As a management professor and management consultant, we have had the opportunity to work, train, and problem-solve with executives and managers in nearly every type of organization, from small businesses and Fortune 100 companies to nonprofits, associations, and government agencies at the city, state, and federal levels. The most frequently cited challenge, beyond all others, is “communication.” Over the last twenty-five years of teaching and consulting, we have discovered two things about the communication problem in organizations.

First, most people do not know that communication is actually made up of different types of conversations. People think of communication as a broad general area riddled with problems, gaps, and pitfalls in which success is a matter of skill or luck or both. Unfortunately, this generalization is like saying, “I have a driving problem,” when one needs to start by learning the difference between ignition, steering wheel, accelerator, and brake. Generalizations do not solve the very real problems of organizational work.

Second, most people do not understand that his or her own communication, not someone else’s, is the key to recognizing and resolving the communication problem. It is easy to blame others, either individually or as a group, for not communicating well. Now we need to consider that we might not be using the appropriate conversations, or using them properly.

Research at the Harvard Business School indicates that 70% of all organizational changes fail to produce their intended results. Communication is usually the designated culprit in these failures. Why, then, if everyone knows communication is so important, have we not solved the problem? Perhaps seeing it as a generic problem, caused by other people or environmental factors, has limited our vision. As individuals, each of us has our own pattern of daily conversations, and we can learn to change that pattern. This means we can alter our conversational habits, and start communicating more effectively.

There are four types of conversation, each with a set of necessary elements. They are normal everyday conversations, used by CEOs, executives, directors, managers, supervisors, and employees (and husbands and wives, parents and children) in the process of doing their respective jobs. Anyone who wants to accomplish something, whether creating a new corporate strategy, assigning people to projects, or arranging lunch with friends, will use one or more of these four conversations.

When our students and clients began to practice improving their skills with all four conversations in their work situations, they were amazed to discover how very small changes in the way they talked could produce unexpectedly positive outcomes. Practicing managers were impressed with how easy it was to get results, and quickly applied the lessons to get similar benefits outside of work, with spouses, families, and friends.

We have since learned many of the persistent issues people tolerate in organizations can be resolved by using these four conversations. True, some people do not want to change the way they communicate, or do not want to make changes in their work practices. However, we have found most people are willing to make minor adjustments in their speaking and listening to gain major improvements in results and relationships.

The material developed in this book reflects what we have learned from research and consulting with executives and managers, training them in MBA and executive education classes, and solving problems in their organizations. We have included many of their stories and experiences, as well as first-hand observations, to give examples of how people changed their conversations and what happened as a result. The people and the examples are real, though we have altered the names of individuals and organizations.

We wrote this book to give executives, managers, and employees—and their families and friends—a way to overcome communication problems every day, in every conversation. We explain the four types of conversations, including the required elements in each, and the specific kinds of results each conversation can produce. Examples of real conversations and results are included throughout.

The book starts in Chapter 1 by addressing the daily and persistent problems we encounter at work, and how they can be addressed by recognizing four different types of conversations.

Chapter 2 introduces Initiative Conversations, useful whenever you want to propose something new, make something happen, or create a new future. Chapter 3 presents Understanding Conversations, which you can use to engage other people in planning and participating in your goals. Chapter 4 is about Performance Conversations, the little-used rules for creating commitment, getting people to move into action, and producing results. Chapter 5 describes Closure Conversations, the often-overlooked key to accomplishment, satisfaction, and accountability.

In Chapter 6, you will see how to put the four types of conversation together in different ways to accomplish different objectives, including ways to expand your personal effectiveness, enhance other people’s performance, and improve relationships. Each section in the chapter includes tips, tested by practicing managers, for stimulating better communication, productivity, and workplace satisfaction.

Chapter 7 outlines some ways to change conversational patterns in a work environment. It contains ideas from managers on how to support new ways of talking at work, such as how to have better meetings, and some tips to help you practice and get other people to practice with you. A closing note reminds us that changing our conversations will change more than the way we speak. It will change our listening too, so that we will be more responsive to, and perhaps more responsible for, our human environment.