Making Conversations Count: Stop Wasting Time, Start Making Change

🕑 6 minutes read | Mar 07 2024 | By Richard Head, TTA Learning Consultant

A lot of ink (virtual and the physical kind) has been wasted complaining about how poorly people communicate, how they waste time and the poor decisions that result. The solution is simple, but it has one “gotcha” that intimidates many people: it can be an uncomfortable process—at least initially. That discomfort, however, is the main reason why people waste time and make poor decisions in the first place.

So, let’s stop. Let’s get off that merry-go-round and create a different process that helps us stop wasting time—particularly in meetings—and start having conversations that result in good decisions and good changes.

If you want to really dig into how to have these kinds of conversations, there are a number of really good books. One of my favorites is “Fierce Conversations,” by Susan Scott. The book is a masterpiece for the types of conversations that are strong, intense, powerful, and that produce results—in other words, fierce conversations. Not angry, not hostile, just no-nonsense. As Scott drums into our heads throughout the book, the conversation is the relationship; it’s the essence of problem-solving. If the conversation stops then everything else stops. A conversation isn’t an event; it’s an ongoing, evolving process that has to be maintained.

A second favorite book about these kinds of conversations is “Clear Leadership,” by Gervase Bushe. As Bushe points out, as we try to make sense of others’ behavior, we almost always make up a story about it. If you think you don’t, just examine your own thoughts the next time you meet a stranger. You make up a story about what they’re probably like, what the way they dress says about them, how they walk and carry themselves, and what that tells you about them, and the story list goes on and on. We’ve all done it in restaurants and other public places where we sit, watch others, and create these stories in our heads about the strangers we see.

Bush maintains that the result of this “sense-making” is that organizations are made up of employees’ many competing fantasies about what’s going on and why because there are as many story-makers as there are people in the company. The problem is that people’s stories are rarely discussed or examined in a way that could prove or disprove them.

But, here’s the thing: people aren’t going to stop trying to make sense of one another, which means they won’t stop making up stories about other people. And, until we talk about these stories and find out whether they’re real or not, we can’t manage the stories, and so we have all these different versions of “reality” that compete with each other. That means we have two choices:

  1. Let people make up stories about what is going on with us (which means we and the organization suffer the consequences)
  2. Tell people what is going on with us so that they stop making up their own stories about us.

The problem, however, is that most of us engage in some form of professional “hiding” so that people don’t really see all of us. What that does is just produce more of the same dysfunction we’re trying to fix.

I have to describe what’s going on with me so that you minimize your stories about me. I also have to encourage you to describe what’s going on with you so that I stop making up stories about you. Bushe describes this as “achieving interpersonal clarity” and having a “learning conversation.”

So, what does all this have to do with the problems and conversations most of us deal with every day? How do we have meaningful conversations that produce real change, and that create lasting relationships that we can rely on in the future?

What’s Your Goal?

What’s the purpose of the conversation we want to have? We have to be crystal-clear about our goal and purpose so that it’s crystal-clear to the people we’re talking with. Otherwise, we risk violating a cardinal rule of communication: Confused minds always say, “No.”  If we’re not clear about what we want, people will be confused. So, define your purpose in holding a conversation. Is it to…

  • Advise – updates; status reports
  • Persuad – asking people to join you or trying to convince them of something
  • Educate – general or new information
  • Advocate – championing a particular approach or solution
  • Protect – safety instructions; policy/procedure information

Conversations obviously involve many different topics, including strategic planning, problem-solving, performance management, giving and receiving feedback, putting someone on notice that their job is in jeopardy, and the list goes on. Write down your goal, what you would like or expect from others, and how you—and they—will know success when you see it. Writing things down can quickly clarify what you want to achieve. Consider having someone else—someone who’s not involved in the conversation—read your goal; is it clear to them?

Another sticky element of conversations occurs when someone approaches you and wants to engage you in a fierce, difficult conversation. One thing you might ask, especially if you’re the boss, is to stop the person before they begin the conversation and ask, “Do you want me to listen, provide advice, or fix something?” This recognizes the agency of the other and lets them “drive” the conversation. You then know how to craft your response.

Validation of others is essential

Many of us think that the conversation is all about content–messaging. Content is only part of it. In addition to resolving issues, people are looking for validation in these conversations—for someone to recognize them as a person, a professional, of worth and value. Many people are among the “walking wounded” in our organizations. They’re trying to do a good job, but they feel that few people notice—or care. In that vein, it’s important to remember that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. Indifference means I don’t want to have anything to do with you—or, at least the recipient feels that way, even if it’s not intentional. If someone feels invisible, that they aren’t seen or appreciated, they’re not going to listen to anything you have to say—or care much about you, either.  You may not purposefully ignore others or mean to appear indifferent to others, but if you don’t actively reach out to them, then they’re probably going to feel that you don’t care. They won’t take the risk or make the effort to engage in a meaningful conversation about issues.

Meaningful, change-producing conversations aren’t always easy, so make sure that you acknowledge both the content of the message and the risk that people take in bringing an issue to others’ attention. That goes a long way toward validating their expertise, their character, and their value.

Follow Through

The whole point of these conversations is to change something. So, once this conversation is over, two things need to happen: 1) action toward the immediate goal, and; 2) a commitment to making sure that future conversations are not only possible but welcomed and encouraged.

When you make a commitment to making conversations count, you build hope. When you keep your commitment, you build trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any organization.


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