Management consultant Tom Durel learned to host his corporate talk shows by watching an expert: his mother. On any given morning at the Durel home, in Thibodaux, Louisiana, young Tom was likely to find his mother, Nette, orchestrating an informal gathering of friends and relatives at the kitchen table. While sipping strong French coffee, aunts, uncles, cousins, and eventually Durel himself would tell stories and debate family business — all with a blend of humor, directness, and unstinting mutual respect that left a lasting impression on the boy. "You had this certainty that everyone understood you and accepted you and would support you — even if you made mistakes," recalls Durel, 52, who now helps clients build talk-friendly environments. "You developed a sense that you were okay, and that you could make decisions and take risks without fear of being rejected."
Much of Durel's work since then — at places like EDS in Plano, Texas, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, and Oceania Inc., a medical-software firm based in Redwood City, California — has focused on trying to re-create that sense of comfort, efficiency, and familiarity in the corporate world. In Durel's view, good informal conversation — dialogue that not only reiterates current knowledge but also creates new understanding — is almost a lost art within the world of business. There are many reasons for this trend, from the fragmentation of work to the growing emphasis on speed. But the main problem, Durel believes, is that most businesspeople have forgotten — or were never taught — the fundamentals of good conversation, the basic rules that Durel learned at his kitchen table. The first rule: You're never too busy to "visit." "It didn't matter what else was going on," says Durel. "When people stopped by, you dropped everything and sat down at the table and visited. It was totally engaging."
Durel has since developed a set of guidelines for conducting a conversation. Here a few of those guidelines.
Tell them stories.
Whether you're at the kitchen table or in the boardroom, good conversation isn't simply an exchange of information. Good conversation is an exchange of stories about that information. When you're conversing with coworkers, customers, or investors, "the richness and the meaning of your story is what people really buy," says Durel. "Everybody thinks it's the return on investment that you're selling to a potential investor, but it's really the story about ROI that an investor takes away. What matters is whether that story generates comfort, certainty, enthusiasm, and meaning." As CEO of Oceania, for example, Durel would help new hires get off on the right narrative foot by telling them stories — about the company and its goals, and also about himself, his philosophy, his history, even his failures.
Tell them to their faces.
"In my household, we simply knew that we all said what we meant," Durel says. "We didn't have to spend a lot of time second-guessing." In a work setting, Durel recommends what he calls "direct dealing": Any employee who has a beef with another worker is required to go straight to that coworker — no end runs to managers, and absolutely no personal attacks or rumormongering.
Don't rely on memos.
Durel all but ceased writing (or reading) memos 20 years ago, and he still encourages colleagues to follow up their memos and emails in person, or at least by phone. "Don't assume that you did your part just because you sent out a bunch of memos," Durel says. "If you really want to communicate, you need to take the time to get real-time feedback." Durel isn't very fond of email either. "Why is it that the first thing people do in the morning is turn on their computer and send email to a colleague in the office next door?" he asks. "What's wrong with getting up, walking over there, and actually talking to that person?"
Tell them to be quiet.
When meetings are getting too antagonistic, or are moving too quickly through complex issues, Durel will shut them down. "This isn't a 'break,' " Durel will say. "I want us to sit here in silence, with our eyes open, and to think about what we're trying to do."
Durel, who stepped down as CEO of Oceania last June, admits that putting on the brakes is not always a popular move — especially in a corporate culture "that regards slowing down as wasting time. You know: 'Do you mean that we're just going to stop the meeting and sit around and visit?' Some people are very uncomfortable with slowing down." But, Durel argues, when it comes to good conversation, speed kills: "Businesspeople need to slow down and be more reflective. We're not taking time to uncover the substance and understanding that we need in order to create great products."
You can reach Tom Durel by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.