“Do you like this girl?” my sister asked. I was 16 years old and we were sitting at the kitchen table.
“Yeah,” I shrugged and nodded, “she’s fun to hang out with.”
My sister was not satisfied. She repeated her question, slowly saying each word while looking me in the eye. “Do you care about her?” That’s when I realized the girl was more than someone “fun to hang out with.” Years later and many more kitchen talks after that, she would become my wife. But in that raw, honest moment, my sister got straight to the heart of the matter and helped me discover how I really felt. That’s the power of kitchen talk.
Kitchen Talk Requires Trust
Like the conversation with my sister, the majority of meaningful conversations I had while growing up took place in the kitchen. I’ve brought the tradition to my three daughters as well as my company. In kitchen talk, there are no pretenses or hidden agendas. You are either honest and up front, or someone draws you out until you reach a place of honesty. When we commit to vulnerability among the safety of people who are dedicated to us, we have a unique opportunity to make progress—but it requires trust.
David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab, writes about trust in his book, The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More. “At the most basic level,” DeSteno writes, “the need to trust implies one fundamental fact: you’re vulnerable.” Yet 69% of American workers don’t know who to trust, or in other words, who to be vulnerable with. How can we expect to succeed when the majority of our employees and coworkers are constantly distrustful of one another? Kitchen talk breaks through the barriers of distrust, facades, and fronting that are hurting our professional success and personal happiness.
Dining Room Communication
In workplaces where distrust is status quo, we are likely to avoid kitchen talk and rely on what I call “dining room communication.” The formality of dining room communication leads us to focus on etiquette–not honesty or substance. We place our attention on when to use the small fork and the spoon, when to sit down and how to fold our napkin.
In business, dining room communication happens far too often. It happens when we hide behind emails and texts instead of having uncomfortable conversations. It happens in meetings where we follow a script of when to talk, what to say, and to whom. We show that we’re using the right resources (small fork for salads, large fork for the main course), and nod approvingly on cue. We know when the dinner starts and stops. We live two lives: life at work (our formal, dining room self) and life outside of work (our natural, kitchen self). In dining room communication, we don’t put ourselves out there or have to challenge status quo. It’s formal, stiff, and doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.
I know kitchen talk can be profoundly helpful because I’ve seen its effect at Ecosystems. It’s not easy, but if we all chose the easy route, we would be suppressing our true beliefs and guarding our ideas. Easier isn’t good leadership. Easier won’t make an impact. When I’ve had kitchen talk with customers in the past, the conversations start with a simple and honest statement, such as “We can’t afford to lose you as a client, so help me understand how to help you.” Or, “I want to share examples of where I’ve personally failed, and what I’ve learned as a result.” Trust is the currency of kitchen talk—and it starts with being the first to be vulnerable.
What Kitchen Talk is Not
If we want to thrive and grow as companies and individuals, we need more kitchen talk. To understand kitchen talk, we need to define what it is not. Kitchen talk is not:
- An Emotional Outburst
What it sounds like: “They aren’t listening to me.” “I can’t work with him.”
It is not an emotional outburst or an unproductive shutdown. It’s a raw discussion of an initial feeling that leads to a solution.
- Blame Shifting
What it sounds like: “I’m just being real. I’m a straight shooter, and I’m telling you that this is going to fail.”
Kitchen talk is not blame shifting. It’s not identifying problems and walking away. It requires taking responsibility for our own actions.
- Taking the Path of Least Resistance
What it sounds like: “I just do what I’m told. Someone else can take the risk and fix this problem.”
Kitchen talk is not simply doing what feels good. Sometimes it means voicing a risky or unpopular opinion to achieve the ultimate good of the team.
Rewards of Kitchen Talk
Maybe kitchen talk seems unrealistic for your company, or that the people you work with are set in their dining room communication. But kitchen talk starts with being the first to offer trust to one person at a time. Next time there’s an unspoken problem or tension, say what others may be thinking but not saying. Offer it in a way that initiates a healthy discussion with the intent to find a solution. Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been in Ecosystems’ figurative kitchen, when we don’t come with formalized presentations and outlined scripts. Let’s throw half-cooked spaghetti at the wall, be honest about what we’re thinking, and work through challenges together.