7 Tips for Improving Business Conversations

| By Terence Brake

By some estimates miscommunication can cost an organization 25-40% of its annual budget, and 14 percent of each work week is wasted as a result of poor communication. 

According to a multi-year Gartner Group study, 80% of IT projects are late, over-budget, short of expectations, or simply undelivered as a result of poor communication at the outset. 

Conversations are a large part of those communications.

Here’s the scene. It’s the day after a TMA World facilitator has delivered a global diversity programme in Paris.

“Yes, there's still time for a café au lait! Excellent! With an hour and a half to spare before checking-in at Charles de Gaulle airport, I step out from my hotel near the ultra-modernistic pipes and scaffolding of the Centre Culturel G. Pompidou, and head south to the historic stone streets of St. Germain. Winter is wrapping Paris in a raw fog, but I still choose an outside table at the Café le Petit Pont just across the River Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. The café is abuzz with conversations - some between lovers, some between friends, and others between colleagues or potential business partners. Some are quiet and intimate, while others are closer to a form of battle. The latter reminded me of a conversation I observed in a global diversity seminar that I had facilitated the day before.

“I hadn't given the participants in the conversation any guidelines on how to behave. ‘Just be yourselves,’ I said. The conversation started relatively slowly with people feeling out each other's positions on the topic and trying hard to be polite, but then it quickly morphed into a passionate debate. The speed with which people adopted positions and fought for them was staggering. Gone was my advice of the day before - first, listen to understand, think, and then speak. No one was listening; people were talking over one another to try and shut others down and win the argument. Positions were being misrepresented in order to score points. People stubbornly dug themselves into a rhetorical hole that they couldn't get out of without appearing to lose face. I had said nothing about debating or arguing, I had just asked them to hold a conversation about a work-related topic.”

The linguist Deborah Tannen calls the conversational climate in which we live today the 'Argument Culture'.  This culture assumes that opposition is always the best way to get things done or to arrive at the 'truth'. It encourages an adversarial mindset in which views are polarized and fought for, and active thinking can only be demonstrated by offering a critique.

Let’s return to our facilitator:

“Back at the hotel, I needed only to switch on CNN to witness the argument culture in action - find people with opposing viewpoints, put them together on the same broadcast, and let them fight it out. The person who can grab the most air time, and speak over the other person the most and the loudest, wins. People aren't invited on the programmes to listen, to examine assumptions, to learn from each other, and think through solutions together; that wouldn't be attention-grabbing enough. But it's so important to the quality of our public policies and our business solutions.”

In terms of leadership and management development, we must place a high priority on conversational competence. In getting things done through other people we need to spend considerable amounts of time talking. There is more than one way to converse with others, but many professionals get stuck in their talk-habits. Business professionals need to have conversational options that they can apply depending on the context and the objective.

Conversation can be placed along a spectrum from One-Way Telling (Closed) to Two-Way Exploring (Open). Along this spectrum are various options, the usefulness of which will depend on the situation and the need. Conversational options at the closed-end tend to be transactional (information exchange) while those at the open-end have the potential for being transformational (shifts in mindsets, mental models and underlying assumptions)

Exploring is a learning conversation (also referred to as dialogue) and tends to be underused. Its primary aim is the creative uncovering and examination of deeply held assumptions, values, beliefs, and mental models that shape the way we see and act in the world. Once uncovered and understood, breakthrough thinking becomes possible.

What are some of the behaviors managers and employees should adopt to promote greater use of the learning conversation?

  1. Ask open-ended questions to understand more accurately
  2. Be patient and not be in a rush to evaluate
  3. Explore and try to build upon other people’s ideas rather than dismiss them
  4. Identify and examine all assumptions, including one’s own
  5. Listen for meaning not just the words spoken
  6. Listen objectively rather than starting out with ‘I have the right answer’ mentality
  7. Stay focused on the goal of mutual understanding and learning together

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