Kenneth Tucker, the “conversation and relationship expert,” is a Fortune 500 strategist, international speaker, and CEO of the management consulting firm KTA Solutions. As if that weren’t enough, Kenneth is also the best-selling author of six books on self-reflection and self-improvement! He sits down with David to discuss navigating unexpected twists and turns in conversation with new people, avoiding “argument culture,” how to embrace change, and how to keep conversation worthwhile in a long-term relationship. Learn how to be a better friend, coworker, and partner by harnessing the power of conversation.
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In this episode, we are talking to Kenneth Tucker, the CEO of KTA Solutions. He’s the author of Intentional Conversations, among his six different books. There are lots of great themes on connections, conversations and self-reflection. As I self-reflect, you’re going to like our conversation. It was pretty good.
Welcome, Kenneth Tucker, author of Intentional Conversations.
I am glad to be here. I’m looking forward to having a conversation.
Normally, before the show, I’m cool, calm and collected, but I’m a little bit nervous now and intimidated because you’re the conversation and relationship expert. Hopefully, this meets your standards. Let’s get started. I’m always interested in why people have their passions. Have you always been interested in conversations and relationships? How far does it go back to when you were six months old, having conversations with the other kids in play school?
First of all, I have been talking all of my life. I remember the first time I was given the opportunity to speak. It was a Christmas play and I was in the first grade. They selected me to be King Herod in the Christmas play. I had a red silk robe and an aluminum foil crown.
You were the man. Everyone was your humble servant.
They gave me this line. The line was, “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” I could remember to this day, standing up there and stomping my feet and saying, “Where is he that is the king of the Jews?” They let loose on the world an unrelenting talker. I haven’t stopped since. I bring up talking in particular because conversation is the vehicle through which we establish relationships. It’s the medium through which we connect or disconnect. It’s the medium through which we repair and renew relationships.
It’s such a 365, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day tool we have in our toolkit. We don’t use it intentionally. We are random in conversations. By that, I mean we are not thoughtfully random. We are unthinkingly random with conversation. Therein lies our greatest opportunity and challenge. Think about this one. Who was the first person you spoke with in the morning, David?
Conversation really is the vehicle through which people establish relationships.
My wife. When I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, I said, “Sorry, I woke up so early.”
Her response was?
I want to go back to sleep.
Now we’ve had an exchange. We’ve had a conversation. The challenge comes when that conversation doesn’t go according to how we expect it. Many times, we enter into a conversation with expectations. We expect certain things. Let’s say I’m standing outside of the elevator and I’m waiting. My personality is on because that is how I grew up and I’m me. The elevator door opens. I walk into the elevator and I say, “Good morning.” That’s the kind of person I am. I’m in an elevator. I’m talking to you.
I have an expectation that the person in there is going to say, “Hi, good morning. Hello. How are you?” Any of those are in my mind. That person, when the elevator started up this morning, they jumped on it and their intention was, “I haven’t had my cup of coffee yet. I hate that I have to get up and go out of my bed.” That’s their frame of mind. I walk in all effervescent, and they may respond unexpectedly to me. They may give me non-verbals using just a finger.
When a conversation has a wing, it’s the tool by which we connect into relationships. In that scene in the elevator, I could have met somebody who felt like and wanted to connect. They would see me around the building. They always wondered, “Who is this guy?” I jumped on this morning and I said hi to them. They say hello back and before you know it, we’re talking and maybe grabbing a cup of coffee together.
I have five things I wrote down here that I want to follow up on it, but I’m not going to have all five, just a couple because you said a lot. There were many great things. I’m an energetic and friendly guy. Whenever I see people, I’m like, “How are you doing?” People sometimes got scared and look the other way. In that elevator situation, do you or should one modify their approach prior to talking to a person and saying, “Good morning, how are you doing,” by leading the person beforehand? Should you be your “authentic self,” and see how the person reacts and respond accordingly? What’s your opinion on that specific situation?
I have a series of three books. I’ve written six, but the three are in the series. They all begin with the word intentional. What we have learned over the years of studying this word and how it works in my intentional difference, intentional conversations, and intentional relationships is that word is essential for how I live effectively in the world. We have to be intentional. I’m wired in such a way as you are to want to reach out and touch people.
