Whether it’s in a meeting or an impromptu encounter in the hallway, conversation should be clear, strong and truthful. Yet in many cases, conversation – which can account more than 50 percent of an individual’s working day – is shallow, or, in the words of this author, “criminal.” In this article, he describes how to derive the most from the important act of speaking with others in the workplace.

Think of the last time you had a powerful conversation. What made it powerful? Now ask yourself how long is it since you had such a conversation at work? With your boss? With your subordinates? It has probably been a while – maybe too long.

Yet, it is not uncommon today for people to spend well over 50 percent of their work day in various conversations. This applies equally well to a CEO or executive team as to the shop floor worker of the 21st century. These conversations may be face-to-face, one-on-one, in teams, over the phone or a conversation through a rapid exchange of emails. Why do we spend so much time in conversation? Because it is by far the best way of managing the complex system of evolving commitments that move our processes, people and organizations forward. It is how most of us create value today at work. It is by far our most important core business process. This article will help you understand what a powerful conversation, the medium for creating most of our value-added at work, should sound like and feel.

Powerful conversations

The following 7 factors are usually part of a powerful conversation:

  1. Sufficient time available to converse
  2. An honest exchange, mutual respect and no feeling of being judged
  3. An emotional connection between the participants
  4. Each participant felt they were listened to
  5. A topic that was meaningful to the individuals
  6. An important question or issue was raised
  7. Progress, movement or learning occurred or a new point-of-view was recognized.

None of these criteria suggests that it is impossible to have powerful conversations in the work environment. But if we are spending so much time in conversation we do need to see progress, results or value-added at the end of each one. Powerful conversations certainly do take time – something we would claim to be in short supply these days. The problem is, in the long-run, anything else takes much longer.

If over 50 percent of our time at work is spent in some form of conversation then it is not too outrageous an assumption to claim that 50 percent of our total salary costs should also be allocated to the conversation process. Any other process accounting for such a use of organizational resources would receive enormous management attention, investment and support. In fact, it would probably be identified as a required organizational core competency. However, the process of conversation has received no such level of attention in most organizations.

The rest of this article describes the reasons why our core business process has become so damaged in our organizations today, the effect it has on the organization’s performance and suggests a few solutions that each of us can try and apply to turn things around.

Process breakdowns

When there is a problem in our organization, we need to look at our key business process and examine why it went wrong. Where was the breakdown? Today, that no longer means looking at marketing, manufacturing or HR. It often means looking at our process of generating conversation – why did things not turn out as they were supposed to? Why was value ultimately destroyed rather than created?

Invariably, the speech acts of a conversation process remain the same: A context for the given conversation is created. An opening declaration is announced. Questions are posed. People listen to the responses. Requests are pronounced and offers are made. Finally, a decision or another declaration is announced or a commitment or promise is made. This should work fine.

In practice, however, the different components of conversation are often poorly managed. We often do not take the time to create the right context for a particular conversation. Misunderstandings often occur when questions, requests or offers are poorly structured or incomplete. Our listening skills are notoriously poor.

To compound the problems, each of us also has a choice to make 3 different types of speech acts – whether they are declarations, requests, offers or promises – which deeply affect the outcomes of our conversation process. We can call them: a) strong, b) shallow and c) criminal acts.

  1. Strong: I am absolutely committed to honour what I said.
  2. Shallow: I may honour what I said (It depends whether something else occurs in the future and I change my mind).
  3. Criminal: I have absolutely no intention of honouring what I said.

Of course, we would all like to believe that we personally always make use of strong speech acts and that it is everyone else around us who are making shallow or criminal acts. However, all of us, strongly supported by a combination of convention, the perceived personal risk associated with making a strong speech act at any given moment, or a distorted view of politeness or organizational culture, often find that it is easier and more advantageous to make anything but strong speech acts.

The reality is that the core business process in many of our organizations is often permanently damaged: It has become an accepted part of most organizational cultures to make either shallow or even criminal speech acts. Strong commitments – and hence organizational performance – are never an outcome of a conversation containing shallow or criminal declarations, offers or requests. It is not surprising, therefore, that these same organizations often fail to deliver the results they promise.

A simple example

During their monthly management meeting, Denise, the director of sales, invites Richard, the director of manufacturing, to participate in next week’s sales meetings with a large, new potential customer, NewCom. Richard replies that he would be delighted to be involved.

On the surface, it seems like there is now a strong commitment in place for sales and manufacturing to work together on developing the new customer.

However, let’s question our scenario a little.

  1. Was Denise’s request a strong one? Does she really want Richard’s team in the NewCom meetings? Is it criminal? Has she absolutely no intention of letting Richard attend?
  2. Was Richard’s commitment to attend a strong one? Perhaps he has absolutely no interest in sales and has more pressing issues in manufacturing to attend to. Might he be interested to attend only if the meetings fit into his agenda (a shallow commitment)?
  3. Did Denise ask Richard to attend simply because the company president said she had to do so? Does Richard say yes simply because within the corporate culture he does not feel he has the freedom to say no? Is it easier for Richard to agree because there are no consequences in place for making shallow or criminal commitments in the organization whereas there is a heavy and immediate price to pay for making a strong speech act, for saying no?

