Productive Communication: Your Best Goal-Getting Tool

I just looked up “management communication” to see how it is described in the world today. I’m a woman with an undergrad degree in Psychology, and two grad degrees in Engineering, and I admit to being horrified.

The American Management Association has a communication training on “Getting Results Without Authority”, subtitled “How do you influence other people who don’t work for you to get the results you need?” It covers:

  1. Personal power: Your source of influence and authority over others, independent of the position you hold (based on theories from psychology and sociology);
  2. Reciprocity: Your ability to behave in a friendly manner to build positive relationships that will encourage others to do things for you (from social psychology);
  3. Personal style in relationships: Your responses to psychology quizzes about whether you are secure, anxious, dismissive, fearful, dependent, etc.;
  4. Persuasion: Your ability to change other people’s attitudes or behaviors by sharing information, feelings, and/or reasoning with them.
  5. Conflict resolution: Your ability to bring about a peaceful ending to a conflict (negative and non-productive interaction) between other individuals or groups;
  6. Negotiation: Your ability to facilitate dialogues that craft outcomes satisfying various interests.
  7. Action plans: Your ability to outline the actions needed to reach a specified goal.

Interesting. I might want to Google some of those things and take the quizzes just for the fun of it. And certainly a few skills in building positive relationships and making good plans are valuable in every area of life.

But, as the authors of “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results”, we’re really simple. We see four productive conversations to have at work – and we have tested them with people who are managers as well as people who have no authority whatsoever. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Talk about your goal(s) – what you want, when you want it, and why it matters – with other people who could be involved in accomplishing it. Have those conversations frequently.
  2. Have dialogues with others to find and clarify ideas about how you could achieve the goals, who else could be involved, and where you could make connections for resources and results.
  3. Get people in action (yourself included). Make clear requests for what you want, and when and why. Make good promises to deliver results to others so they can support your objectives. Create agreements with people for making things happen on time and on budget.
  4. Clean things up regularly. Update the facts about progress toward the goal and revise plans accordingly. Thank people when they’re great, or even just for showing up, and don’t be shy about holding them to account. That means reminding people to deliver what they promised or to revoke their promise so you can stop waiting for them. Apologize when other people are inconvenienced, or when you see either a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding that could slow down progress toward the goal.

That’s it. Have each of those 4 conversations on a regular basis, in whatever sequence is needed to keep things moving toward goal success. Productive communication is simple talk to propose specific goals, engage people in planning, and boost them into action with good agreements for What-When-Why something will happen. Then you have a regularly scheduled “status check” to get everyone updated, appreciated, and refreshed for the next steps toward the goal.

So if I want to reliably get results – including with people over whom I have no authority – I could learn to propose ideas, discuss them with others, make requests, and track progress. That’s my plan: I’ll keep practicing The Four Conversations.

#1 Most Useful Meeting Topic: The Debrief

The most powerful part of a good team or project meeting is the “debrief”. There’s no better way to take the pulse of a group’s productivity and effectiveness than to ask these two key debrief questions:

  1. With regard to your job assignments, what is working well?
  2. What is not working well?

When your team members take time to consider “What’s Working? What’s Not Working?”, they come to the meeting prepared to find out about where their job responsibilities may need an upgrade. This is pure gold – it bypasses the “problem-solving” blather that usually eats up meeting time and goes straight to the heart of the matter: Where are the successes? And what isn’t working?

There are three underlying causes of “What’s Not Working” for department or project team members:

  1. Lack of clarity on results to be produced. Mostly our work assignments emphasize what we need to do, and not so much on what results we need to produce. Team members can get lost in doing – and slow down the entire endeavor.
  2. Lack of awareness of outside requirements or constraints. Team members who don’t know about external rules or conditions that need attention can leave out important connections or communications with other departments or outside organizations and agencies. This can cost the whole project unplanned time or resources.
  3. Lack of coordination. If my assignment somehow affects your results, we need to talk. The word “coordinate” comes from the Latin for “begin together “– another way of saying “Get on the same page.” It’s the hardest thing to manage because it’s invisible: everybody can see the people and the work, but nobody can see the connections unless they are spelled out in debrief meetings. Then, it’s best to write them down as part of a task-list for future team members.

Opening up these “cans of worms” in a debrief conversation – also known as the first part of a Closure Conversation where you “acknowledge the facts” – is valuable because it moves everyone into an Understanding dialogue about what is missing from some aspect of their shared project or goals. Clarity, awareness, and coordination go missing on a regular basis, so ask the “What’s Working? What’s Not Working?” questions at least once a week.