I’ll tell you a quick story to answer your question. Since I travel so much, I tend to sit up front. I have that access. As I’m sitting there, there’s this little guy inside of me. Gallup’s terms would be the woo guy inside of me. It’s sitting there and he’s jumping up and down, looking to see who’s going to sit next to me on this four-hour flight. He’s looking down the aisle, “Who’s coming on? Who’s going to sit next to me?” The person coming down the aisle looks and they see that blue guy jumping up inside of me. They’re praying, “Lord, please not him.”
Sometimes they sit next to me. They pull up their sleep mask or they pull up a book. These things cancel off one another. You can’t read a book with your face mask and with your blinders on. They then twist away. All of these are nonverbal messages to the woo guy, and still doing that four-hour flight. The woo guy inside of me is leading me forward, trying to get eye contact, but they don’t dare give me eye contact because they know if they say those two little letters, “Hi,” it’s over. They’re like, “In four hours, I’m in punishment.”
There are those times when the person coming down the aisle is looking for the woo guy. They hope they have somebody who’s going to make these four hours go by quickly. They sit next to me. We chat and talk, and the flight shot. We get up and in the terminal, we turn and hug one another. Life was great.
You have hugged people after sitting on the flight. Give me an example of when you sat next to them and you became best buddies.
Seek more to understand than to seek to be understood.
There’s a guy who is an executive for one of the large brand new factories. We were two peas in a pot to date. We are still in conversation. My point is that I have matured as the woo guy. The woo guy is always here. It’s not going away. It’s the intentionality around it. One of the things I have to manage and consciously do is speak to the C-Suite mostly. These are seasoned people. Sometimes, it’s a group of financially focused individuals.
I learned at that moment to manage my effervescence. I don’t start with my personality on display. I start with my knowledge and understanding of the facts first. Here’s what we know. We know that 63% of women on Gallup’s best friend question, speaking about relationships, are likely to be more engaged than those who do not have a best friend at work. I got their attention.
For people who are naturally outgoing like yourself, it’s motherhood and apple pie to start up a conversation. For someone more introverted, that’s a struggle. It’s hard. I’m sure you hit on this a lot in the book and your talks, etc. Do you have 1 or 2 bits of advice or even an opening line that sometimes can open up a particularly valuable conversation? I’ll share mine afterward, but if you have something, I would love to hear it from you.
What I teach leaders is one way to build a relationship is to turn your statements into questions. Not disrobing questions, but endearing questions. Questions such as, “This is my first time flying to Seattle. Have you been there before?” I also teach leaders to do that in the sense that all organizations are a combination of relationships. Think about that. Every organization is built up of a variety of relationships.
If you have 100 people, you have hundreds of thousands of relationships, which is an interesting dynamic that exists.
The decision maker is making decisions about individuals in the context of the relationships. If I have less of a relationship with you and I’m your supervisor, I have less information about you. I’m making decisions on less information. I teach CEOs and other executives to turn statements into questions. Instead of saying, “We missed our goals this month,” we want to say, “Tell me about how it is. We worked towards our goal this month.” That opens up the question.
One of the things I tend to try to do in conversations is to avoid platitudes topics. A number of people have talked about, “How has COVID affected you? How has COVID affected this?” Many people are talking about what’s in the news or certain things that aren’t necessarily about them. There are about what other people are talking about. I try to steer conversations more intentionally towards people’s lives. My favorite question that I ask when I haven’t seen someone in a year or two is, “How did COVID positively impact your life?” Many people are complaining. They’re upset about this. There is always a way that COVID has had a positive impact on your life. I’ll ask you, “How did COVID positively impact your life?”
I’m going to go back further beyond COVID. About a decade ago, I separated from my wife for a year and a half. I did everything I could at that point to bring about a divorce. I was dead in the relationship. The relationship was dead to me. We’ve been married now for a total of 41 years, but in that one and a half years, I was gone. Coming back though, part of what brought me back was the thought that I could start a new relationship and work hard on establishing this new relationship, and I still don’t know what the result of it would be. There are no guarantees, or I could decide to come back and work on my relationship with one that I had established for decades before, put that same energy into that and possibly have more of a foundation to land in a different place. That was the seminal place for the book Intentional Relationship.
