Talk is powerful. And it isn't just "difficult" conversations that matter-the everyday dialogue we have with one another is critical to both personal and organizational success. Packed with sample dialogues and dozens of personal stories, and backed by solid research and the authors' firsthand observations, The Four Conversations describes how to get maximum results from conversations that every one of us must use to get things done: initiative conversations introducing something new, understanding conversations to help people relate to ideas or processes, performance conversations requesting specific actions, and closure conversations that recognize achievements and signal completion of the work. As Jeffrey and Laurie Ford clearly demonstrate, engage in the right conversation at the right time-plan and start each one well, finish every one effectively-and extraordinary things can happen.
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About the Author
Jeffrey Ford is associate professor of management in the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University in Columbus.
Laurie Ford is a consultant to managers and executives in business, government agencies, and associations on organization redesign and change implementation.
Read an Excerpt
Four Conversations in a
Realizing your goals will take more than passion, vision, and commitment: it will take talking to other people. To be successful, your talking must accomplish more than simply following the rules of well-mannered communication skills. Getting more of what you want and less of what you don’t want—in work and in life—depends on how well you use four types of conversations.
Initiative Conversations: When you talk in a way that proposes something new or different, such as introducing a new goal, proposing an idea, or launching a change in strategy or structure, you are having an Initiative Conversation.
Example: You are a manager who announces a new customer service policy. Your announcement can be done in a way that attracts people toward working with you to implement the new policy, or it can be so vague or bossy that everyone goes back to doing their own work, leaving you to wonder how you will do it all yourself.
Understanding Conversations: When you want people to understand the meaning of your ideas, and relate them to their current jobs or their personal ideas about the future so that they will consider working with you, you are having an Understanding Conversation.
Example: You explain the purpose of your new customer service policy and your plan for its implementation, and encourage people to make suggestions and contribute their advice. The way you talk will either help people see how to support you or create confusion and annoyance.
Performance Conversations: When you want people to take specific actions or produce specific results, you make specific requests (and promises) so they know what to do and when to do it. Performance Conversations, when properly conducted, will lead people to work, perform tasks, and produce results.
Example: You are a manager who directs all employees to follow the new customer service policy starting today (your request) and asks for a show of hands (their promise) by everyone who accepts the request. This establishes an agreement for action. Your request could be so effective that people start to implement it that afternoon, or so sketchy it leaves people unsure about what you really want, when you want it, and whether it really matters.
Closure Conversations: When you thank someone for his or her work, summarize the status of a project, or tell people that a job is complete, you are having a Closure Conversation.
Example: Six months after the new customer service policy was implemented, you and your staff review the customer evaluations and complaints to find out what worked and what did not work. Your talk in this situation can give people a sense of accomplishment and bring out new ideas for improvement, or it can leave people wondering whether everyone is really using the new policy yet, whether it works, or if anyone learned something from the implementation process.
The Importance of Conversations
Everything we talk about involves one or more of the four types of conversation. We use them when we are socializing, talking about the weather, discussing the big game, or chatting about an upcoming party. We use them when we are learning about the computer system, getting assignments from the boss, or explaining how the travel policy works to a new employee. Any time we are trying to motivate people, get them to be more productive, or help them solve a problem, we are using one or more of these four conversations.
At work, managers introduce ideas and improvements. They want to have people understand, take appropriate action, and create an environment of teamwork and communication. The problem is that many managers make mistakes in the way they use these conversations, or leave out important parts that help get the message across.
Abraham was a supervisor in a fast-growing organization where staff turnover was unusually high. Both the rapid growth and the high turnover increased Abraham’s workload to the point where he was working longer days and weekends, much to the disappointment of his family. He knew he was in a negative cycle, doing more work himself and reducing the amount of time to train staff and be a good supervisor, but he was unable to turn the situation around.
“I talked to my supervisor about it,” Abraham said. “He agreed the staff shortage was a problem. He knows I am working too many hours, and that I’m unhappy about it. But he has not done anything to resolve the problem. Maybe he doesn’t care.”
