Best Management Book of 2009

“The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results” was awarded Best Book in Management by 800 CEO READ.  We are very pleased to win this award and will be traveling to New York to receive it on January 25.

Good Promises Convert Expectations into Agreements

Don’t risk being held to account for things you don’t know about. Take the time to find out what people really expect you to do, and what they expect you to deliver.  If they don’t tell you, ask.  It’s part of getting and giving a good promise and is key to effective performance conversations.

I recently had a conversation with a manager who was disturbed by her inability to meet the expectations of those “higher up” (her term).  They would give her assignments and then, when she would complete them, they would point out something that was missing they expected to be included. Has this ever happened to you? Although it is easy for this manager to blame the “higher ups” for not being clear, she shares some of the responsibility for not finding out what they wanted.  Even when you aren’t given a good request, you can have a performance conversation to convert hidden expectations into clear agreements.

If you look at each of your current assignments, are you confident you are 100% clear about what is expected of you in every case?  Is everyone else involved in the assignment also 100% clear about what you expect of them?  Or are you assuming you’ll figure it out, or they already know?

Assumptions and expectations are “silent standards”. We take a big risk when we assume that everyone knows what to do. If creativity is desirable, it’s fine to give a general direction. But if there are specific creative requirements that matter, you’ll want to get them spelled out.

Take the time to spell things out. What should the final product look like? What are the components? When do they need to be ready? Are there other people who should be involved and if so, who?  Is there a particular method or process that should be used or avoided? What restrictions and specifications apply? Don’t take a chance: assume nothing is obvious.

Remember: everyone associated with an assignment has expectations and assumptions.  Some people expect you to ask for their advice, others want to be kept informed, and some only want to be involved in an emergency.  And, they expect you to operate according to these expectations even if you don’t know them!  Ask people to take time with you to spell out their expectations.  Yes, you have to ask.

Sometimes people are afraid to ask because it might make them look less competent or capable, or they don’t want to deal with an unpleasant reaction.  One way around this is to say something like “I want to be sure you get exactly what you want and in order to do that, I want to be sure I understand the assignment clearly.  I don’t want to complete it only to find out there is something missing that you wanted included.  Could we take a few more minutes to clarify some things?” It is better to risk some potential discomfort upfront than it is to risk damaging your reputation by not delivering what people expect.

Getting clear creates a common ground in that both of you know what is expected.  This has the effect of turning an expectation into an agreement and gives you (and them) the opportunity to say whether you can or cannot do what they ask – a key for any good promise. If something new comes up later, you can always say, “I didn’t agree to that, but I’m willing to consider it.”  What you want to avoid is having to say, “I didn’t know you needed that,” or, “I thought this is what you wanted”.

Reduce your risk by taking time to unspoken expectations into clear agreements that everyone can see and understand.  Move ambiguous requests into good promises by clarifying expectations.

“High Priority” Isn’t A Deadline

Laurie and I recently conducted a training program on The Four Conversations for a group of project managers.  Since most of the managers were from the same organization, they all encountered the same problem when given an assignment.  Rather than being told a due date or deadline by when the assignment was to be completed, they are told “this is high priority” and expected to do it.  “High Priority” isn’t a deadline and it doesn’t support getting good promises, a key to effective performance conversations.

In the absence of a deadline or due date, all you have is a ‘whenever’.  A ‘whenever’ is something that gets done… whenever they bug you enough for it, whenever you find time to work on it, whenever you feel guilty enough to do it, etc.  ‘Whenever’ is stressful, an ever-looming, unknown burden to be carried around.  ‘Whenever’s’, particularly from bosses, are fear generators – we worry about when it will come due, anxious it will be asked for before we have completed it, concerned about its impact on all the other work we have, and afraid of what will happen if we don’t get it done when they want it (even though we don’t know when that is).

Contrary to a ‘whenever’, a deadline is a tool for accountability and accomplishment.  Deadlines provide information that allows both the person giving it and the person receiving it to know how to plan and do their work.  Deadlines make both the person giving the assignment and the person getting it accountable for getting work done by a particular time, rather than whenever either feels like it should be done.  When we say this is “high priority”, we avoid our responsibility for doing the work necessary to determine by when it really needs to be done.