What did you do with your wife of 30 years at the time from an intentional standpoint? I’m sure it was more than, “Let’s make sure we have a date night once a week.” What did you do?
First of all, I asked for forgiveness, and she had to be willing to forgive. On my side, I had to be willing to receive and accept that forgiveness. There are eight behaviors that I write about in the Intentional Relationship book. They are all one word. They are words that may give you the full idea just by me reading them, but it will certainly interest and intrigue you to understand them more.
The first word is uplift. When I started looking back at the few decades we had spent together, especially the last ones, the last description I would have for our relationship was uplifting. It was anything but uplifting. We could talk about these as we go through them. The question would be, is my relationship uplifting to her and me?
The second one is to understand. Are you understanding? He had this statement. He said, “Seek more to understand than you seek to be understood.” I spend a lot of time understanding the person because sometimes, we don’t take that time and end up with different conclusions. The first thing is, is my relationship uplifting? Is my relationship one of understanding? The third one is talk, so uplift, understand and talk.
Don’t resist the change that is required of you.
You shouldn’t keep everything bottled up inside. You should say things too.
I’m finishing my dissertation as we speak. My dissertation is on attachment theory and relationships. Here we are now. Here’s what the theories say, “One of the sure indications of a dying relationship is that we stopped talking to one another.” We talk only when we need to. We talk only about everything else, but not the deep stuff. Talking is a part of what we need to do. Are you talking in a relationship? Do you make conversation worthwhile in the relationship? That’s number three.
Number four, study. Are you studying the other person? Are you interested enough to study to know what he or she likes and you’re doing it? You surprise them by bringing a cup of coffee to the side of the bed in the morning because they always have a cup of coffee. For me, it’s my wife with lemon water. Before she gets up in the morning, I bring her one glass of lemon water. Are you studying the person? Are you a student of him or her?
The fifth one, are you sharing? This is important. Another thing that goes away quickly when our relationships are tanking is opinion counting. Does your opinion count? Does their opinion count? Is this an opinion-safe environment where somebody is willing to offer their opinion and say, “I don’t think you should wear that outfit? I don’t think you should go to that place.” Is it so unsafe that you don’t dare bring it up?
Number six, are you influencing? Do you initiate growth events to help the other person grow? You say, “I noticed that you stopped painting. You used to paint all the time. When you had a free moment, I go and find you in the garage painting. You’re not painting anymore. You’re such a peaceful person as you paint. It’s rich to watch you paint.” Are you influencing? Are you serving?
Number seven, do you activate the good in the other person by doing good for them? There’s a relationship without me being able to know that the other person at times will serve me, or without me having an appetite to serve the other person. Number eight is the hardest part. Are you changing? Do you monitor your behavior to ensure that you build an intentional relationship? Are you changing? This is what I realized as I came back home to live forever now with my wife. I was resisting the change that was required because I was busy simply focusing on, “You have to change,” when I needed to focus on who I could change, which would be me.
I was going to ask you which one you found the most difficult until you got to the eighth one. I said, “That’s clearly the biggest challenge for Ken.” Talking, uplifting and influencing are easy for someone like you, but changing is hard. I’m married for 23 years myself. In many ways, my wife and I are similar to the people that we were when we were married from a core value standpoint. We also have changed significantly. We were both 24 when we got married.
There are a lot of changes that people have. People get married in their mid-30s or 40s, there’s still a lot of change that ideally should happen. When people marry someone, you’re not marrying necessarily the person and who the person is, but you’re marrying how the person is going to develop you and develop themselves over God-willing 80-plus years ahead. I don’t know if people always realize that, but change is inevitable and changes are also great.
It’s so powerful what you said that we are marrying the person not so much for who they are, but who they will continually grow into. What’s important is that relationships don’t happen to us. We make relationships happen. We touched on this in the first couple of chapters of the book. One way we make relationships happen is by our behavior. In the book, we say, “How is it that you do you?”
Not being the person that your spouse, boss or friend wants you to be, but how you can be your best self. That’s the key.