We asked Abraham about the details of his conversations with his boss, and he told us, “My boss and I agreed that our staff turnover meant we have to spend more time training new people, and the increase in customers also increases our work,” Abraham said. “We talked about why the workload has gone up, and then we shared some personal stories about how we cope with the effects on our family life. It’s hard for him too. We agreed that something should be done, but we aren’t sure what.”
Abraham and his boss had an Understanding Conversation. Neither of them used an Initiative Conversation to propose a solution, or a Performance Conversation to request a change of some kind. When he learned about Performance Conversations, Abraham decided to be bold. He went to his boss with some new requests for action.
“I asked him to look into his budget,” Abraham said, “and see if he could either hire two new people or get two temps in here right away. I also asked him to give me permission to stop working overtime in the evenings and weekends, starting now. And I asked him for a week’s vacation before the end of the month. I told him I needed to get reacquainted with my family.”
“I never got the vacation,” he said later, “but I did get all my weekends off starting that week. My boss contacted a key customer and changed four deadlines we had promised for customer deliveries. He asked for two new hires, and we actually got one of them, which is a miracle. These were great results for me and I feel better about working here. The most important thing I learned, though, is that talking about a problem is not the same thing as having a Performance Conversation that will resolve it.”
We all have habitual ways of conversing with people around us. In our collaboration with hundreds of practicing managers, most were surprised to learn how frequently they used each type of conversation, and how and why they used them. Many saw that they were indirect, and only hinted at what they wanted other people to do. Some made clear requests to some of their colleagues or friends but not to others, or explained why they wanted something, but never got to the point of giving a clear instruction. Some went out of their way to show appreciation, while others rarely said “good job,” or “thank you” to the people who worked with them.
We all know that we do not talk the same way to our boss as we do with our spouse, children, or friends. But do you know what is different? Do you use all four types of conversation with skill and ease? Or do you use one or two conversations most of the time, and other ones only rarely?
If you are getting what you want in most areas of your life, and the people around you are supporting your goals, you are probably using all four types of conversations skillfully. If not, it may be time to update your patterns of talk. Too often, when we fail to get what we want, we blame other factors such as authority, personality, or motives. We can choose an alternative and look to our own way of talking to see how it affects our relationships and results. For example, Abraham blamed his boss for not caring about his problem of overwork. When he learned new ways to change his conversation, he got a better outcome than he expected.
Some Conversations Slow Things Down,
Others Speed Things Up
Many of our conversations seem to make no difference. Office meetings can be “too much talking with nothing happening.” Some conversations slow our progress by distracting us from important issues or giving us irrelevant information that only adds confusion. Other conversations, however, give us insight into solving a problem, or provide fresh direction and clarity. When we have a goal or a desire to accomplish something, some conversations will be productive, and others will not.
Complaints are an example of conversations that are usually unproductive. When people complain about the weather, such as, “It always rains when I want to play golf,” they say it with no intention to change the weather, or even, at that moment, to move to a drier climate or buy a rain suit and adapt.
Many complaints at work are like complaints about the weather. People do not intend to do anything to resolve the complaint, and often have no solutions in mind. Even where solutions exist, or could be developed, the complainer does not intend to be the one who will push for implementing them. Complaints about anything—the weather or a problem at work or at home—which lack a commitment to create or work toward a solution, are simply a distraction to everyone within earshot. Uncommitted complaints are unproductive conversations, and have a negative effect on morale and performance.
We have seen brainstorming sessions, however, that sounded like a lot of complaining, but produced valuable outcomes. Participants itemized all the things wrong with their organization, systems, or policies, but they were actually working to find the underlying causes of negative situations and invent better ways to get things done. Their outcome was a list of solutions—the product of a commitment to make improvements.
The difference between productive and unproductive complaints is a matter of intention. Do the people involved in the conversation have any intention to take actions that will resolve the complaint? If not, the conversation is not a productive one to engage in.