PS – To find out what’s working in your department or project, take the free assessment.

Workplace Communication & Resistance to Change

The program last week was based on the responses of a 50+ person group that took our Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on www.usingthefourconversations.com). The #1 issue for managers – and #2 for staff – sounded familiar.  They all agreed on this:

“Changes are implemented without discussing them with the people whose jobs will be affected by the change.”

This complaint is often associated with workforce discouragement, where managers and staff no longer even try to do anything about gaining a say in a change proposal. Then we hear the popular criticism of “Change for the sake of change”, and everyone rolls their eyes when they hear another one coming. What to do?

  1. Initiative conversation. When introducing a change, link it to a mission, goal, or objective. Every change needs a context that is clearly stated and easy to recognize as something important and worthwhile.
  2. Understanding conversations. Schedule one or more dialogue meetings with the people whose work will be affected by the change and the people who will be implementing the change. NOTE: That’s a dialogue, not an announcement or a speech. The people whose work will be affected will tell you why the change will never work. That’s exactly what you want! Here’s how to conduct those dialogues:
    1. Write down each specific reason for “Why It Won’t Work” on a whiteboard or a computer screen that everyone in each dialogue can see.
    2. Keep adding to the list with every dialogue, and letting everyone see the growing list. Encourage them to make revisions, clarify the items, and add to the list.
    3. After everyone has weighed in, send out the finished list and ask people to rank the items from 10 – “The Real Reason It Won’t Work”, down to 1 – “A Possible But Unlikely Reason It Won’t Work”.
    4. Post the new rankings of “Reasons It Will Never Work” in a place where everyone can see it, along with this question: “If we work together to handle each of these items, can we make this change work?”
  3. Performance conversations. Make a request to everyone who participated in the “Why It Won’t Work” dialogues. Ask, “Who is willing to take on some of the tasks of either implementing the change or resolving those barriers on the list?” Make agreements with those who are willing to come on board, and don’t be mad at the others who are holding back for a while longer.
  4. Closure conversations. Start having regular “Change Implementation” meetings to review the necessary tasks, assignments, and agreements with other groups to make the change happen. Check things off task and barrier lists, say Thank You a lot, and keep your list of assignments, deliverables, and agreements up to date. Then go back to Step 1 and re-introduce the change; Step 2 to talk about what needs attention now that things are underway; and Step 3, inviting others to step in to adopting a task or process.

We humans are so funny. We want to keep things the same. And we want to be part of changing things. Resistance is fun – and so is the game of making things work. Help people join the game.

A Culture of Conversations: Power to the People!

The Workplace Communication Assessment (a freebie on this site) is being tested this month with a large group of managers and staff. I’m looking to see whether it is true that “organization culture” is a product of communication problems.

This assessment has 56 questions, so it takes about 15 minutes to fill out completely. But when each person finishes it, they receive feedback on how to resolve their biggest workplace communication problem. Of course, each person may see a completely different thing as the “biggest problem”. But when we look at them all together, a pattern will likely emerge.

One thing we’ve already seen is that most people don’t think they have any power over changing those patterns. Diana is a manager who was frustrated about getting her portion of the budget transferred to her control. “They promised they would move it over,” she said, “but it hasn’t happened yet and I don’t know who to talk to about it. I’m hoping they will do it soon.”

Ah, the infamous “They”, source of all troubles. We had been talking about making good requests, getting good promises, and establishing firm agreements. But Diana still didn’t see her solution.

“What if you could find out all the key people involved in making the transfer happen?” I asked her. “Then maybe you could make a good request for action by the end of the month?”

We talked about the details for a few minutes, then the lights came on in her eyes and she said, “Yes, I can do that. In fact, I will do it. Maybe even by Friday!” Everybody in the room applauded, including me.

Realizing that our conversations have the power to change things is wonderful news. I’m excited to see what will happen when a whole group of people chooses some negative part of their culture to upgrade. Tomorrow they will look at their patterns of communication and pick a target or two. Power to the people!

Organization Change: Uncertainty is Predictable

Guess what? Things are going to change! What a big surprise that seems to be in some organizations. But I just met with a group of managers who are almost always preparing for change.  I told them that one of the most frequent questions I get from managers is, “How do we retain knowledge from people who are leaving due to retirement or taking new jobs?”  They laughed at me.

