Parenting

Now, I can hear you – better: Redesigning conversations with Bill Ash

Mother walking with daughter on the street
photo by istock

It’s never a good thing when your children’s teacher recommends you seek professional help from a family counselor.

Bill Ash opens his new book, Redesigning Conversations, A Guide To Communicating Effectively In The Family, Workplace And Society, with the story of how that particular conversation unfolded and where it led them as a family. Ash is a retired corporate leader and lawyer, and is now an executive and life coach and author.

Family Times recently sat down with Ash (via Zoom) to chat about his new book, what prompted the book, and what he hopes to contribute to conversations because of publishing the book.

It seems we all have an opportunity to learn about redesigning conversations.

“The most important learning I get is from stories.”

Since we’ve lived in caves, humans have learned much of what is essential for survival and growth through conversations and shared stories. One could argue there is no learning without a conversation — the better the conversation, the better the learning. Ash, from Brisbane, Australia, wrote Redesigning Conversations to give readers a collection of tools to help develop their conversation muscles.

What do we bring to our conversations?

Ash points out that we all have scripts, emotions and moods, and we bring these to our conversations. These need to be checked before having a conversation. On reflection, this idea struck me the hardest. Paying attention to my scripts, moods and emotions has been both the most difficult and impactful change in my conversations. Sometimes I do better, other times I fall short. I told Bill that these concepts are the pointy end of the stick for me. That stick points and pokes at me. I now try to check myself often as I approach conversations and do the same in the middle of a conversation before I respond.  It is difficult to acknowledge the powerful influence of our scripts, our moods and our emotions in conversations we have.

Scripts are those deeply embedded filters or lenses through which we see the world. These influence our orientation to people and topics. One might have the ‘I am the dad lens,’ seeing themselves as the boss of the house and what they say goes. (Just because they said so.) This orientation limits our ability to listen and hear.

There is a myriad of other issues that may limit our ability to have a better conversation. We are all a product of our personal experiences, upbringing and a multitude of other factors. Ash calls on us to be aware of what we bring to our conversations. Our mood and emotions influence our capacity to absorb what is being communicated, too.

“We can’t change what we don’t notice.”

Ash calls on us to pay attention, to notice our internal reactions and responses during conversation, and to examine what is going on in our heads. Notice how we listen and notice what we do in response. He reminds us that this is a process to get better and more skilled at effectively communicating with others. None of us is perfect, and we all can make improvements.

“I mention in the book that forgiveness and apology–and meaning it–are just so important because we all slip up,” said Ash. “We’ve got to forgive and apologize and move on and mean it.”

Ash goes on to say that it is helpful to add the words “in the service of others” when talking about your goals to improve your conversation ability.

“Help someone out, but also help yourself out,” he said. “I used to just totally concentrate on self-improvement and do this, that and the other. And, yes, this may develop a certain way of being, but if we add the words, in the service of others, it takes on a different thing. Have a conversation in the service of ourselves and others and, you never know, you both may improve.”

What requests are you making?

One of the key questions Ash asks in his book is ‘What requests are you making?’ Many conversations are about requests, some of them very important. Imagine your middle child asks to have a year off at grade eleven. That is a request. What options do you have as a parent to respond to this request? The immediate response, depending on your script, may well be, “not on your life, get back to grade 12, because I said so.” But your newly acquired conversational skills encourage you to explore the request more deeply with your child and discover more information about their motivation, plans, dreams and desires, so you can have a much more open and meaningful discussion.

Because you are doing a better job of conversing, you get to ask about the consequences of such a decision, while at the same time exploring alternate futures and possibilities with your child. A more skilled conversational approach in dealing with requests received and given will result in a more rounded conversation and likely a better outcome while at the same time deepening the relationship.

Ash has done a good job of creating an improved framework for approaching conversations. Each chapter of the book takes on a particular aspect of the conversation. And each closes with a collection of questions and exercises for readers to practice and develop those conversation muscles.

I heartily recommend Ash’s book to anyone wanting to improve relationships through conversations. I can tell you that some of the images in the mirror are painful as I recognize how short I have fallen of the mark in many of my conversations. But I now have some tools and perspective to practice better conversations. Improvements are underway.

Bill’s children never did see that family counselor. What Bill and his life partner, Margi, found in their first session with the counselor was what Ash calls their ‘conversational intimacy’ had been suspended. Bill and Margi used to connect at the end of the day with a glass of wine or a cup of tea. This was the time the two of them resolved any niggling issues. It was a proper conversation. They finished up on the same page on anything to do with the kids, the household, or a myriad of other things that parents in a busy house need to sort, manage and resolve. The moment Bill and Margi returned to that daily routine, the issues with the kids that prompted the teacher’s recommendation to seek counseling were resolved.

Ash’s parting advice is: “It’s a journey. Go easy on yourself.”

Timothy Fowler is an award-winning Canadian journalist and podcaster. While there is nothing he likes better than a good conversation, he continues to work on being better at it.

You can buy Bill Ash’s book here bill-ash.com.au/order-now and check out his website here: bill-ash.com.au.

Bill is available for group conversations via Zoom about the book. Depending on the number of participants, the ‘fee’ would be purchasing a copy of his book. Contact at this email, [email protected] or via LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/bill-ash-494a5145

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