Blaming is another popular, but unproductive, conversation. When we talk about who or what is the cause of a problem, we may want to blame “them,” those wrongdoers who have made—or failed to make—decisions or actions. Who did it? “They” did. We blame them because “they” do not understand, are incompetent, or have a selfish hidden agenda.
Complaining and blaming both take up time and energy but do not change anything for the better. In fact, by engaging in conversations about the culprits and their wrongdoings, we may contribute to a general sense of helplessness. Whether the conversation is about the boss’s poor leadership, the negative effects of an office policy, or employee resistance to change, when we have no intention to find and implement a cure, we are merely fanning the flames of workplace resentment and frustration. As these negative sentiments build, people become more resigned and cynical, reducing their chances of winning either personal or professional success.
Gossip, or passing along negative stories and comments about other people, is also unproductive, and sometimes damaging to both the participants and the subject of the gossip. Although people may use gossip as a way of being more personally related to one another, it is at best a distraction from, or an avoidance of, productive work. It also undermines the credibility of the subject, and, less obviously, it undermines the trustworthiness of the gossiper. A person who tells you something negative about someone else can be expected to do the same to you behind your back.
Unproductive conversations—complaints, blaming, and gossip—will probably always exist in organizations and communities. It is useful, however, to realize when they are not productive. You can add intention and use of the four conversations to restore integrity and promote performance that will be more positive for everyone involved.
Four Productive Conversations
Each of the four conversations has a different purpose, and produces a different kind of result or impact on the listener. Used at the right times, and in the right combinations or patterns, these conversations can speed things up, add accountability, and reduce misunderstandings.
Initiative Conversations share new ideas, goals, visions, and futures with people who can participate in implementing and making them real
Understanding Conversations build awareness and knowledge of a new or existing idea in a way that helps people see how to participate in using or accomplishing it
Performance Conversations are requests and promises that generate specific actions, results, and agreements, and pave the way for accountability
Closure Conversations support experiences of accomplishment, satisfaction, and value; strengthen accountability; and give people an honest look at the successes and failures encountered on the way to reaching a goal
Most of us want to be better at initiating things, getting people to understand our message, promoting effective action, and completing things. Now you can develop mastery in using the four conversations to produce results. Start by learning which conversations you are using, whether you are using the best one(s) for your purposes, and how to include all the components that will engage others in the ways you want.
The four types of conversations get things done, and build more productive and respectful relationships, but not everybody uses them in the same way. Most people are very successful with some types of conversation and less adept with others. Many people do not use all four types of conversation, either because they do not know there are other types of conversation that they could use, or because they choose not to use them. Our “missing conversations” can compromise the quality, timeliness, or participation in whatever we are doing, and sometimes even reduce our credibility and relatedness with staff and coworkers.
Jason is a mid-level manager accountable for two different installation projects in a communications company. Project A was progressing well, but Project B was three weeks behind schedule and regularly missing deadlines. Since the same people were involved in both projects, Jason’s explanation for the problem was that his team members were not working well together on the two installations, and he needed more budget resources. “People problems and money problems,” he said. “Those are always the culprits.”
To test his assumptions, Jason kept a project journal for one week, making detailed notes of what was said in his conversations with people about both projects. He also reviewed his emails and meeting summaries to take note of his conversational patterns. He expected to see a lot of talk about personnel and resource issues, but after reviewing his conversational records, he came to a different conclusion about the problems of Project B.
“The difference in my communications in the two projects was surprising,” he explained. “In Installation Project A, I asked for new ideas from my team members, explored ideas with everyone, and then we all made agreements about what we would do before our next meeting. In every weekly project meeting, we reviewed what had happened since our last meeting, did post-mortems on things that didn’t go as expected, and then decided what we should do next.”
“But, in Project B, I didn’t do all that. The reason is that I have done the B-type installation before. I know how it should go, so I just explained to everybody what needed to be done instead of asking for their ideas and input. I gave people their assignments, and expected them to do their work. I was confident that these are capable people, so I didn’t follow up with them.”