“We are always preparing for the day people leave,” one woman told me. “Most of our people in key jobs spend at least 3 hours a month mentoring at least one partner in how to do their most important tasks. The bonus is that when they pair up like that, they usually find a faster or easier way to do the job, so work keeps getting smarter.”

Those dialogues are valuable for many reasons, the group explained. It doesn’t just get one task to be performed more efficiently – it lets more people know what other people are doing. So they get to see a bigger picture of the work in each department. “The more people know about what we do here, the better they can coordinate on a daily basis, and the more prepared we are to change things when we need to do that,” another manager said.

This group took a class on “Dealing with Uncertainty” recently. The conclusion at least some of them came to was that uncertainty is predictable. A senior manager explained, “We keep refining our work practices and systems because we never know when we will face a big change that we can’t control. We have to stay ready and flexible.”

Keep the inter-job dialogues going, whether formally or informally, they recommend. They all agreed on another thing: “We predict that things are going to change.”

What Dialogue is Worth

Not naming names, but somebody in our town just lost her job because she didn’t know how to conduct a productive dialogue with the people who work for her. She stayed on her very high horse at the top of the hierarchy, and held dialogues only with those in the layers directly above and beneath her. The people who were two or three layers below her were out of luck.

A dialogue isn’t just two people (or groups, or layers) talking to each other. It includes listening – on both sides. If I am really listening to you as you give me your ideas and feedback on something that I’m interested in, then I’m probably going to take your thoughts into account. I might change the way I state my goal or objective, or add your suggestions into the “How-To” list, or the schedule, or the list of resource people to include. In other words, I’d probably treat your input as something valuable that would help me make the plan of action better and smarter.

This lady didn’t do that. Why? Because she’s the boss, that’s why. If she includes input from those (lower-down) other people in her plans and initiatives, it will look like she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Or so I’ve heard it explained. One high-level boss told me that if he asked for input from people too far down the ladder, they would think he wasn’t a very well-informed boss. “We use surveys when we need to know something from them. If I have to ask them, they would see me as weak and lose respect for me.”

Actually, it works the other way. Listening and honoring the input you get from people who will be affected by your plans – at all levels – is a good way to increase respect all around. Plus, it gets you a better plan, even if you only use a fraction of their input. Plus, they are much less likely to stage a revolution and throw you out of your job. Bye, bye, lady.

The Teamwork Thing

The biggest problem I’ve seen with teamwork in my years of consulting is that two conversations are missing. First, the team might have been launched with a good statement of “What we’re here for + When we want to see results + Why these results matter to us and to others”. But usually that’s said only once or twice. After that, it’s assumed people will remember, or just know the team’s purpose, goals, and objectives as well as they know their own name.

Alas, people do not remember. They just keep plugging along day-to-day, and the first – or twenty-first – big challenge, disappointment, or interruption that happens in their life suddenly collapses everything. They wake up one morning wondering, “Is there a good reason I should keep juggling all these things? Can I find a clear direction here somewhere?”

Just because those What-When-Why statements are called an “Initiative Conversation” doesn’t mean you say it only once at the beginning and then fuggedaboutit. No, ideally you’d print it on a banner and hang it on the wall where you have your weekly team meetings. Or something like that, just to keep it in front of people.

The other missing conversation is the dialogue with all team members called an “Understanding Conversation”. That’s where you discuss – and update as needed – those Initiative What-When-Why statements. And you also discuss – and update – your shared understandings about, “Who else is involved in this? Where are our resources and our customers and our partners? How should we go about accomplishing our goals?”

Discussions are tricky. You don’t just get to talk, the way you can with an Initiative Conversation. You have to listen too. That means inviting – even encouraging – team members to offer ideas for what they think might improve those founding statements on the team’s purpose and how it operates. And further, it means actually using their ideas to update the founding statements. Which then, of course, will update the way the team operates.

The “team update” Understanding Conversations don’t have to happen every week. But there’s a secret tip for how to know when they are needed. When things slow down, when deadlines are missed, when people – either on the team or outside it – complain about something more than twice… that’s when you need to sit down and review the game plan.

Teamwork doesn’t happen automatically. You have to put a little conversation into it.

The Debrief – A Path to Re-Starting Anything

Give closure conversations a try – they can remove speed-bumps in everything from personal relationships to organizational change initiatives. Believe me: I have a million stories on this. Here’s one.

