these other activities and there will always remain some work that isn’t conversation. Remember, Whyte’s piece is addressed to leaders and managers who, for example, are tasked with corporate communication in terms of announcing decisions, relaying information, gathering reports, asking questions and listening to answers. This conversational interfacing clearly indicates that they don’t do it for their own personal enjoyment, that their main function and work is something else. Sure, in many cases, failing to communicate well can render the performance of one’s main function completely void.

Most of the time, conversation supports the coordination of work and consequently becomes part of it or at least an important or contributing factor. Individuals can become de-facto “leaders” by merely installing themselves in control and at the heart/center of the coordination effort, no matter if their communication skills are good enough to justify their central position in the exchange as the relay hub to report to and receive from. In a different model, communication/conversation facilitators might support the coordination effort as a neutral, agnostic service without any organizational/disciplinary power, not resulting into their formal appointment/installation as “leaders” for doing their work. In fact, their function may deliberately be designed to prevent an individual from controlling the coordination and gaining power from it, so leaders can emerge according to actual performance in fields of work other than conversation – especially favorable if the final result is supposed to be something else than just figuring out internal communication.

No amount of conversation can change a lightbulb. In fact, starting a conversation about it may hugely distract, divert and delay the task at hand. Consider Parkinson’s Bikeshed Effect or Sivers’ suggestion of keeping your goals to yourself. A team can’t consist entirely of leaders despite everybody wants to be one. Producing talk is easy and cheap, feels good for being active/contributing, almost everybody is capable of engaging in it. Operational execution on the other hand is slow, tedious, costly, risky and difficult. Few are willing to try, few are able to successfully accomplish what needs to be done.

Copyright (C) 2019 Stephan Kreutzer. This text is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License 3 + any later version and/or the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.



Communication between two or more entities being engaged in a dialog.
Particular instances of applying conversational skills while communicating.
Effort one has to undertake in order to achieve/realize a result which cannot be obtained instantly without spending limited resources. The process as a necessity isn’t ideal because the investment/cost could be less.
Sending a signal to a receiver. The message needs to be encoded into the physical carrier medium for transmission following a certain convention/protocol. Can be unidirectional if experienced as a mere information source on the side of the receiver.