Two young salmon are swimming upstream. From a distance they see an older salmon swimming towards them, downstream. As the young salmon cross paths with the older salmon, the elder says “The water’s nice today, huh boys?” The young salmon say nothing. Then one of the younger salmon looks to the other and says, “What the fuck is water?”
Based on more than 40 years of experience and a great deal of communication and behavioral research, we’ve concluded that in the knowledge economy, conversation is the real business of business. This is a reflection of how the skills of the economy have changed in historic ways. And it’s also a fact hidden in plain sight. Years ago, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, obsessed with the difficulties of language, pointed out that because of their simplicity and familiarity, the things that are most important for us are hidden. In other words, you don’t see something if it’s always in front of your nose. That’s why we don’t easily recognize what’s most striking and most powerful—that business first and foremost is about conversations.
Conversation is the foundation of all other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances. This conclusion leaves a lot of people out. Some of them went into their jobs hoping they wouldn’t have to talk much. Most have no humanities courses to support conversational skills. If, like many, they’ve had a communication course or two, conversation won’t have been in the mix. Furthermore, most grew up in families that were conversationally challenged. The consequence is