I went to a not-so-great educational program this past summer. The fairly small audience – about 35 people – was made up of some people who were on staff for the sponsoring organization, others who were presenters, and many who were long-time members. The agenda was filled with good speakers delivering useful information. Sounds fine, right?

Unfortunately, I was a new member in the group and had no idea which people were staff, or volunteers, or members. They all seemed to know each other well, but I was introducing myself in every conversation for 2 days. Further, I didn’t know some of the insider jargon, and used most conversations to clarify what was being said. I spent 2 days listening carefully, taking lots of notes, and feeling like I had accidentally stumbled into a stranger’s family reunion.

On the flight home, I realized that a general introduction of the participants at the beginning would have spared me (and perhaps others) some discomfort. For example, tell people: “Stand up if you are a staff member. Thank you. Now, stand up if you have been a member for more than 10 years; 5 years; 1 year. Thank you. Now, if you are a new member, stand up and say where you are from and what brings you here.”   It would have taken no more than 15 minutes and it would have warmed things up early.

When I got home, I filled out their Survey Monkey questionnaire about the event, hoping that my “debrief” assessment would open a conversation for how to have future gatherings be more welcoming and productive for people new to the group. Six weeks later, still no response. Today I got an email from the organization promoting future events. I hit “unsubscribe” to all future mailings.

A debrief conversation gives closure: Acknowledging the facts (“we got your survey results”); Appreciating the people (“it was great to have you in the group”); Apologizing for mistakes and misunderstandings (“we’re sorry you were uncomfortable – we thought the nametags would be enough to help everybody know everybody”); and Amending broken agreements (“thanks for the idea of warming things up with a general introduction – we will discuss it at our next Staff-Volunteer planning meeting”).

Without closure, we compromise our relationships and give up responsibility for desired future results. You can’t please everyone, but when you realize there’s a mess, taking charge of the cleanup is a no-brainer.

Summer Close-Out = Space for a New Future

Jeffrey spent Labor Day weekend painting the living room and kitchen walls. I spent the weekend untying lots of those “ties that bind”.

I tossed things out, put things into the recycle bin, and filled up 2 bags of stuff for Goodwill and/or Salvation Army pickup. Then I went through my Outlook list of past business contacts – all the client relationships from the years I was doing consulting projects.  Delete. Alter-and-save-changes. Re-categorize as friends or other resources. I rearranged several parts of my life.

Closure conversations are wonderful. I used all “four A’s” at some point over the weekend:

  1. Acknowledge the facts:  I don’t need this anymore. It no longer represents anything meaningful, or it isn’t something I want in my future. It’s out of here. (And that person who kept complaining about overpaid consultants?  Delete, delete.)
  2. Appreciate the people: Thanks, it was great working with you. I’m no longer doing consulting projects, but let me know if you’d ever like to meet for coffee.
  3. Apologize for mistakes and misunderstandings:  I’m sorry I didn’t meet with you before I retired from consulting. I would have enjoyed doing that project with you, and I know your new support team will get it done right. I wish you the very best.
  4. Amend any broken agreements:  I know we had a deal that whenever I was in your city I would call you to set up a meeting. I’ve retired from consulting, but let me know if you still want to get together now that I’ve changed my agenda. These days I’m working on management writing, speaking, and some training programs (be forewarned: I occasionally talk about nuclear waste management too!), and I have always enjoyed talking with you.

September is when we sharpen our pencils for a new school year. Use “Closure Conversations” to do a bit of personal housekeeping and make space for new thinking, new projects, and maybe some surprises in your future.

Note from Crabby Consultant

A colleague called, sounding ½ angry and ½ upset and said he thought I was supposed to attend a professional meeting last week. No, I told him, I’ve got a book to write and will not be attending those anymore. He growled, “I thought you were going to support us until you retired.”

I am retired from consulting, I explained gently (i.e., suppressing my indignation). And I never promised that I would go to every meeting forever. Your expectation is not my promise. OK, I didn’t say that last thing, but I was thinking it. Sheesh.

Then I realized I never had a Closure Conversation with that group to let them know I’m making some changes in my life and career. If I’d done that, it would help them understand my departure and accommodate any difference I made to their gatherings. And they would know they can be in touch with me in other ways if they want to do that.

My bad. I’ll go to their next meeting and let them know I’m in transition and no longer consulting.

And, Note To Self: When I’m crabby, it’s probably because I left out a productive conversation somewhere recently.