Realize that all of us are going to come with different jagged edges. We don’t come with smooth edges. We come with jagged edges. One of the things that attracted me to my wife was that she was quiet. She is this strong, silent type. I loved it. The girls I dated who are loud and bossy, it didn’t take long for me to know this was not the person. She was quiet.
One of the things she said that attracted her to me was that I wasn’t quiet. She knew that if she had something she bought from Walmart that needed to be returned, this guy would return it for her. Do you see it? Guess where we had the greatest friction. She was too quiet. I was too loud. This is where the change needed to happen. I was willing to celebrate that she’s quiet even when I wish she were louder. She was willing to accept the fact that I was annoyingly loud.
There are numerous relationship-impacting opportunities that are presented to you every day.
It’s so funny you tell that story. I have to share one myself if you don’t mind. My wife and I started going out in college. I’m very outgoing. She’s not quiet. She’s more outgoing than probably the average person, but I’m at the other end of the spectrum. We started going out. We ended up breaking up in college as many people do.
I went out with another girl and she was extremely outgoing, more outgoing than I have. She wanted to go out every single night and do things constantly. She would call me grandpa because I only wanted to go a couple of times a week. I was like, “Going out with someone like me is driving me insane. It’s terrible. I can’t stand it.” My wife and I ended up getting back together. It’s an example of if you find someone that complements you, there’s a natural tension that exists.
It’s the same thing in business. If you find a cofounder, that cofounder ideally should be different from you. You’re more of a salesperson and that cofounder is more of an engineering person or vice versa, He’s more of an introvert, and you’re more of an extrovert. That’s good, but it also means there’s a natural tension that exists in that dynamic. You have to acknowledge it and figure out how to handle it so that both sides get what they need and grow from that perspective. Do you modify who you are in order to give your wife more space or not?
I don’t want folks to feel like you could change yourself. I want folks to walk away knowing that they can manage themselves. It’s not that I don’t wish that we would entertain far more people than we do. I love people, as you’ve already gathered. I love to be around people. I still have that appetite and desire. I manage myself because I know it stresses her out at some level. Everything must be in order. Every plant must be in its place. The dish must be polished. It’s hard work for her, but I don’t care. I want the people. The people are here, but it’s managing myself.
In that managing, it’s finding a way to be happy in not doing what your natural inclination is or your first inclination is to do all the time but to embrace that management. If you don’t embrace it, you can’t repeat it.
My other book in the series is called Your Intentional Difference. What it focuses on is the idea that you are made different to make a difference. If that’s true then, it is my difference where my greatest contribution comes from. I have to know and understand how to apply it best in what situation. It’s that whole intentional difference. The effervescent personality I have is what engages my audience. It’s the same thing that may annoy my teenage kids when I’m with their friends, “Sorry, pops, you are not the life of the party. You’re not the center of attraction here.”
My son brought home ten friends. He was a camp counselor. I said to myself, “Don’t hang out with them. Say hi and go away.” That’s what I did until they came to me and they started wanting to talk to me. That’s a different story. I’ve seen you write and talk about RIOs, Relationship-Impacting Opportunities. I found it fascinating. Can you share a little more about that?
Every single day, there are numerous relationship-impacting opportunities that are presented to us. We’ve already had a couple. One place we connected was we identified that we very much have similar types of personalities. You’ve piggybacked on a number of things I said. I piggybacked on a number of things you said. We’ve had some of those smaller versions of relationship-impacting opportunities, but there are some large ones that come along that we tend to either score the RIO as in touchdown. We saw the RIO, we grabbed the RIO, and we acted on the RIO. It has had a positive impact on our relationship. There are those that, for whatever reason, we missed them altogether. They happen and we miss them.
There are those that sadly decided, “I’m too lazy. I’m not interested enough. I don’t care enough.” We just let them pass. Relationship-impacting opportunities function in all of our relationships. One of the stories I tell in the book is about Ms. Heather. She was the manager of a busy kitchen in a hospital system. One day, a lady comes up to her and says, “Thank you, Ms. Heather.” She says to the lady, “Your welcome.” She walks off but the lady falls off. She said, “No, Ms. Heather, thank you.” The lady’s eyes are brimming with tears.