Based upon their past experience, Denise and Richard may be very well aware of the other’s motives and may recognize the category of speech act being made. Probably everyone else around the meeting table is also aware of “what is really happening.” Everyone may well know that it is another example of the conversation process destroying value. But how does one challenge it in such an organizational culture? There could be a large price to pay for the person who tries to intervene to challenge the pair and repair the damaged process. It would, in effect, be a challenge of the existing organizational culture.

The issue gets even more complicated a few weeks later. Imagine that the initial sales meeting with NewCom was delayed – which often happens – and Denise learns that the first meeting will take place the following day – and communicates this to Richard.

Many forces have come into play since the original conversation and both Denise’s and Richard’s realities have changed. Their respective abilities to manage the conversation process, coupled with the organization’s culture, will again influence the outcomes of the process.

Obviously, depending on whether her request that Richard attend is still a strong one, Denise will choose the appropriate context for the conversation. If she really wants him to attend, she will send an email flagged urgent, telephone him (during office hours), or may be even walk down to his office to see him personally to make sure he gets the message. Alternatively, she could send an email advising him of the meeting after 5 p.m., though she knows that Richard checks only his voice mail from home in the evening. She might leave a message on his office voice mail as opposed to calling him on his cell phone. We all know these or similar techniques – because we have all used them at some time.

For his part, depending upon his new reality, Richard’s category of commitment to attend the meeting may have changed. He may now choose between claiming he did not get the message in time, ignore it all together, or re-arrange (or not) his schedule for tomorrow in order to attend (or not) the meeting. He could also send a colleague from manufacturing if he genuinely cannot attend and he feels it important that a manufacturing representative be at the meeting.

Richard may also have to attend the meeting – despite having a major crisis in manufacturing to deal with – because he feels he has already committed to attend and cannot re-negotiate the agreement. This is where the process of managing commitments through conversation becomes so important. Priorities do evolve with time. Circumstances change. What was true yesterday may not be true today.

The challenge

How much time and energy do you expend on trying to work out what is really going on? How much time do you spend in powerless conversation where you know the really important issues are being skirted around, not being discussed? Not only are the real issues not on the table, they are not even in the room. No one dare voice them. How much stress does that cause you? How much of our valuable time and energy do we waste?

The challenge for any organization is to create a context in which powerful conversations can take place and where a constant renegotiation process of strong declarations, offers, requests and promises can be promoted and enforced – while any shallow or criminal speech act is deemed unacceptable and punished.

After all, can a conditional response be a strong speech act? Of course – a commitment is only shallow when we pretend it is strong when it is really conditional. Can a criminal speech act be acceptable under any circumstances? No. Criminal declarations, offers and requests are just that – criminal. It is willful damage of our core business process. Can a criminal commitment be acceptable? No. A criminal commitment only occurs when an individual perceives that there is less of a price to pay for saying yes to a request or offer, and not delivering upon it, than to saying no. Saying no is difficult. It is something most of us badly need to learn how to do. The price of not being able to say it, on both an individual and organizational level, is too high for us to allow it to continue.

In general, people feel very uncomfortable and intensely dislike being involved in the games forced upon us by witnessing or being party to shallow or criminal speech acts. Most people just do not see a way to break the vicious cycle.

How would our organizations change if shallow and criminal speech acts were no longer deemed acceptable or tolerated? How would our lives be if we, today, made a strong declaration to only use strong speech acts in both our professional and personal lives? There would certainly be a price to pay – otherwise the conversation process would not have become so damaged in the first place.

The challenge for each of us is to repair our badly damaged organizational and personal conversation process. There is sufficient material available today on the different elements of the conversation process so that, even without the commitment of our organizations, we as individuals can re-engineer our own conversation process. We can take the decision to be “strong” – to be honourable in all that we say.

Making a start

  1. Post the “Seven Characteristics of Powerful Conversation” in your meeting rooms – or in your kitchen at home. Post them on the intranet site etc. Raise peoples’ awareness of the damage caused by your current conversation process.
  2. Similarly, communicate the concept of “Strong, Shallow and Criminal” speech acts to your colleagues. I know that among certain groups that use the concept it has become acceptable to gently challenge individuals by saying “Did I just hear you make a strong commitment or was it a shallow or criminal one”? You can start using it on topics such as who will bring the muffins to a meeting and then slowly start to apply it to weightier topics.
  3. Pick 3 conversations that you need to have that would have the biggest impact on your life if they were to take place – either at work or in your personal life. What subjects desperately need to be discussed at work? Who needs to be involved? What conversations do you need to have in your personal life? What might life be like if you could have those conversations? What has prevented you from having those conversations in the past? What context do you need to create to allow those conversations to occur? What strong declarations, offers, requests or commitments would you need to be ready to make to open and manage those conversations?

If it all sounds too daunting, perhaps a first step should be to imagine what the future looks like for you, your relationships or your organization if you do not have these conversations. Those images might just provide the motivation to make a change, reengineer your own conversation process, and start using only strong speech acts – starting today.


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