In some organizations, a “high priority” assignment means it is to be completed within a well known period of time, for example, 24 hours.  In those cases, giving someone a “high priority” assignment is tantamount to saying “Do X within 24 hours”.  But in organizations where “high priority” is not well defined, where managers use it indiscriminately, saying an assignment is “high priority” conveys no useful information for when it should be done, only dread and worry.

In the training session, managers from the one organization pointed out that managers are now saying things like “This is priority 1-A” in an attempt to distinguish their high priority assignment from all the other high priority assignments.  Who are they kidding?  All they are doing is adding confusion while undermining their own credibility and any chance of real accountability.

Do yourself and others a favor, make clean requests and give a due date.

[reprinted from with permission]

Make Counteroffers When Necessary

When given a deadline you know you really cannot meet, propose an alternative you can meet – that’s called making a counteroffer.

If you don’t counteroffer when you know something cannot be done, you’re setting up yourself and others for failure.

What do you do when someone asks you to do something you know you can’t get done? Do you say “Yes” and hope things will work out somehow?  Or say “Yes” knowing you’ll deal with the consequences later?  Or say “Yes” and break other promises for on-time performance?

A better way to deal with the situation is to make a counteroffer.  Counteroffers are one way to respond to the requests that make up Performance Conversations.  A counteroffer is where you say, “I can’t do A, but I can do B”. For example, say, “I can’t get it for you by 5:00 PM today, but I can get it for you by 3:00 PM tomorrow.” Another type of counteroffer is, “I can’t do A unless B happens”.  For example, say, “I won’t be able to do that today unless we can extend the due date on Project B by at least a day.”

Counteroffers communicate two important things. First, that you are not currently in a position to accept their request. And second, that you are willing to work something out.  It says that you will be responsible for what you promise, and it prevents the need for excuses later on.

To be effective, counteroffers must be made with integrity.  You can’t just say, “I’m too busy,” or, “I don’t have time.” A counteroffer is an alternative promise that includes a request. You are offering to do something, and you are re-negotiating the due dates of one or more other projects.

Counteroffers can be very effective.  You don’t always get all the leeway you ask for, but that should remind you to ask for as much as you think you need. It’s worth giving them a try, even if you think the people around you are pretty inflexible. You just might be surprised.

Net Speed Fast Tracks knol features The Four Conversations

Net Speed Fast Tracks, a provider of management content for personal and professional development, is posting knols (small units of knowledge) on The Four Conversations.  The first one is currently available and you can read and listen to it here.

800-CEO-READ Interviews Jeffrey re The Four Conversations

Todd Sattersten, President of 800-CEO-READ, conducted an interview with Jeffrey regarding The Four Conversations.  You can listen to the interview here.

Using Conversations to Motivate Others

We recently had a manager, let’s call her Lisa, ask “How do I motivate the people on my team to care about the project we have?”  Interesting question, but it is misdirected.  Rather than focusing on their motivation, we told Lisa to focus on her conversations.

Motives and Motivation

Managers and social scientists have long been interested in why people do what they do.  Why, for example, are some people willing to work late on a project when others aren’t?  Why do some people seem to work hard and others don’t?

The popular explanation for these differences is that people have different motives and motivations.  Motives are believed to be internal conditions that cause a person to act in a particular way.  People are already “motivated” or “not motivated” to behave in particular ways, and we often find ourselves trying to figure out how to change a person who is “not motivated” into someone who is “motivated”.

Lisa believed the people on her team didn’t care enough about the project.  She wanted to change their motivation so they would care more about the project and thus work harder and in more effective ways for its success.

The trouble is, we can’t see motives.  If they exist at all, they are internal and hidden from our view.  Lisa couldn’t see inside the people on her team to know for sure whether they “cared” or not.  She could only see the work they did and the ways they interacted with her and with each other. The truth is that Lisa doesn’t know anything about their insides, only about their external actions and the visible results they are – or are not – producing.

Lisa would be better off giving up the attempt to change their motivations and just asking herself, “What can I do to alter their actions and the results they produce?”

Lisa and Her Boss

The best chance you have of getting people more engaged in your project is to change the type of conversations you are having with them.

We asked Lisa, “Have you ever worked on a project you didn’t want to do?”

“Of course”, she replied.