Heather realized, “This is deeper than just a thank you.” They go into the office there, and the lady starts to talk to her. She says, “I want to thank you for my job.” Heather was like, “I’m glad you’re here.” She says, “No, but you keep giving me more responsibility.” Heather was like, “Yes because you keep doing great and greater work.” She says, “No, but you don’t understand. Before you came, I had already set the date to devise the means by which to commit suicide. The way in which you interacted with me and you kept giving me more responsibility changed my life. Thank you, Ms. Heather.”
This is the whole idea of the three things that I spent a lot of time thinking about. What is the unique difference a person brings that Heather recognized in that woman? How can I connect with the person through conversation in ways that suspend status and policy for the individual, cultivates connection and challenges, reframes something for them, in this instance, reframe a purpose, force engagement, and then triage all of this data that I’ve collected? I named off the acronym in the Intentional Conversation book, SECRET.
When we do that, we practice intentional conversation, we’re bringing people to a place where they have to engage around what’s important in this instance. They have to go in and pull out from it, “What do I take away from this?” Certainly, in that conversation, Heather got it. Also, through her knowing this person’s difference and allowing it to flourish, having this conversation led to an intentional relationship with each other, so much so that decades later, now I’m telling her story all over again.
In this argument culture, in order to get things done, one must be adversarial.
One of the joys that I have from doing this show, which is all about connections and conversations, is the ability to meet and learn from people like you. Everything you’re saying is valuable on a personal level but also incredibly applicable to the workplace, the office, and business conversations. When you think about how you can build connections and relationships and the impact that that has on keeping employee retention, keeping employees motivated, and positively impacting people, it’s one and the same. There’s no difference.
I want to move to our rapid-fire questions soon, and this is hard for me because I could continue this conversation for a four-hour flight. I’m going to Seattle. If you’re going to be there, we could go together. Is there one call that you would give around something that’s even more important in a workplace setting regarding intentional conversations that our audience can highlight in their minds?
I would suggest that the workplace is an excellent venue for you to grow as an individual. My mentor Don Clifton would say, “We develop our strengths in direct relationships with other people.” That doesn’t just hang out there. That’s undergirded by all kinds of research and truths. I believe that humans are designed to live in relationships. Suddenly, the biblical narrative says, “It’s not good that man would be alone.” I think that’s true for all humans. It’s not good for us to be alone.
Not only that, when we look into research, what we see is when John Bowlby came up with what is now known as the Attachment Theory, he posited that the infant is born with a need to connect to the primary caregiver. That’s disrupted. We ended up with people who were deviant or criminal. Everything then is yelling out at us or shouting out at us that the relationships we have, especially since we spent three-quarters of our waking hours at work, that is the absolute fertile soil for us to become more of who we are through relationships we have there.
How do we find the ability to uplift, understand, talk, study, share, influence, serve, and change through work? It is the question that each of us should be asking ourselves because the opportunity is there. Sometimes we’re not as intentional as we could potentially be about it. I’ll add in terms of Attachment Theory. I studied a bit of Attachment Theory although I’m not getting a PhD. The human species is one of the only species with an extreme need for attachment for a long period of time. A bird could stay in the nest for a little period of time but flies off within a day or a week. Most animals are the same thing, but babies can survive on their own.
Most species can survive on their own, but human beings can’t. It’s because of that inability to survive on your own when you were first born that the theories around attachment play out. That’s why many kids tend to act up when a second or third child comes because they see that as a threat to their potential attachment. Attachment is deep-seated in the human mind. It’s something fascinating to study. Hopefully, I’ll get to read your dissertation one day.
Also, even when we move from the infant stage. We need to understand that when we get to the teenage stage, we see different demonstrations of attachment. The attachment momentarily shifts to our peer group and friends. The parents are at a loss. They don’t think they’re friends. We see it moved from adulthood to a romantic attachment.
It’s all around us. It’s happening all the time because as humans, we thrive in community, which is quite challenging in the present culture. Deborah Tannen talks about argument culture. The description of the present culture that exists not only in America but is now pervasive around the world is what she calls argument culture. This argument culture, she says, is one where we feel like to get things done, we must be adversarial. That’s what it seems like.