Jason’s review of Project B conversations showed he was missing Initiative Conversations (soliciting new ideas), Understanding Conversations (making sure people had a chance to interact about what needed to be done), and Closure Conversations (following up with his team on what was and was not accomplished). He decided to change his conversational pattern by talking with his Project B team about how to make the installation more successful and instituting a weekly follow-up meeting where team members could acknowledge work that was completed, what they had learned, and what remained to be done.
The first result he noticed was improved creativity and collaboration among the team members. The next was that productivity picked up. Five weeks later, Jason reported that his new conversational pattern had gotten Project B back on schedule.
Initiative Conversations. Some people do not set goals for themselves or their group, or, if they do, believe there is no need to communicate them to others. One executive explained, “People should know their jobs, and their jobs don’t change just because I am setting a new goal for our division. If people need to alter their responsibilities, I will talk with them about it. I don’t want to give a big speech, or publicly commit my whole division to a particular vision.”
This particular executive was in a rapidly changing organization that was struggling to respond to major shifts in its own product technology and its industry’s economic position. It was understandable that he did not want to “commit his whole division” to one goal, preferring to keep people focused on the familiar. At the same time, he was disappointed in his people’s ability to be more creative in solving problems, and to collaborate across functional groups for creating what he called “new efficiencies.”
This executive did not connect his lack of Initiative Conversations with the lack of creative thinking and teamwork. When he finally agreed to try them, he held an all-staff meeting and told everyone his top two strategies for surviving the organization’s current risk position. Then he told them that he wanted all employees to stay focused on their jobs while also looking for opportunities to “find new solutions to old problems.”
Several of the meeting participants mentioned later that they were glad to have a “bigger conversation” than just the day-to-day routine. The executive was pleased to see a new spirit. “It’s like everybody’s sense of humor came back,” he said. “It looks like Initiative Conversations create a little more confidence in the future, and that’s what we needed here now.”
Understanding Conversations. Some people do not invite input and discussion after they unveil a new idea, goal, or plan. “Why do we need to explain the details?” one manager asked. “Everybody knows the goals here, since they are posted on our intranet. People should take their assignments and do them, without having everyone waste time in a meeting to figure out what they’re supposed to do.” This manager was strong in setting goals (Initiative Conversations) and in giving people feedback on progress (Closure Conversations). But once the goals were set, he preferred to give his staff their individual work assignments, and he saw no point in holding a group conversation to hear employee questions or comments.
When this manager saw that having an Understanding Conversation might give his employees a chance to hear and learn from each other in new ways, he agreed to have several group meetings to discuss department goals. In each discussion, he focused on the current process they were using to develop customer proposals. He was pleased to discover his people had many ideas to improve both teamwork and their communication between teams.
“I thought I was going to be put on the spot to defend things,” he said after the second meeting. “But instead, the employees started talking to each other, and we listed problems and solutions on the board. Everybody jumped in to answer the questions. I should have done this long ago!”
Performance Conversations. This type of conversation is most often one of the weakest in communications. “I shouldn’t have to ask people to do specific things,” one director said, explaining why she didn’t use them. “My people are very experienced and know what is expected without being asked.”
She was opposed to the specific requests-and-promises requirement of Performance Conversations, fearing it would “disempower” people and make the workplace seem “cold.” Still, she also wanted people to have more respect for deadlines and budgets, and wanted her teams to be more effective in working together to assemble new editions of their organization’s monthly publications. “Can’t we work like a well-oiled machine without keeping track of every little thing?” she wondered.
This director called a meeting of all her team leaders to identify what she called the “top ten internal agreements we need to keep with each other.” This started as an Understanding Conversation and led into the requests and promises of Performance Conversations. Her goal was to discover where her staff members thought they needed to spell out deadlines, communicate expenditures, and establish agreements between teams, and then have people commit to those agreements.
