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.


THE FOUR CONVERSATIONS: Daily Communication that Gets Results

by Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford

Toronto’s The Globe and Mail

Talk is powerful. Engaging in the right conversation at the right time is key to both personal and organizational success. And it’s not just ‘difficult’ or ‘crucial’ conversations that matter. The Four Conversations is a book (and now it’s also an online program too) that clearly demonstrates everyday dialogues needed for successful, satisfying, and productive relationships. In this book you will:

  • Discover how even little changes in the way you talk can produce extraordinarily positive outcomes,
  • Learn to get maximum results from four types of everyday conversations, and
  • Explore ways to put these four conversations into practice using sample dialogues and personal stories.

Armed with a solid body of research plus their own first-hand observations, Jeffrey and Laurie Ford describe four types of conversations that each of us can use to get things done: Initiative Conversations to introduce something new; Understanding Conversations to engage people in new ideas or processes; Performance Conversations to support commitment for taking specific actions and producing specific results; and Closure Conversations that complete the past and create a sense of accomplishment for yourself and others. Learn about the specific ingredients that make each of these conversations useful and effective — and see how the conversations can be put together in different ways to achieve different objectives.

The Four Conversations demonstrates how to use the right conversation at the right time — planning and starting each one well, and finishing conversations effectively — to improve the productivity we need while strengthening the value and connection that people want and deserve. Through dozens of personal stories and sample dialogues, the authors illustrate how real people in real situations have used the four conversations to effectively address common workplace problems and lay the foundations for enduring success: better relationships, stronger engagement in reaching goals, and an authentic sense of personal and professional achievement for everyone.


The (free) Personal Communication Assessment contains 20 questions that allow you to see how proficient you are at the practices that make all of your conversations work. You will receive feedback to identify which conversations could use some practice and strengthening, and how to do that.

The (free) Workplace Assessment consists of 56 statements that describe a range of situations that are likely to compromise people’s effectiveness. It takes about 10 minutes to identify which workplace issues you observe most frequently. When you submit your responses, you will receive feedback on the workplace situations you see most often, grouped into 8 categories:

  • Lateness – People are waiting for work results or for people to show up;
  • Poor work quality – Work is incomplete, inaccurate, or not well done;
  • Difficult people – Some people are consistently hard to work with;
  • Lack of teamwork – People are not working together or not helping each other;
  • Poor planning and workload overwhelm – There is too much work and/or too little time to do it;
  • Insufficient resources and support – People don’t have what’s needed to do the work properly;
  • Lack of accountability – People don’t “own” their jobs and agreements; and
  • Incomplete conversations – Problems and projects linger without resolution.

Managing Remotely: A Few Tips for “MBO+”

Management By Objectives (MBO) was popular not long ago, and has been updated to include a different perspective. It’s not about managing people anymore. It’s about managing the agreements for “performance” in a network designed to achieve a goal. Find out more about “performance” right here.

One Manager is Probably Enough. Two is Likely More than Enough.

Matrix management is dead? Nope – some people are dealing with two managers, as if one wasn’t enough. There are problems with that, of course, outlined here with a few solution ideas too.

It’s Not About Resolutions, It’s About Management

Management is not just for people who have a department or team to oversee. We can add it to our personal lives as well. That way, we get some energy from seeing that we are moving in the direction(s) we choose and accomplishing what matters to us. And it’s pretty simple!

Listen to a Podcast with Jeffrey Ford, co-author of The Four Conversations:

Todd Sattersten, CEO of 800-CEO-READ, interviewed Jeffrey about The Four Conversations.  Click here to listen to that interview.

Click here to add your own text

Order Book

Order “The Four Conversations: Daily Communication that Gets Results” through any of these providers: Berrett-Koehler (our publisher)


Conversation is the simplest, oldest and most effective way for people to communicate. Yet too many people find conversations intimidating. Here are well-tested conversational practices that offer real support for leaders to discover the extraordinary benefits of communicating well. – Margaret J. Wheatley,  Author of Turning to One Another, Leadership and the New Science and […]

Table of Contents

Chapter 1—Four Conversations in a Successful Workplace The Importance of Conversations Some Conversations Slow Things Down, Others Speed Things Up Six Limitations to a Successful Workplace Conversations: Your Personal Advantage Key Points Chapter 2—Initiative Conversations: Create a Future Leaders Have Initiative Conversations Choose Your Initiative Statement: What-When-Why Prepare for Your Initiative Conversation: Who-Where-How Launch Your […]

The Preface

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, […]

The Book

The Book WHAT ARE THE FOUR CONVERSATIONS? Realizing your goals takes more than passion, vision, and commitment: it takes talking to other people. To be successful, your talking must go beyond the rules of well-mannered communication skills. To get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want—in work and in life—depends […]

About Authors

About the Authors Jeffrey and Laurie Ford are, both literally and figuratively, a marriage of theory and practice. Jeffrey an Emeritus Professor of Management in the Max M. Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, holds a B.S. in marketing from the University of Maryland, an MBA in Marketing, and […]


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 […]