“Would it be fair to say, you weren’t motivated to do it, but you did it anyway?”

“Yes, absolutely!  In fact, I once worked on a project I hated, but I still did it.”

“Did you care about that project?”

“No, not at all.  I just wanted it over.”

“If you didn’t care, why did you do it?”

Lisa thought for a minute and replied, “Two reasons.  First, it was important to my boss, whom I respected considerably.  And second, because I had told him I would do it.”

We asked, “How did you know the project was important to him?”

“He told me all about the project and how it related to the new product development strategy the company was undertaking. He said it was critical to our future success.  And then he looked me in the eye and asked me if I would help make the project a success.  How could I say no?”

Notice that Lisa’s boss didn’t try to do anything about her motivation.  He didn’t try to get her to care – in fact, Lisa didn’t even like the project, though her boss never knew that.

Her boss took the time to tell her how important the project was to him and to the company.  He had an initiative conversation in which he created a future that was important. Then he asked her to participate in making that future real.

All You’ve Got Are Conversations

Lisa realized that she had never really explained the importance of the project. She had never really talked to her team about why this particular project mattered, how it could be accomplished, or who else would be involved.  She had reviewed the basic project plan as it had been given to her.

“I see that I just presented the plan to them,” Lisa said, “and I didn’t really go over the way it connected to the new corporate push to use social media for reaching customers in new ways. They were in the big meeting in the auditorium about the change in corporate strategies, and I assumed they would make the connection. So when I announced the project, I told them the schedule and assignments and just assumed they would do their jobs.”

“This project might look like a boring research project, but it is part of a bigger three-year plan to create new customer communications and new product lines. I never really had a conversation with them to be sure they were on board with that. When they didn’t seem to step up, I figured the problem was with them – they didn’t care.  I now see it may be more about how I talked to them – or didn’t.”

Conversations are your only tool for getting other people to do things.  Those conversations might impact people’s motivation – we don’t know about that.  We do know that it is easy to change your conversations. Let us know what you think by posting a comment.

[This article reprinted with permission from The Great Managing Newsletter]

Great Review of The Four Conversations

The following review of The Four Conversations was written by 800-CEO-READ and posted on their bl0g.  It is reprinted here with their permission.  If you haven’t discovered 800-CEO-READ, we encourage you to check them out.  They are a wealth of valuable information about business books.


Jack Covert Selects – The Four Conversations

Communication is the foundation of relationships, whether personal or professional, and rarely are we trained in how to improve those skills. Instead, experience tends to be our guide. We use commands and requests, whatever has worked for us in the past. The Four Conversations shows that we may not be taking full advantage of the tools available to us.

Jeffrey and Laurie Ford believe conversation can be classified into four types. Initiative conversations set the vision and direction, like John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech that committed to putting men on the moon. If initiative conversations are about what, when, and why, understanding discussions answer the who and the how. These conversations ground individuals at the start of a project by laying out the roles they will play, and reinforce the value of the initiative. Understanding conversations do not create action, however. That’s the purpose of performance conversations: asking that something be done and obtaining a promise for completion. Closure conversations mark an ending and create the opportunity for new beginnings.

The authors make a clear argument for just why it is so important to become more aware of our own tendencies toward how we use these types of conversations. Using the four conversations with a more balanced and/or intentional approach in the workplace leads to better productivity and results. Reducing tardiness on projects comes from using all four types effectively. Closure conversations heal wounds. Interrogating performance excuses can reveal whether individuals did everything they could. Altering the rate of progress toward a goal is as simple as increasing the frequency and the magnitude of what you ask for.

The Four Conversations is a generalist book that anyone can use to his or her advantage. The authors’ holistic view of communication pulls together concepts commonly needed in the areas of leadership, management, and change initiatives. I like books that are applicable and can produce powerful results, and The Four Conversations meets both criteria. It provides an opportunity to improve yourself and your business by improving your communication skills.


Welcome to Using the Four Conversations!  We have created this blog as a way to be in communication with people who are using, or who are interested in learning The Four Conversations.  We will post ideas, tips, and examples so that you can develop your ability to use The Four Conversations with greater ease and effectiveness.  We welcome your questions, your comments, and your observations.

Jeffrey and Laurie