“We have five main teams in this organization,” she told the group. “We want to work together in a way that nobody is ever waiting for something from another team. Let’s get ahead of the curve and really help each other be productive.” The group created a list of fourteen items they said they needed to communicate more clearly. They called it their “Ask and Promise” list, and posted it by the conference room door as a reminder to make those specific requests and promises whenever they were needed.
“Just agreeing to ask for and promise specific times for people to deliver their magazine copy was a breakthrough,” said one team leader. “We have been trying to avoid being too businesslike here, but sometimes it causes delays and bad feelings. I’m glad we have an ‘Ask and Promise’ board, and we can add to it whenever we want. We’ve been focused on being nice instead of being productive. The surprise is that we are nicer when we’re more in sync with each other.”
Closure Conversations. These conversations are frequently among the missing because, as one chief operating officer (COO) put it, “They’ve already been through a difficult challenge to finish the project. Why make everybody go back through it again?” This COO had introduced a new system for communicating customer business information between his sales people and his technical service staff. If used properly, his internal document management system would help the sales reps inform the “techs,” who could then provide the right services to the customers, and prevent failures in meeting customer expectations.
The problem was that only some of the sales reps were reliably using the system, and most of the techs were reluctant to report the problem. “We don’t want to point fingers,” said one tech. So the customer business information was not always reliable, and some customers did not receive what they expected.
In the face of internal disagreements, a Closure Conversation can clear the air. The COO called his three sales managers and two technical team leaders into a meeting. “We need to look at where we are with using our document management system,” he said. “Here are the facts.” He listed the customer accounts that had a “gap in expectations” created by sales reps who were not putting complete information into the system. He said, “You are all bright and talented people. You know how to use a document management system and how to capture information. What is the problem here?”
He discovered a few issues that kept people from doing things properly. One sales rep had delegated the data entry job to someone who was savvier with computers than he was, and that person disregarded the instructions for using the system. Another entire sales team held an inaccurate belief about which data fields were their responsibility to fill in, believing the office administrator should complete some fields. Finally, almost all sales reps disliked the new system, saying, “We never had any input in the way this document management system was designed, and the format for the technical data doesn’t fit the way we have been trained to sell our customer accounts.”
The COO agreed with this last statement, saying, “Given how much we’ve spent on sales training, I can’t believe I didn’t have one of those Understanding Conversations to get the sales team involved in the process of designing the data entry form for the system. No wonder the team wasn’t using it. We’re going to go back and get the team members engaged, and then have a sales meeting to review the form. We will make whatever changes in the document management system that they can give me a good reason for making.”
This COO has a new awareness of Closure Conversations. He says, “We will debrief at the end of every project. We’re going to have a monthly status review of progress toward goals. And we’re going to have regular team evaluations. I can’t believe we went eight months trying to get something to work when we could have solved it much sooner with a few Closure Conversations. It was an expensive lesson, but I’ve learned it well.”
As long as we are in situations where the types of conversation we know best are effective, everything is fine, and we get what we want. But when our interactions are not successful, or do not produce the results we want, we may attribute the problem to something about “them” (the other person or group) or “it” (a specific situation or environment). The alternative is to learn to apply other types of conversation in some of those “stuck” or difficult situations.
A difficult conversation is anything you find hard to talk about.1 Examples of potentially difficult conversations include asking your boss for a raise, firing an employee, giving someone a performance review, publicly asking critical questions about a popular issue, giving a friend bad news, or calling someone to account for poor work. They can be unsettling because we do not know how we, or the other person, will respond, and we may be afraid of where the conversation could go. As a result, we may be unsure of ourselves and put off the conversations or not have them at all.
Tori was apprehensive about talking with one of her employees because her past conversations with him had not produced any improvement in his performance, and she was facing a performance review deadline.
“What am I going to say to him that I haven’t already said?” she asked. “He’s on probation, and if he doesn’t improve I will have to fire him, which I really don’t want to do if I can avoid it. I am at a loss about what to say, and I am not looking forward to talking with him.”