It helps to explain why instead of having a heated debate, a teenager will take a gun to school and kill people. It’s this mindset that if I’m going to get things done, I have to take this argument approach or this adversarial approach. It challenges the idea of the bonafide human need, which is connection. You spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about connections.
That’s one of the reasons why I love being a part of Meetup, as much as I do. Meetup is all about building connections. We’ve built half a billion connections which is amazing over the last several years between different people. Tens of millions of people every week are building connections through Meetup with each other.
I want to be intentional about our rapid-fire questions. What that means is I’m going to ask a quick question. I’m going to challenge you here with quick answers. Are you ready, Ken? Here we go. Question number one. The first time you saw yourself as a leader.
Early in my life, I was a leader and I was a deviant leader. I was in a Catholic high school. I was known as the bad boy of the campus until such time, and I will never forget, that Father Aaron Craft put me in a play and cast me as the criminal who had died and come back to his own funeral. I was listening to people talk about the bad things he did. It impacted my life.
That’s an impressive pedagogical method. The next question is if you could access a time machine and go anywhere you want at any place in time, where are you going and when?
I’ll go back to The Bahamas twenty years ago.
Why, beaches, people?
It was a delicate time. In about 2000, it was quite an amazing time in The Bahamas because we were old enough as an independent nation and the world was in a different place than what it is now. It was pre-COVID. Some of the flare-ups of racism and discrimination are all over again. The Bahamas is directly impacted by what happens here. It’s only 50 miles off the coast, but what a great time to be alive. At that time, I was a younger person myself.
For the last question, name one thing that is on your bucket list.
Finish the dissertation. I want to teach at the graduate level. I want to teach leadership. I have developed a couple of curriculums, one of which is leadership in a multi-ethnic organization. I want to teach that to graduate and doctoral students.
The last question is, Ken, you’ve done so much, but what do you most want to be remembered by in the many years that you have had?
The redemption of my marriage. More than anything else, I want other couples to glean hope and seek to do the heavy work of re-care and renewal. There’s nothing more amazing to me. My wife and I were talking about it. There’s nothing more miraculous to me that we have been living together for ten years post that year and a half of absolute emptiness and devastation. Remember me as a person who benefited from the grace of God that brought me back into a healthy relationship with the wife of my youth.
It is a miracle. The number of people that are separated for a year-plus, get back together, stay in that marriage, and be happily married for ten years plus must be infinitesimally small. Kudos to the diligence, focus, and intentionality that both of you had. Many people can learn from you. I’m sure many of them did. Whether they did or didn’t, they should go out and get Intentional Conversations and/or one of your other five books, Intentional Relationships, etc. Thank you so much, Ken. I look forward to one day sitting on a plane next to you and not being in a plane conversation.
Thank you so much, David, for the work that you do. What great work you do. You are a source of encouragement for people. I appreciate the platform you provide to people like me. Thank you so much.
Thank you for tuning in to our conversation with the conversation expert, Kenneth Tucker. There are many takeaways. Here is a couple. Conversation is the vehicle for relationships. Do you want to grow your relationship? It is about conversations. Find ways to turn statements into questions to grow those relationships. Manage yourself. Don’t modify yourself. The last is we’re all made different in order to make a difference. If you enjoy this episode, leave a review. Please subscribe. Check out my new book, Decide and Conquer. Remember, let’s keep connected because life is better together.
I have something important to share. Check out my new book, Decide and Conquer, to get to know my story at Meetup. The hardest thing about community leadership is making tough decisions when the stakes are high. They were never higher than when Meetup was owned and sold by WeWork. In my new book, Decide and Conquer, I’ll walk you through a counter-intuitive framework for decision-making and the epic journey of Meetup’s surprising survival. Good leaders deliberate. Great leaders decide. Order my book by visiting DecideAndConquerBook.com or anywhere books are sold. I think you will like it.
- KTA Solutions
- Intentional Conversations
- Kenneth Tucker – LinkedIn
- Intentional Relationship
- Your Intentional Difference
About Kenneth Tucker
Chief Executive Officer at KTA Solutions! Kellogg’s Fellow, Best Selling Author
Last modified on August 31, 2022