The Art of Conversation by Laura Alexander

The art of conversation is a critical skill for the professional fundraiser.  Whether we are soliciting, cultivating, thanking, informing, or educating, we are constantly engaged in conversation with donors, potential donors, ambassadors, board members, staff and volunteers.  So how do we improve our ability to engage in this critically important activity?

“Conversation” in Latin means “living together, having dealings with others.”  It refers to much more than just talking.  When we are having real conversations with people, we’re actively exchanging – both giving AND receiving.  We can’t exchange something with someone when they, or we, are not present.  We can talk to them, or at them, but we can’t have a conversation.

In contrast to a genuine conversation, talking can happen with little regard for whether someone is listening.  Think about the infamous “elevator speech” we often encourage people to memorize and spout at others.  We could easily talk at  people about our organizations all day long, without every really knowing if anyone heard us.  Talking without being heard is equivalent to throwing our words to the wind.  We don’t communicate with others to be ignored, misinterpreted, or misunderstood.  We give in conversation in order to be received.

Six Steps to More Meaningful Conversations with Our Donors

1.  Be Present:  “Con” means together with.  If you want to have a conversation with someone, be present, fiercely.  Have you ever been engaged in conversation with someone at a special event and noticed them looking around for the next person with whom they want to network?  Perhaps someone “better” than you?  In contrast, have you ever engaged in conversation with someone who made you feel you were the only person who mattered in a room of 500 people?  The difference is presence.

2. Listen, Actively:  Listening is the most important skill for a fundraising professional.  It’s how we learn about people, their motivations, what they care about, and how they like to interact with our organizations.  [Come to our workshop, CULTIVATE: The Art and Science of Major Gifts, to take our Listening Inventory and discover how good you are at listening and what you need to do to improve.]

3. Think Before You Speak:  Take the time you need to craft your language.  It’s not how quickly or slowly you respond.  It’s the value of what you offer that matters.  If no one in a conversation is offering anything of value, everyone will try to end it as soon as they can get away.

4.  Make Yourself Heard:  Saying something worth hearing helps make great conversation.  We love it when we’re affected by what we hear, when words move us.  If you’re not being heard, don’t blame your audience.  Come up with ways of talking about your organization and cause that engages them more.

5.  Be Relational Before Being Transactional: Take time to develop the relational aspect of the conversation without focusing solely on the give and take of thoughts.  Show genuine interest and curiosity about people.  Your authenticity with shine through and help you build relationships founded on mutuality, trust and credibility.

6.  Enjoy Yourself and Let Go:  A real exchange happens when all sides are enriched.  Learn to enjoy yourself throughout a conversation, not just when you got what you came for or had a chance to say your piece.  You don’t sing to get to the end of the song or live to get to the end of a life.  Enjoyment is a choice, and vital to having an artful conversation.
Adapted from Mindful: Making Time for What Matters, August 2014, p. 66.

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