After learning about the four types of conversation, Tori realized she had only used Understanding Conversations with this employee. She had repeatedly explained the need for him to improve the quality of his work, but had never reviewed with him the regional goals (Initiative Conversation). She also had not made specific requests and agreements for outcomes (Performance Conversations), or met with him to review his specific work practices and results and acknowledge him for what he did accomplish (Closure Conversations).
Tori decided to try a combination of Understanding and Closure Conversations. “I told him that I was sorry I hadn’t made my conditions clear to him,” she said. “I apologized for the uncertainty we both had had for the past two months (Closure Conversation). Then I itemized the three attributes of his work that I was going to measure from now on and we talked about them (Understanding Conversation). He promised that he would change his work practices and focus on making a measurable impact on those measures (Performance Conversation). We agreed that we would review his performance on the measures every Friday and every Monday, just to gain some momentum (Closure Conversations). His performance began improving in the second week.”
Some conversations are difficult because we do not know which type of conversation to have, or even that there are different types of conversation. This is what happened in Tori’s case. Other conversations are difficult because we do not know all the elements of whichever type of conversation is critical for success.
The Conversational Elements
One way to make sure each type of conversation is used completely is to borrow a tip from journalism: ask the questions Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How to get as much information as possible. The trick is to use these questions in a way that supports each of the four conversations.
For each type of conversation, the questions What-When-Why go together, because they all focus on whatever it is that you want to accomplish or make happen:
What are we trying to accomplish?
When do we want to accomplish it?
Why is this accomplishment important?
The other three questions—Who-Where-How—go together, because they all relate to the resources and methods involved to make it happen:
Who is involved?
Where will the resources come from?
How will it get done?
If some of these vital pieces of information are left out, the conversation is incomplete and even potentially productive conversations can slow people down or fail to engage them. Consider four managers who left out key elements from each type of conversation.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Four Conversations in a Successful Workplace 1
The Importance of Conversations 3
Some Conversations Slow Things Down, Others Speed Things Up 6
Six Limitations to a Successful Workplace 22
Conversations: Your Personal Advantage 29
Key Points 29
Chapter 2 Initiative Conversations: Create a Future 31
Leaders Have Initiative Conversations 32
Choose Your Initiative Statement: What-When-Why 40
Prepare for Your Initiative Conversation: Who-Where-How 46
Launch Your Initiative Conversation 49
If You Are Missing Initiative Conversations 53
Putting It into Practice 56
Chapter 3 Understanding Conversations: Include and Engage 59
Help People Find a Positive Meaning in Your Message 60
Expand and Deepen Participation 68
The Limits of Understanding 82
If You Are Missing Understanding Conversations 90
Putting It into Practice 94
Chapter 4 Performance Conversations: Ask and Promise 97
Commit to Performance: What-When-Why 99
Ask Others to Commit 105
Promises Create Agreements: Who-Where-How 112
Manage the Agreement 120
If You Are Missing Performance Conversations 123
Putting It into Practice 127
Chapter 5 Closure Conversations: Create Endings 131
An Incomplete Past Can Prevent a New Future 132
The Four A's of Closure Conversations 134
Build Accountability and Resolve "People Problems" 150
If You Are Missing Closure Conversations 160
Putting It into Practice 163
Chapter 6 Using the Four Conversations 167
Conversational Tendencies 167
How the Four Conversations Work Together 169
Putting It into Practice 197
Chapter 7 Support the Conversational Workplace 201
The ConversationalWorkplace 201
Practices to Support the Conversational Workplace 203
Implementing the Practices: Four Tips 211
A Closing Note 215
About the Authors 237
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Avoid this book. Dry, boring and nothing new. I listened for an hour and a half before dropping it. On Amazon there are 12 reviews of 5 star, however for almost all of them this is their only review. It deserves a 0 rating but gave it ½ so others know it was rated.