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A few years ago I managed a team of learning content developers for an international consulting firm. One of my many trips brought me to Paris, France to check on the progress of a course being developed there. One of my friends and colleages, Thierry, honored my visit by organizing a dinner for some of the employees and their spouses.

We went to a hotel at Versailles and were seated at a large round table on the back patio – I think there were 12 of us. It was a beautiful summer night, and everything was perfect. The food was great, and everyone was chatting up a storm, so all seemed to be having a good time. In the midst of the chatter, Thierry shouted, “Hey everyone, you’re all speaking in French. Ken doesn’t speak French, so please speak in English.” I was a bit embarrassed, and I can imagine that some of the wives may have been thinking, “The lazy American comes to our country and he can’t even speak our language.”

One of the wives said out loud, “But why? We’re not even talking to him?” Although everyone laughed, she made an interesting point which begs the question, “What would have been the point of me hearing all those conversations that I wasn’t intended to be a part of?” I believe that in an informal setting like this, people are expected to eavesdrop a bit and jump in and out of conversations at will.

Recalling this story caused me to think about all the collateral and indirect communication that occurs in a team room. At times, the dynamics in the team room involve any number of impromptu conversations. Often times, others could contribute to (or learn from) those conversations, even though they didn’t receive an engraved invitation to participate.

The informality of impromptu conversations includes an implicit invitation to tune out, listen, or jump in fully and contribute. I contend that much of the high value communication that moves a project forward occurs this way.
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