Communication
May 7, 2012

Convincing conversations

Powerful Conversations
Phil Harkins
McGraw-Hill, 192 pages, $30.95

The Four Conversations
Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford
Berrett-Koehler, 236 pages, $24.95

Talk, talk, talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talk, talk, talk. So goes the day. And the weeks, months and years.

Our work life is a series of conversations. And those conversations determine whether you will be successful or not.    

“Great leaders – deliberately, economically, and with the utmost care – maximize their conversations to achieve clear leadership goals,” Phil Harkins wrote in his fascinating 1999 book, Powerful Conversations.

Our problem is that in so many conversations we are on autopilot. And even if we aren’t, we have no particular training in conversation. After all, we know how to talk, so presumably we know how to converse. No training necessary.

So let’s counter that with some insight garnered from two books that might help you to make better use of your conversations in the coming months.

Harkins, an executive coach, observes that high-impact leaders use conversation to actualize strategy, stabilize situations or people, build trust, drive ideas, and systematize or focus work processes. Powerful Conversations, as he titles them, have three essential stages:

1.    In the beginning, the initiator of the conversation sets up his or her agenda with an honest feeling or a sincere expression of need. That signals the importance of the agenda being presented and serves as a request for help.

2.    In the middle stage, the issues enmeshed in the agenda are discussed with the leader probing for the wants and needs of the other participant, since those must be met to obtain buy-in and achieve the leader’s own agenda. This discussion should uncover any hidden agendas and link facts to underlying assumptions.

3.    In the closing stage, the leader makes sure the participants agree on a plan for action. The leader also takes care to ask directly whether the other person received what he or she wanted from the conversation. “This is a good way to ensure that a Powerful Conversation will lead to results,” he writes.

He says you can tell whether you have had a Powerful Conversation by checking for three outcomes: advancement of an agenda, shared learning, and a stronger agenda. Those are the telltale signs of whether you have been successful. And they lead to a furthering of trust, which will help to make the next conversation quicker and more effective.

Harkins stresses that the leader must express vulnerability – ask for help and display honest feelings – to ignite the conversation. That’s difficult, of course, because most of us are reluctant to express vulnerability at work. But he insists: “Vulnerability allows us to open up the wants and needs of others.”
 
He stresses that it is essential not to skip a stage when progressing through a Powerful Conversation. “Otherwise you can fall into the trap of leaping forward in an undisciplined way. The commitments that result from such conversations are frequently shaky,” he warns.

And if you want to be effective, he urges you to hold these Powerful Conversations with some folks you are probably allergic to: workplace mavericks. He calls them “passionate champions,” however. They are renegades – but renegades with lots of potential followers – who must be persuaded to mesh their goals with the leader’s strategic agenda. When that happens, you can accomplish change.

They, of course, will want you to adopt their agenda – give them licence to act on their grievances. But he stresses that good leaders don’t empower these passionate champions, since that means giving up control and risking your agenda as they pursue their own. Instead, talk, talk, talk. Use his format for Powerful Conversations to find out what each of you wants, and how your agendas can be aligned. That will require, he advises, quality time devoted to these mavericks on a regular basis, both in the workplace and outside, as you pursue your joint interests.

In The Four Conversations, the husband-and-wife team Jeffrey and Laurie Ford – he’s a management professor and she’s a management consultant – take another look at the cycle of conversations. But instead of looking at conversations as all alike, with the three steps from initiating discussion to achieving agreement, they see four different types of conversations we hold, that in their own way take us from initiation to closure on important matters. The Four Conversations are:

  • Initiative Conversation: This occurs when you propose something new or different – introduce new idea or goal, or launch a change in strategy or team roles. A classic was in 1961 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy declared before the decade was out his country would land a human on the moon. He was announcing the future he wanted to achieve, and inviting others to join him in making it happen. As with most initiative conversations, he was scant on the details. The key is to state what you want, when it should be accomplished by, and why. The rest will come later. Initiative conversations, by the way, are the least used of the four types of conversations because usually we’re busy chasing goals that others have set out. But if you want to be a leader, you need to be skilled at this form of conversation.
  • Understanding Conversation: Often when you propose an idea, the first instinct of others is to resist. In an understanding conversation, instead you help them to find positive meaning in your proposal and discover what role they can play in making it a reality. So an understanding conversation takes the idea, helps them to understand it and relate it to their current jobs or ideas. And to the extent you can fill in details that weren’t available or fit for an initiative conversation, now you can add facts about who needs to participate, where are the resources to accomplish it, and how the work will be done. These are the conversations we use most persistently in the workplace, convinced that if only people understood what we wanted to do it will be enough to attain success. But it isn’t enough – you need the other two types of conversations as well.
  • Performance Conversation: Here you get down to the nitty-gritty: the specific requests of and promises to people so they know what to do and when to do it. You are forging specific performance agreements for what will be done, when it will be done, why it matters, who agrees to do it, where the result will be delivered, and how things will be done. It’s the kind of thing many of us shy away from, relying instead on The Holy Grail of “understanding.” By the way, performance conversations should not be confused with performance evaluations: these occur on a routine basis, focused on the many projects you have on the go rather than being an annual or semi-annual summary of effectiveness.
  • Closure Conversation: This is intended to thank someone for their work, summarize the status of a project, or simply tell colleagues that a job is complete. It might also involve an apology: when your unit, for example, is having trouble with another unit, you can try to smooth future relationships on a big project by meeting with the other leader and apologizing, hopefully bringing closure to the hostility.

“Most people tend to favour some conversations and under-use others. Unfortunately, we cannot get everything done with one or two conversations: we need all four,” they say. They also note that these conversations don’t necessarily occur in the specified order. For example, in holding a clo

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