“Talking shop” – learning from friends & colleagues

‘Talking shop’ has probably never had a pleasant connotation. Think of those people who can’t let work go at non-work events; or situations or organisations where lots of talking takes place but no decision is ever made and nothing gets done.  Talking shop or “professional conversation“, to give it a more scholarly gloss, is an invaluable – and often overlooked – source of learning and development in our careers.

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A little preparation can make conversations more constructive and less awkward. Photo: M. Gillie, Port of Hull.

Conversation is a little like breathing –  so involuntary, so necessary to life that we usually never stop to think about it. Take a moment now to reflect on an unplanned professional conversation you’ve had with someone in your department recently – a grabbing-a-coffee, caught-in-corridor or standing-in-the-photocopier queue chat.

Who was it with? What was the topic? Which of you introduced it? Did it involve a story with a critical incident*? Does anything stand out in terms of the language used, emotions expressed (or held back), tone of voice? What was the balance of listening, speaking and questioning between you and your colleague? Were there any digressions or changes of subject? What were the implications of these? Looking back, do you think the conversation had an impact on your thoughts about the topic? Do you think there were missed opportunities to learn something or help your colleague to learn?

Conversational analysis has a formal, rigorous research methodology of its own; these questions are simply to stimulate reflective thinking about how professional conversation fits into your working and learning life. For those in mentoring or management roles, becoming more reflective and self-aware of professional conversation can support and strengthen these relationships – helping others to become better at learning from ‘talking shop’.

To find out more about having better more effective conversations at work, start with these:

Vitae (2015) A brief guide to career conversations with research staff. (seeing it from your supervisor’s/PI’s/mentor’s point of view a can help you become better at managing conversations, too).

Haigh, N. (2006) Every day conversation as a context for professional learning and development.  International Journal for Academic Development.10 (1), 3-16.

Hirsch, W., Jackson, C. and Kidd, J.M. (2012) Straight talking: Effective career discussions at work. CRAC.

Sarangi, S. and Roberts, C. (1999) Talk, work and institutional order: discourse in medical, mediation and management settings. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

*This page is due to be replaced soon, but it’s probably the most helpful definition of a critical incident I’ve ever come across: http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/writing/medicine/reflective/2.xml

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