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How conversations can help you accomplish more at work

Work is endless meetings and e-mail. At least that's what we continually grouse about. In our mind, work should instead be some product – a report, a product, a sale.

Let me give you another way to view work, however: a series of conversations.

We arguably get work done as much through conversations – notably one-on-ones – as through meetings and e-mail. Conversation is used to ensure goals are understood, staff's actions are aligned with those goals and problems are being addressed. Conversation is used to learn, to energize and to share. And we could accomplish more if we didn't often avoid them, fearful of confrontation; didn't opt for e-mail when conversation would be more effective; and were more skilled at conversations.

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We're all used to conversation – we have been using it, after all, since childhood. But that doesn't make us experts or flawless, if you honestly review some recent conversations at the office (or home).

At work, most conversations seem innocuous – short, tenuous and often inconclusive. We can tune out, using the time to relax. So when you enter a conversation, be more alert. Tell yourself: This is important! Second, recognize what kind of conversation it is. There are various typologies around, including Jeffrey and Laurie Ford's four conversations (initiative, understanding, performance and closure) and Shawn Kent Hayashi more elaborate 12-point classification. I find those helpful, for identifying the situation and how it connects to other conversations with that same colleague, say, at different project stages. But let's divide conversations today more simply into gaining knowledge and gaining action. The word gaining is important: You are the activist, in this schema, although often in meetings you aren't – you're a partner to somebody else trying to gain something. Be a good partner.

When you are gaining knowledge, make sure it's a good time for the conversation since, if the other person is harried, you may get a more truncated response than you need. I prefer to ask a fairly general opening question and try not to interrupt. If you have a notepad, you can jot down notes of what is being said – this makes the other person feel valued – as well as other possible questions. But let the flow work for you at the start. Listen carefully, holding your mind on this task. Probe: Ask why, why, why – digging deeper. Or: What more is there you can tell me? Who else can help me? Try to separate fact from opinion and speculation. The more you know going into the conversation, the less likely you'll probe as deeply as you should.

If you're trying to gain action, I always fall back to consultant Phil Harkins's advice in Powerful Conversations: How High Impact Leaders Communicate. At the outset, you should set up your agenda with a sincere expression of need. You want to make an emotional connection with the other person so that he or she will open up, share normally hidden dialogue and reveal undiscussables. To gain support, Mr. Harkins says, it's crucial to indicate your need for help rather than to hide that or your own goals, as if they were unseemly.

This stage can be hard since leaders don't like admitting they need help or that they don't have all the answers. But Mr. Harkins feels it's vital to ask for assistance. "Exhibiting honest vulnerability is the key to making connection with other people," he stresses.

That leads into the second phase, in which the leader must find out what the subordinate's own goals and hidden feelings are, so the two individuals' agendas can be meshed. "High-impact leaders know that in order to advance their own agendas, they must also advance the agendas of others. They know that in order to fulfill their own wants and needs, they must likewise fulfill the wants and needs of others," Mr. Harkins stresses.

When that is done, the closing phase is a summary. You want to make sure both of you have agreed on the next steps and understand how to proceed. In that regard, it is also vital to ensure that the other person's goals have truly been achieved. In Birth of the Chaordic Age, Dee Hock, the founder of VISA International, told of the wonderful way his one-time boss, Maxwell Carlson, closed conversations. He would lean back in his chair and ask: "Did this meeting serve your purpose?"

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Conversations can be tricky. But they are a key to managerial success


  • A leader leads – he or she goes first, coming up with initiatives. But that traditional conception has been challenged in recent years by collaborative, servant-leader models, where a leader empowers and helps others to find the way forward. In the Ontario PC leadership race, candidates were asked to sign on to the already forged platform. But given the composition of voters and the traditional conception of leadership – the candidates want to be portrayed as bold leaders – they are struggling with the pre-existing path, giving us something to ponder not just about political leadership but our own instincts of what is proper leadership.
  • Look at your calendar for the next two month. Does it reflect your priorities and that of your boss? What has to change?
  • If you find somebody not performing up to par, consultant Alan Weiss says seek out that individual’s immediate superior and determine why this has been allowed to persist, and if it’s isolated or an issue with all of his or her subordinates.
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